War is everywhere, so why are G7 leaders not investing in peace?

It’s about time we took peace more seriously.

FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian service members from a 3rd separate assault brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, fire a howitzer D30 at a front line, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the city of Bakhmut, Ukraine April 23, 2023. REUTERS/Sofiia Gatilova/File Photo
Despite global peacefulness declining for 10 of the past 14 years, institutional funding for peacebuilding is in decline in many countries [File: Sofiia Gatilova/Reuters]

On May 19, the leaders of the world’s richest nations will meet at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, the largest of two cities devastated by atomic bombs in 1945. The Japanese government hopes that by “showing the world the strength of Hiroshima’s recovery … Japan can once again emphasise [the] preciousness of peace”.

With a bloody conflict in Ethiopia just behind us, the Russian invasion still grinding on in Ukraine and Sudan on the precipice of civil war, peace has rarely appeared so fragile. Yet it is not lost on the diplomats and the peace workers of the world that in times of conflict and turmoil, support for diplomacy and conflict resolution fades.

Granted, wars are expensive and often justified by those that fight them as the best way to bring about lasting peace. They promise that “terrorists” will be defeated, “homelands” will be created, reattained or defended and that will be that. But, of course, it never is.

As we are seeing in Ukraine, conflict causes lasting devastation to buildings, communities, bodies and minds. Ending violence through some kind of surrender, or more likely, an arduously negotiated peace agreement, is the start rather than the end of a long, intensive and restorative process of building a functioning, cohesive society and addressing the grievances that led to war in the first place. Preventing conflict requires the same level of investment.

Yet, despite global peacefulness declining for 10 of the past 14 years (PDF), institutional funding for peacebuilding is in decline in many countries. A recent briefing by Saferworld and Mercy Corps shows UK spending on civilian peacebuilding, conflict prevention and resolution plummeted by $300m between 2016 and 2021.

Earlier this year, the Swedish government, which provides significant core funding to many peacebuilding organisations, announced a 40 percent cut to its strategy for sustainable peace despite the country’s economy growing 2.4 percent in 2022.

But where is all this money going? Where it is not being redirected to house refugees within donor countries, much of this money is going towards defence budgets, which reached their highest-ever level in 2022 and are set to rise further even in real terms.

In March, the United Kingdom announced increased defence spending of $13.7bn over the next five years. Defence spending in Central and Western Europe has surged to reach levels not seen since the Cold War. Sweden, having already boosted its defence spending by 17 percent to $8.7bn in 2023, is planning to spend as much as $13.4bn annually by 2028, and Japan has pledged to double its military expenditure to the NATO target of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

These spending shifts reflect a change in political calculation among the countries that in previous years have been the biggest proponents and funders of peacebuilding programmes and conflict prevention.

Much of this stems from growing concern about the real and perceived threats Russia and China might pose to global security. The invasion of Ukraine was a shock to the global system. Many Western countries have placed heavy economic sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, China’s military manoeuvres around Taiwan and the South China Sea have raised fears of violent confrontation.

These geopolitical security concerns cannot be overstated. Yet, neither should they define how the world understands every other conflict or crisis or draw attention away from other urgent global priorities like conflict prevention, gender equality or climate change. When these bigger issues are viewed solely through a geopolitical lens, governments reach for military and security tools, which have limited application and all too often, counterproductive impacts.

Populations living in the midst of conflict bear the brunt of its impact, but they also hold the keys to future peace. Individuals, groups, networks and communities help to de-escalate and avert conflict on a daily basis in places such as the Central African Republic, the Philippines and the South Caucasus. Reducing the meagre resources available to them and those supporting them is short-sighted and reckless.

We simply cannot afford for this to happen.

In 2019, the World Economic Forum estimated that violent conflict cost the world $14.4 trillion, with 10 percent of global GDP being spent on causing and then repairing the damage caused. Much of the cost is on military expenditure, which topped $2 trillion for the first time last year. At the same time, the World Bank estimates that violent conflict causes 80 percent of all humanitarian needs.

Preventing conflict and building peace is a bargain in comparison, though it is hardly a predictable or easy line of work. As the G7 meetings begin in Hiroshima, leaders must do everything in their power to ensure this new age of geopolitics also does not become an age remembered primarily for violence.

First off, they must make peace a political priority for their governments and on the global stage. This means investing properly in the global peacebuilding arsenal. The number and skills of conflict experts in embassies and in capitals need to be bolstered to ensure long-term peacebuilding partnerships with local and international civil society can deliver lasting and decisive impacts for affected communities. Yet it also requires governments to work together to support and shape an ambitious, unifying “New Agenda for Peace” at the United Nations.

Second, in preparation for COP28 this November, G7 countries must make sure that the global response to climate change is harnessed in a way that helps mitigate rather than fuel violent conflict. Climate change and biodiversity loss are closely linked to conflict and also gender inequalities. Yet responses to it, which are often radical by necessity, can uproot and transform economies, places and societies in ways that can fuel tensions and reopen old wounds and divisions.

But most importantly, politicians across the G7 must make the case for building peace and investing in international development among their own constituencies. The UK minister for development claimed last week that politicians would not “mess around” with aid funding if 70 percent of the public supported it. Yet, in a survey conducted by Conciliation Resources in 2017, 71 percent of the sample agreed that “peacebuilding plays a vital role” in ending violent conflicts. That pattern of opinion was reflected in other countries’ surveys: 74 percent in the US, 77 percent in Japan and 82 percent in Germany.

Peacebuilding commands popular support and works when given patient support and attention. We have seen this in Colombia, the Philippines, South Africa and in Northern Ireland, which celebrates 25 years of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement this year.

In times of war, it is about time we took peace more seriously.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.