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Homicide to genocide – why violence threatens sustainable development

Why does violence threaten sustainable development? Watch Prof Gillian Wylie to learn more.
Hello. My name is Gillian Wylie, and I’m an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Trinity College Dublin. With my colleagues and students, we are concerned with analysing the causes of conflict and the conditions for the creation of peace around the world. That’s why Sustainable Goal 16, which calls for the promotion of peaceful societies and just and inclusive institutions, is of such interest to us. We live in a world that is terribly marred by violence and war. Without creating peace, it’s very hard to see how people can live truly flourishing lives or how the environment around us can be protected.
It’s that connection between ending violence, building peace, and creating sustainable development that we’ll be discussing this week as we consider Goal 16. You might be wondering why we are starting this course with Goal 16. After all, it’s almost at the end of the list of the 17 SDGs. And so it looks like we’re working backwards over the coming weeks. However, as I suggested already, creating peace is a fundamental bedrock for ensuring sustainable development. Listen, for example, to this quote from three medical experts who wrote a recent letter to the journal The Lancet. The writers note that we live in a world where 34,000 people a day are being forced to flee their homes due to conflict.
And so they write, “arguably the most important SDG is number 16– peace, justice, and strong institutions. Peace is essential, and in fact non-negotiable, to ensure a healthy, productive global population. In the absence of peace, it will be impossible to fully achieve the other 16 SDGs, particularly the SDG 3, good health and well-being.” The SDGs replaced the Millennium Development Goals, and one of the criticisms of the MDGs was that they missed this important issue. They contained nothing specific about the necessity of peace or just institutions for development. Indeed, many of the countries that failed to meet MDG targets are conflict-affected countries, and the UN conceded in 2015 that conflicts remain the biggest threat to human development.
In the popular consultation leading up to the SDGs, millions of people told the UN that protection from violence and responsive government were crucial issues for them. The SDGs recognised these concerns by including Goal 16. As you will have read an introductory article, Goal 16 has two sides to it– a call to end all forms of violence and then a series of targets intended to create peaceful societies and just institutions. In this video, we are looking in more depth at the first part. What is violence, and why is it such a threat to sustainable development? The definition of violence behind Goal 16 is very extensive. It covers the interpersonal damage of bodily harm and psychological violence.
It also incorporates the all-out violence of war or genocide and takes into account the violence caused by institutional failings like corruption or discrimination. This is an understanding of violence that those of us who work in peace studies are familiar with. We tend to talk about violence following the seminal work of peace researcher Johan Galtung as ranging from direct to indirect or structural violence. While direct violence involves hurt to physical bodies, indirect violence comes from unjust systems which prevent people from leading flourishing lives. This is a wide understanding of violence, but it helps to make sense of the claim that building peace also requires more than simply stopping physical violence. It requires creating just and inclusive institutions as well.
Why are all forms of violence so detrimental to development? We can think about this at many levels. For example, you’ll read a case study in another article about gendered violence in homes and communities in Kenya. Domestic violence harms individuals, but it also impacts on general family well-being, the ability to do productive work, and it maintains systems of gender inequality. If we turn to think of the violence of armed conflict, we can see many ways such violence deters development. Numbers of armed conflicts are on the rise globally, particularly civil wars or intrastate conflicts. But they are often internationalised, too, by the intervention of external actors. There are now 50 conflicts going on in the world today.
The impact of this on development is multifaceted. Here’s a list my colleague Dr. Ian Atack shares with his students. The list includes the loss of human life, the destruction of physical, social, and political infrastructure, environmental devastation, the opportunity cost of wasted resources that might have been better spent, and the shrinking of the economy. In a later video, my colleague Dr. Jude Lal Fernando will develop a case study that illustrates all these dynamics at play, revealing the harmful impact of war on development in Sri Lanka. But it’s also important to turn the question around and ask to what extent current models of development might cause violence and conflict.
We can see this, for example, in the competition for economic resource exploitation in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dearbhla Glynn, an Irish filmmaker who regularly gives seminars to students in Trinity, has shown through her documentary work how the conflict in the DRC is driven on by the desire of many armed groups, economic actors, and the state to control the immense mineral wealth of the country. There is little doubt that violence is a major obstacle to sustainable development, and unsustainable models of development can also cause conflict. I will be giving you a number of cases drawn from around the developing world, but it’s important to remember that the SDGs are intended as goals for the whole world.
Those of us who live in Ireland don’t have so far to look to see the impact of conflict on development. The Northern Irish Troubles cost 3,000 lives, but also the loss of 30,000 jobs, the creation of high opportunity costs on public funds for running duplicate services for divided communities, and an enormous security bill. The great hope here and around the world is that peace and just institutions will bring sustainable development dividends. Goal 16, although not without its critics as we will see later, points us in that direction.

In this video, Gillian talks about why forms of violence are challenges to sustainable development.

She presents the view that SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions is the most important goal.

  • Do you agree or disagree? Why?
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