University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Melanie Greenberg is President and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding. In her work on international conflict resolution, she has helped design and facilitate public peace processes in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and the Caucasus.

In September 2015, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as “Agenda 2030.” These ambitious goals, which replace the Millennium Development Goals that expired in 2015, will govern international development assistance for the next fifteen years. A great victory for the peacebuilding field—and for citizens throughout the world living with violent conflict—is the emphasis on peace throughout Agenda 2030. Whereas the MDGs were silent on violence and conflict, peace runs as a central pillar throughout the SDGs. Peace is included as one of the five key concepts—along with people, planet, prosperity and partnership. The preamble declares that, “We are determined to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.”

While the theme of peace is present throughout the SDGs, its most powerful manifestation is Goal 16: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” The importance of this language cannot be overstated. This is a paradigm shift of the highest order for international development and represents a significant change in thinking about the drivers of poverty and insecurity.

Not very long ago, issues of peace and conflict were considered outside the scope of good development policy. Development experts viewed peace and conflict as security issues shaped by political interests, whereas development was supposed to be neutral and outside the realm of politics. This view began to change in the lead-up to the adoption in 2011 of the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, in which civil society groups, along with the g7+ (self-declared fragile states) and donor nations, recognized that development for the world’s ‘bottom billion’ could never take hold unless the drivers of conflict were recognized and addressed. Conflict began to be seen as “development in reverse.” The peacebuilding and statebuilding goals of the New Deal recognized peace, security, and access to justice as key elements of development.

The New Deal laid the foundation for the creation of Goal 16. Other influences shaping the new perspective can be found in recent thinking about the role of governance and institutions in building stable societies (highlighted in the World Development Report of 2011); greater recognition of the role of gender in peace and security (as highlighted in UN Security Council Resolution 1325); and new attention to the role of inequality as a key driver of grievances that can lead to armed conflict.

The approval of Goal 16 was by no means certain. The High Level Panel appointed by Ban Ki-Moon—led by heads of state Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and David Cameron of the United Kingdom—included peace as a central theme of the SDGs. Among some UN member states, however, there was active opposition to including a peace-oriented goal in the final SDGs. Some countries considered peace to be the responsibility of the Security Council and not eligible for inclusion in a set of development goals. Others felt that including a goal on peace would, in a zero sum scenario, take away from the possibility of including goals on environmental sustainability. And many authoritarian countries bristled at the inclusion of a goal that would put the ideas of inclusive societies and legitimate governance anywhere in the framework.

Since its passage only nine months ago, Goal 16 has taken on a life of its own, becoming the frame of reference for a whole range of issues—from fragility to resilience to the reduction of violence—and capturing the holistic relationship between peace, development, governance, humanitarian assistance, and security. At the World Bank Forum on Fragility and Violence in March 2016, Jim Kim (President of the World Bank), Nancy Lindborg (President of the US Institute of Peace), Jan Eliasson (Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations) and Catherine Samba-Panza (then President of the Central African Republic) all proclaimed that peace needs to be at the center of poverty reduction, humanitarian assistance and development. The idea that peace is the fulcrum around which all of these processes must be balanced is breathtakingly new, and it represents a fundamental shift in how we approach the most complex social problems, ranging from refugee flows to climate change.

Making Goal 16 a reality will not be easy. Setting targets and indicators is highly complicated in the area of peace and governance. Furthermore, Goal 16, like all the SDGs, is universal. Every country must devise a national action plan and determine how it will tackle issues of conflict, security, and inclusion. Critics have complained that the SDG framework does not focus sufficiently on changing the structural drivers of inequality and the macro-economic frameworks that create poverty. It is also true that the SDGs do not present a robust framework for issues of reconciliation, social cohesion, and conflict resolution. Nevertheless, Goal 16 stands as a powerful symbol and call to action to put peace at the center of creating a world of opportunity and prosperity for all citizens.