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Op-Ed Global Development

Fighting violence with evidence

New York, USA

By Rachel Locke and David Steven

In last year’s Pathways for Peace report – the result of a joint study by the United Nations and the World Bank – UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is facing a “dramatic resurgence” of conflict, which has caused immense human suffering and significantly undermined global order. If the world is to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – and protect millions of people from deadly violence – urgent action must be taken to reverse this trend.

It is not just conflict that is on the rise. According to new research by the Small Arms Survey, 589,000 people – including 96,000 women and girls – suffered violent deaths in 2017. That is 7.8 deaths per 100,000 people, the second-highest rate since 2004. This increase has been driven primarily by an upsurge in homicides.

On current trends, violent deaths will increase by more than 10% by 2030, reaching 660,000 annually. If conflict-related deaths continue to rise – owing to the eruption of new armed conflicts or the escalation of existing ones – and countries’ homicide rates start to regress toward those of the worst-performing states in their respective regions, over a million people will be dying violently each year by 2030.

Are we prepared to accept a reality in which one-third of all women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes? Do we ignore the one billion children who are victims of serious violence each year? Can we simply look the other way when homicide is the fourth-leading cause of death for young people globally? And this is to say nothing of the indirect consequences of violence, including for economic development.


The primary purpose of the international order established in the aftermath of World War II was to promote and maintain global peace and security. Similarly, a key imperative for national governments is to provide security to their populations, including by maintaining a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Even at the municipal level, mayors and other city leaders often make violence reduction a central tenet of their campaign platforms and are judged by voters according to their ability to address violence effectively and fairly.

As we advance towards 2020, many are questioning whether our international, national, and city governing structures are up to the task. If we agree that this scale of violence is not acceptable, the very good news is that we have the tools to make a change.

More than ever before, the world possesses the knowledge, tools, institutional structures, legal instruments, and data-collection capacity to achieve the SDG16 target of reducing significantly “all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere.”

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which encompasses the SDGs, provides a basis for cooperation among countries from all regions and income groups. By promising to “reach the furthest behind first,” it encourages targeted efforts to support countries and communities whose path to sustainable development is currently blocked by violence, insecurity, and injustice.


Success will require multi-sectoral, evidence-based approaches to violence prevention, which use data to determine the scope of the problem, identify risk and protective factors, guide implementation, and enable the monitoring of impact and cost-effectiveness. Fortunately, frameworks for such action already exist.

For example, the Global Status Report on Violence Prevention identifies six “best buy” strategies for preventing interpersonal violence. UN Women, in cooperation with several other international organizations, has proposed a framework for action to reduce violence against women. A similar group identified seven strategies for ending violence against children.

Researchers have also described evidence-based interventions for reducing violence in urban areas, including “proactive engagement with the police and other civic partners to enhance legitimacy and build social cohesion.” In some cases, such measures caused homicides to drop by over 50%.

This growing body of research into how best to tackle violence is shaping comprehensive strategies at sub-national, national, and regional levels that respond to the needs of countries and regions with different burdens of violence. These strategies blend targeted actions to reduce the worst forms of violence in the short term with longer-term efforts to build more peaceful societies. To be effective, they must account for the interconnected nature of threats; indeed, the best-designed solutions prevent multiple types of violence.

Violence is a preventable epidemic. If we bring to bear our collective knowledge about reducing violence and conflict in the places that need it most, we can halve global violence in the next ten years.

Rachel Locke is Director of Impact:Peace at the University of San Diego’s Institute for Peace and Justice.

David Steven, a senior fellow and associate director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, is Director of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies. They are co-authors of the recent essay series “Driving Transformative Change: Foreign Affairs and the 2030 Agenda.”

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.