There is only one problem with this piece of advice: People usually ignore it.

By Martin Griffith.

All my professional life I have been bombarded with simple wisdoms about the advantages of prevention. “It is better to spend a little on prevention than a lot on cure.” There is only one problem with this piece of advice: People usually ignore it.

I was reminded about this fact of life when I read a report published by the UN High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (when have we ever been offered the suggestions of a low level panel?) This report - a good year in the making - provides us with a wealth of entirely unoriginal recommendations about how the UN should run its so-called 'Peace Operations'.   

One of the suggestions is for the UN to spend more on “prevention”. Having read countless similar reports over the past thirty years I wonder if anyone still takes these sorts of recommendations seriously? For all present and past conflicts I could tell you a story about how measures aimed at preventing the conflict were ignored. Here are just two examples:

It happened in Pakistan in 1981…

It was 1981 and I was a junior official of UNICEF‎ living and working in Peshawar, in the noble and violent North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Across the nearby border, the Afghan Mujahedeen were in the early years of their war to eject the Russian invader. This is a war which, after many turns and tragedies, is still going on today. My job was to raise money to provide health care for victims – a surprisingly difficult endeavour. And I can still remember a conversation with a friend who worked in the hospital of the International Red Cross. He gestured at the Khyber Hills which loomed to the west of the city in the direction of Afghanistan; 'until we see the people streaming through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan’ he said ‘we will be ignored and our pleas for money rejected'. He was right of course - I found no takers for my health equipment lists and was forced to 'borrow' kit from the Pakistani health authorities. 

... and in Syria in 2012

Here is another, more recent example. In 2012 I worked for the United Nations in Syria, as a member of Kofi Annan's team, attached to the UN's Observer Mission (one of those 'Peace Operations' studied by the High Level Panel).  The observer mission was Kofi Annan's investment in prevention. It was intended to slow down and possibly stop the slow march to war that was already evident in Syria. His idea was to place military observers from all over the world (eventually 58 countries contributed their captains and colonels) to stand in the path of preparations for war.  

Before we even arrived in Syria some western powers had tried their very best to kill the mission, adding blatantly provocative language into the text we had laboriously negotiated with Damascus at the very last minute. We managed to get past this by signing the agreement in the morning in Damascus while New York was asleep. 

It became clear that the best way to stop the war was to put our officers into the zones occupied by the insurgent forces, their presence would have stopped the shelling. But we failed. Governments sending their officers complained about the risk. The logical consequence? We could not prevent what was to come. ‎

A small payment, a slight risk taken, coupled with some unconventional diplomatic initiatives might have altered the lives of countless Syrians. But nothing ever changes. ‘Prevention is better than cure’ remains a nice soundbite for politicians and well-meaning UN reports. Real prevention however will only happen if governments and international organisations embrace uncertainty and stop avoiding risks.