Danish military in Afghanistan (April 2013); photo credit: Creative Commons

Blog: Why isn’t the prevention of violent conflict more of a priority in Danish policy and practice?

Prevention of violent conflict in a world taunted by violent conflict cannot only save human lives. It is also one of the most cost-effective tools of international interventions. Aiming to promote peaceful means to end violent conflict, the Council for International Conflict Resolution(RIKO) recently organised a conference at the Danish Parliament on conflict prevention, Danish foreign policy and development cooperation. At the conference, the current opposition parties showed interest in working towards a more prominent Danish engagement in prevention and peacebuilding. Most of the government ministers, ironically, could not participate as they were visiting companies in the Danish defence industry. The current government does, however, mention prevention in strategies on foreign policy and development cooperation. However, conflict prevention is not a high priority in policy and practice. If the majority agrees on the benefits of conflict prevention, then why isn't it more of a priority for Denmark?

Conflict prevention in Danish foreign policy and development cooperation

Conflict prevention is mentioned in the two current Danish strategies on foreign policy and development cooperation. However, these strategies articulate striving for peace as closely linked to efforts of stabilisation efforts rather than longer-term, preventive efforts. For instance, in the strategy on foreign policy and security, prevention is mentioned in relation to radicalisation, terrorism and migration. The strategy on development cooperation and humanitarian action mentions conflict prevention in relation to sustainable development in fragile countries. Yet, conflict prevention is still articulated as linked to stabilisation and as a means to prevent migration. The focus on stabilisation is unlike the UN's approach to prevention, which put emphasis on pathways for peace and inclusivity to prevent drivers of conflict from gaining traction in the first place.

The strategies provide some space for conflict prevention, but it is less clear, if this space is conducive for long-term investments in conflict prevention or whether it is more reactive in nature. Previously, Denmark took a more prominent role in the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (IDPS). The focus on national ownership, long-term preventive efforts and seeing peace as an enabler for development, which is found in the New Deal, does not figure prominently in the current Danish strategies. On the other hand, a strong focus on youth and a prioritisation of Sustainable Development Goal 16 on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions [1] in the Danish action plan on the SDGs do seem to indicate a commitment to preventive efforts.

Both strategies also embody a more articulate prioritisation of Danish interests in Danish foreign policy and development cooperation with a focus on fewer countries, organisations and more strategic thematic areas. Danish resources are to be directed at areas where Danish self-interests, comparative advantage and the opportunity to engage in suitable partnerships are present. Local ownership, inclusivity and actual needs of conflict-affected societies are unfortunately not referenced as driving priorities.

Overall, conflict prevention is not comprehensive or systematically included in Danish strategies on foreign policy or development cooperation, which also translates into Danish country programmes. While the programmes for Somalia and Mali do mention conflict, conflict prevention is not included in country programmes for a range of other conflict-affected societies.

The case for conflict prevention with an expanded defence budget

The recent Danish defence agreement included an expansion of the budget for Danish Defence by 20 % reaching more than 600m euro in 2023. As part of the agreement, more funding is also allocated to the peace and stabilisation fund - a whole of government instrument aimed at conflict management, stabilisation and peacebuilding. Notwithstanding the fund's focus on conflict management, the focus has nonetheless mostly been on post-conflict peacebuilding and not on prevention. The fund's current engagement in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, Iraq-Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan-Pakistan is testimony to this. The cost of responding to conflict far supersedes the costs of preventive efforts and even if nine out of ten preventive engagements were unsuccessful, the one successful case would still represent a good business case for preventive efforts.

The current Danish focus in the strategic allocations of the peace and stabilisation fund and the Danish international engagement more broadly put Danish interests front and centre. Regardless of the funding modality or the foreign policy instrument, all interventions very articulately link to Danish interest relating to trade, preventing migration, terrorism, maritime security etc. While this is a departure from past times' perhaps more altruistic approach to international aid, it may indeed be healthy in that it forces practitioners to articulate why Denmark is engaged in particular activities in conflict-affected societies and in what ways. In that sense, it strengthens the rationale behind some interventions and makes the intent more transparent.  

But following from such discussions, however, should evidently be a discussion about the next crisis with unwanted consequences for Denmark and how these can be prevented. Evidence shows us that conflict even in far-away places comes with significant collateral effects in an interconnected world – and particularly for a small open society and economy like Denmark's. Hence, conflict prevention should be an overarching strategy to use limited financial resources as effectively as possible.   

However, at the current stage, Denmark does not have a distinct conflict prevention strategy as part of Denmark's policy on the engagement in fragile and conflict-affected states. Denmark does not have a roster of mediators, Denmark do not support the UN's and EU's mediation work outside of the core contributions, and after having been very active in the creation of the UN's peacebuilding architecture, Denmark has been less influential and supportive in recent years. For instance, Denmark has had little influence on shaping the current much-needed shift from post-conflict peacebuilding to a focus on sustaining peace with a broader and less linear approach to peacebuilding in the UN System and beyond. The exception to the rule is Denmark's Africa Program for Peace, which supports AU, IGAD and ECOWAS mediation and early warning capacities as well as elements of Denmark's Peace and Stabilisation Programmes, which, as mentioned, mostly engages in post-conflict situations.

With the expanded defence budget and additional allocations to peace and stabilisation work, there would seem to be a solid business case for also strengthening the focus on conflict prevention and to ask the key question - how and where do we prevent the next conflict with collateral negative impact on Danish interests?   

The space for Danish civil society organisations

Programmes with an explicit focus on prevention or peacebuilding are relatively few among Danish civil society organisations, though several Danish NGOs and civil society organisations are indeed engaged in important conflict prevention work. Danish civil society organisations face a number of structural challenges in relation to engaging in prevention and peacebuilding. One of such challenges is the limited funding directed at prevention and peacebuilding. In the Danish finance act for 2015 a call for proposals for "Non-military Conflict Resolution, Dialogue and Mediation", was included but the funding was subsequently withdrawn. Since then, no direct funding to Danish civil society programmes on conflict prevention and peacebuilding has been provided by the government directly to the NGO community; meaning that such activities are only funded as part of regional or country programmes.

A second challenge is the lack of an overall strategy and institutional anchorage for the Danish civil society work on prevention, which also means that lessons may be documented, but not necessarily learned. A survey conducted by the Danish network for prevention and peacebuilding [2] among Danish civil society organisations identified a need for better training opportunities and better knowledge generation and dissemination on conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

A third challenge identified in the survey is the need for more effective coordination of preventive programmes in conflict-affected societies. The multi-facetted nature of conflict prevention makes coordination and coherence particularly relevant. Due to these challenges, key opportunities for a more comprehensive and sustained engagement in conflict prevention in countries and regions of interest to Denmark may be missed.

Despite these challenges, things fortunately seem to be improving. Currently, a number of Danish civil society organisations are increasing their engagement in prevention and peacebuilding including by expanding the human resources pool needed to accompany this work. Furthermore, an expansion and formalisation of the civil society network on prevention and peacebuilding is in the making. With relative limited prominence granted to conflict prevention in government policies and strategies, there is a need for civil society to become an even more effective partner in support of preventive efforts through knowledge generation and dissemination; through evidence-based and effective programming; and through the ability to document that conflict prevention is a very worthwhile investment. It is hoped that increased focus and more articulate support from the Danish government to conflict prevention will accompany such civil society initiatives.

Blog post by Kristoffer Nilaus Tarp and Maria Stage, The Council for International Conflict Resolution (RIKO) in Denmark

  • [1] Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  • [2] The founding members of the network are the Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam IBIS, CARE Denmark, and the Council for International Conflict Resolution (RIKO)


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