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Follow the Money: Investing in Crisis Prevention

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What the Spending Patterns of Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union Reveal About Strategies and Priorities

By PHILIPP ROTMANN, MELISSA LI and SOFIE LILLI STOFFEL

Who spends what to prevent which crises? And do these investments happen early enough? Based on open-source spending data between 2004 and 2019 and a review of six crises that saw timely early warnings, this study takes stock of international investments in crisis prevention efforts. In 2017, world leaders pledged to increase prevention spending, but we have found no evidence of real change. In fact, prevention spending remains far below the UN/World Bank targets. It is also scattershot: most country portfolios are too small to matter. For most case studies, we find that even blatant warning signs triggered no or very late reactions. But there are also positive exceptions, which inform our recommendations to governments, legislators, activists, and scholars who seek to make crisis prevention more effective.

Executive Summary

Who spends what to prevent which crises? Are these investments timely enough? Four years after UN Secretary-General António Guterres made prevention the leitmotif of the United Nations system, this study provides an initial stocktaking of investments in crisis prevention, based on detailed analysis of open-source spending data from 2004 to 2019. In 2004, Germany was the last of the current top donors to declare crisis prevention a major policy goal. The most recent year for which comprehensive investment data is available is 2019.

We develop two new approaches to understand how and where the key actors have invested money to prevent crises. The first approach estimates preventive investment as the portion of donors’ declared spending toward peacebuilding and prevention that goes to countries with lower levels of “security fragility,” as indicated by OECD data. The second approach identifies preventive investment by the timing of projects in relation to early warning in six case studies: Georgia (2004–08), Mali (2004–12), Myanmar (2010–17), Iraq (2010–13), Ukraine (2004–14), and Burkina Faso (2013–19).

Prevention is Politics, Which Costs Money

Of course, preventing a crisis is primarily a political challenge. Key pieces of this – ministers making phone calls and trips, multilateral organizations signaling through statements and resolutions, etc. – are not visible in OECD spending data. The targeted advocacy campaigns and technical assistance projects that are counted as “civilian crisis prevention” could be the tip of an underlying political iceberg, or they could be window dressing by donors who want to avoid the hassle of real political engagement. Either way, they paint a picture of civilian investment in crisis prevention. Thousands of data points show how the biggest donors – Germany, the European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom – practice crisis prevention, and point to the kinds of questions we should ask to learn how effective these investments are.

How We Estimate Investments in Prevention

We use investment data from the OECD’s Creditor Reporting System, which provides the most comprehensive, valid and internationally comparable dataset, despite some drawbacks: no investments are directly marked as preventive and the system is limited to “official development assistance” (ODA), which excludes the costs of diplomatic and military preventive action.