This report presents and analyses the findings of an online public opinion survey, which was commissioned by Conciliation Resources in the UK and Germany and by the Alliance for Peacebuilding in the US in June and July 2017. Questions were developed by Conciliation Resources with external advice and in consultation with Populus. In the UK 2,214 adults aged 18+ were interviewed; 1,052 in the US; and 1,041 in Germany. An equal number of men and women were interviewed. Within the UK, a slightly higher proportion of adults were interviewed in Northern Ireland in relation to other geographic areas in order to test the views of those with direct experience of violent conflict. Further information on methodology can be found at the start of this report.
The need for sustained investment by a wide range of people, governments, and international institutions in efforts to end violent conflict and build peace is clear.
Half the world’s poor live in countries affected by conflict, fragility and violence. The majority of the reported 20 million refugees worldwide are fleeing conflict. Conflicts drive 80 per cent of humanitarian needs and reduce gross domestic product by on average two percentage points per year. Today’s famines in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and north-eastern Nigeria, affecting millions of people, are a result of violent conflict fuelled by a complex system of factors.
What has been less obvious is the degree to which the public in our own societies understand and support peacebuilding as an approach to address conflict, and particularly when it comes to one of the essential, but most sensitive, activities involved: dialogue with armed groups who use violence to pursue their objectives.
Why understanding public attitudes matters
Finding out what the public thinks is important, firstly, for governments, international institutions and NGOs working for peace. Peacebuilding tends to be an invisible sub-sector of international development, which is already struggling for resources against other priorities and media and public scepticism. With a deeper understanding of the public’s existing knowledge and opinions on these issues, governments, international institutions, and NGOs can build support for peacebuilding initiatives.
Secondly, protracted conflicts are known to be fertile ground for groups pursuing radical political, ideological or religious interests. To deal with their complex political, social and economic causes and drivers, protracted conflicts require long-term efforts from grassroots to the international level. Yet, too often, such efforts are overtaken or undermined by the need to respond to crises, when security, counter-terrorism and military measures are often a first resort. Knowing what the public understand peacebuilding to be, and how strongly they feel about it, is essential information to feed into efforts to shift the emphasis from military solutions to long-term work to tackle the root causes of conflict and to prevent it happening.
Thirdly, public opinion has a bearing on the scope for one of the most sensitive areas of peacebuilding: activity aimed at encouraging armed groups to abandon violence and engage in a peace process. National governments and international institutions are understandably nervous about how a decision to engage with an armed group, if publicly known, will be perceived by their own populations. Will it be interpreted as legitimising violence, as giving credibility to unreasonable or non-negotiable demands, or as a sign of weakness? When the armed group is officially cited by governments as a terrorist organisation, anxiety levels increase. While engagement involves risks, it can often be a necessary strategy to achieve a positive and sustainable outcome, and the survey shows public understanding of this.
But this nervousness at official level translates as risk aversion in the eyes of peacebuilders in international NGOs and on the ground, who navigate a complex web of rules and regulations in this area, or are obliged to second-guess the degree of political appetite for contact. It also leaves diplomacy and official peacemaking under-resourced, and official policy overly reliant on security and military solutions. Getting a sense of the level of public support for this work, and of who people feel should engage with armed groups and why, is crucial for understanding the room for manoeuvre for this essential component of peacebuilding.