Conflict Prevention and New Year’s Resolutions

By Suzanne Ghais, Ph.D. (

This year, I’ve resolved to exercise daily, get eight hours of sleep every night, eat less sugar and fat and more fiber and protein, floss nightly…

Yeah, right!


Most of us have figured out that we can’t change multiple bad habits at once; nor can we expect perfection of ourselves even if we do concentrate on just one change. But some of the things you hear about the prevention of violent conflict actually sound like this unrealistic set of new year’s resolutions. (I know, that’s a leap, but bear with me.)

One influential theory of conflict prevention comes from the Carnegie Corporation’s seminal report, Preventing Deadly Conflict. Published in 1997, the report distinguishes between “operational” and “structural” prevention. The operational variety is more short term and involves diplomatic, military, or economic engagement to interrupt the onset or escalation of violence. The structural variety–synonymous with peacebuilding, per the report–is more about long-term societal improvements that will make people less likely to undertake political violence. A country seeking to prevent armed conflict should make law enforcement and the legal system fair and efficient; ensure full access to jobs, education and health care; eliminate inequalities between different demographic groups; ensure religious, cultural, and linguistic freedom… Now see the parallel to those new year’s resolutions? Is there really no hope for peace unless this paradise is achieved?

I have been thinking about this question for quite a while, since I started teaching the course Conflict Assessment & Prevention (developed by Prof. Anthony Wanis-St. John). The structural-v.-operational prevention framework was a big step forward in theorizing conflict prevention, but how to prioritize among the many worthy economic, political, and social goals of structural prevention?

I’ve been playing with the beginnings of a three-part theory to help answer this. First, prevention efforts must focus on grievances. For example, if we were to look at racial tensions in the U.S., we might focus first on grievances of the African-American community around mistreatment by police. We might also look at the complaint among poorer whites that they are victims of reverse discrimination in, say, college admissions. Second, perhaps the key thing is direction of change. If people can honestly tell their children that things will be better for them (in terms of those key grievances), perhaps that’s reason enough not to answer a call to arms. Third, while the objective reality is important, just as important is the narrative. What story are people telling about their problems, and about the direction of change? The term “grievance” actually implies this narrative aspect–it’s not only about what’s objectively wrong, but what people feel aggrieved about, which is based in part on their perceptions about what should be different, which in turn may be influenced by what community leaders tell them should be different. This suggests that conflict prevention requires a shifting of narratives, and perhaps that real, positive change needs to be accompanied by a bit of a promotional campaign to help make that shift.

There is a very exciting report due out next month by a joint UN-World Bank team on conflict prevention, based on numerous case studies. (Well, it’s exciting for peace-and-conflict geeks like me… and maybe you.) That team released a preliminary, summary report late last year, and it puts a lot of focus on addressing grievances. I’m eager to dig in to the longer report and see if the research supports the other parts of my theory. Meanwhile, I’m interested in your feedback: How did you prioritize your goals or resolutions for 2018? And, what do you think of the framework I’ve proposed for prioritizing structural conflict prevention goals?

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