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Conflict – the enemy of development

11 April 2011
by Brian Keeley

Click to download the report

The human cost of the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire has been all too clear, with almost daily reports of deaths and casualties. 

Against that background, it can seem callous to discuss the economic cost.

But, unfortunately, it’s likely to be very real and risks hanging over people’s lives for perhaps a generation to come.

Poverty rates may well rise, with knock-on effects in areas like child mortality, education levels and access to water.

 How do we know? Simply, because it’s happened so many times before, as the latest edition of the World Bank’s World Development Report demonstrates.

The report, issued today, is further evidence for the case that conflict and violence are among the greatest enemies of development. It presents some depressing statistics:

  •  Worldwide, 1.5 billion people live in fragile states or areas afflicted by conflict or large-scale, organized criminal violence.
  •  No low-income fragile state or country afflicted by conflict has attained even one of the Millennium Development Goals.
  •  People in such countries are more than twice as likely to be undernourished as those in other developing countries, and more than twice as likely to lack clean water.

 What’s striking, also, is that the conflicts that are dominating the news right now are relatively rare these days (albeit not rare enough): Since the 1980s, says the World Bank, the incidence of war between states has declined, while deaths from civil wars now stand at a quarter of where they were. But in many cases they’ve given way to other forms of violence and crime. “In Guatemala you have more people dying now from criminal violence and from drug trafficking than you did during the civil war,” Sarah Cliffe, one of the report’s authors, told The Guardian.

Of course, there’s an element of cause-and-effect to such conflicts and violence. Countries that are poorer or have high levels of inequality are more likely to suffer conflicts, which, in turn, is likely to make them poorer still, creating a vicious cycle of poverty and conflict. Equally, once a country has experienced a civil war, it’s much more likely to experience another one within 30 years.

The World Bank says international aid and development cooperation need to focus more on breaking such cycles. That call echoes a growing strand of work in the development community, which has seen a new focus on tackling the special challenges facing fragile states, especially governance. At the OECD, a special forum to address these issues was set up two years ago, and a set of guidelines for dealing with fragile states has also been created.

The World Bank says also that the current international system is still designed to handle the conflicts of the 20th century – civil wars and wars between states – and needs to be “refitted” to address 21st century risks, as the Financial Times reports.

Overall, the Bank suggests a number of strategies for breaking the links between conflict and poverty. It calls for a strong emphasis on strengthening national institutions and governance to improve people’s security, justice and job prospects. In the post-conflict rebuilding process, citizens also need to see quick evidence that things are going to get better, for example by making “a few highly visible improvements, like free health care for small children or restoring regular electricity”, as Binyamin Appelbaum notes . But, as he also points out, that’s just the first step of a process that “takes a generation”. If donors and international agencies are to underpin that sort of process, they need to make firm long-term commitments and “end stop-go patterns of aid” .

Incidentally, last week saw the release of annual aid figures from OECD countries, which provide the bulk of the world’s development assistance. Overall, foreign aid hit a record $129 billion in 2010, representing about 0.32% of the combined gross national income (GNI) of member countries of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee. That was the good news. Less encouraging was the news that although donors plan to raise aid spending in the coming three years, the pace of that increase looks set to slow sharply.

 Useful links

OECD work on conflict and fragility and on governance and development

OECD aid statistics, Aidflows visualiser and Query Wizard

Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics (ABCDE), hosted at the OECD in Paris, 30 May-1 June

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