• Andrew Johnstone

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


There have been periodic calls for the international community to do better at preventing violent conflict. Coming out of the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, the UK Coalition government (2010–2015) published their Building Stability Overseas Strategy, in which “investing in upstream prevention” featured prominently. Existing research on structural conflict prevention has focused on conceptual debates with relatively few studies examining the operationalisation of conflict prevention policy.

Drawing on policy theory this thesis examines the process under which politicians sought to turn political intent about conflict prevention into action. The research examines policy and programme documents issued by the FCO, DFID and MOD and examined Hansard and Parliamentary committee reports in order to trace the initial intent through parliamentary scrutiny and departmental policy development. By examining two policy implementation studies – South Sudan and Nepal – the research reviews what officials were seeking to do in target states.

This thesis found that “upstream” conflict prevention is fundamentally a political process in which international partners can contribute through politically driven strategies and policies supported by other activities and projects to prevent the outbreak, escalation or relapse of large-scale violent conflict between or within states. The Coalition government’s policy, however, never got beyond normative policy statements and broad intentions. This thesis found that this failure was partly due to the inability of politicians to find the time and effort to drive the long-term political nature of structural conflict prevention when faced with more pressing immediate issues that directly impacted the security and economic well-being of the UK. Departmental officials sought to develop and execute the “upstream” policy intent but their approach was focused primarily through statebuilding programmes and projects. In the policy implementation studies of South Sudan and Nepal, it is argued that it was local street-level bureaucrats who were developing and executing policy, not always in concert with local elites. Furthermore, there was a short window of opportunity for structural conflict prevention policy to develop but there was a lack of departmental leadership, experience or policies ready to be drawn upon. Instead, junior officials and contractors sought to muddle through as best they could with the resources available.

This thesis found that UK politics prevented any strategic focus on “upstream” prevention to turn intent into a coherent government approach. This was compounded by structural conflict prevention not being differentiated from statebuilding. Nor were the local conditions for UK officials within target countries created politically for them to deliver the desired goals. This thesis therefore contributes to the literature; it highlights some of the factors that make structural conflict prevention hard to implement. The thesis also has relevance for peacebuilding and statebuilding activities conducted by donor country officials and NGOs. Finally, this thesis has wider implications for policy and any future attempt at the development of a structural conflict prevention policy by a donor government – and for any subsequent policy execution.
Date of Award17 Feb 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorOliver Walton (Supervisor) & Graham Room (Supervisor)


  • Conflict Prevention

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