Development in Reverse: The True Effects of Armed Conflict
Author: Andres Jimenez
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 12/26/2011
Mogadishu, October 1993: The United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM II) had just been attacked, resulting in the death of 18 United States soldiers; this event would trigger a sudden policy change towards the United Nation’s intervention in Somalia. The international community would soon pull out and the Somali society would quickly be left to fall alone into a hopeless hell of destruction, death and suffering.
It is true that Somalia can be considered one of the most extreme and dreadful cases of societal collapse. It is a situation without comparison; it is in effect an unusual anomaly. Nonetheless, this society presents us with an unquestionable example of what colonization, underdevelopment, and especially war can do to the social fabric of a proud people. Somalia is an extreme example, it is rare phenomenon, and it can be considered an anomaly; but it is also in many ways one of the most poignant cases of how a wise and resilient society can become broken and trapped in a sick spiral of misery and pain.
The point of this essay is not to allude to the obvious: armed conflicts are bad and must be avoided at all cost. The international community does all it can to ensure the prevention of any conflict around the world, and armed struggles are shunned and considered an extremely undesirable policy to follow.
But is that so? Are we truly aware of the negative effects and consequences of an armed conflict? Are we actually conscious of what happens to a society even several decades after a conflict is long gone? Do we really recognize the fundamental threats and consequences war brings to a people? Do we truly know what happens to the social fabric of a society when it undergoes a prolonged armed conflict?
I agree with John Paul Lederach’s assumption that “conflict is a phenomenon of human creation lodged naturally in relationships, which is a necessary element in transformative human construction and reconstruction of social organization and realities” (1996). Nevertheless, the type of conflict I’m alluding to is, rather, one whose intensity and scale go way beyond anything that could be considered a “healthy dispute” among several parties.
War is by no means a phenomenon that is on its way toward disappearing from the face of the Earth; rather, it remains as a common avenue to pursue political gains, and is often seen as an unavoidable evolution and consequence of the right to self determination of peoples. Sadly, it is almost always left to the most poor and vulnerable societies in the world to suffer from conflict’s appalling effects.
Now, what really disturbs me the most is the fact that armed conflicts have the potential to be so damaging and detrimental to the political, social and economic development of a country that, in essence, it becomes what the Oxford economist Paul Collier describes as “development in reverse” (2007). What this means is that the negative effects derived from war are so detrimental to the wellbeing of a society, that they not only put a stop to any type of social or economic progress, but rather, they degrade the current level of economic development and social progress in such a way that it can actually be considered to have backtracked.
The legacy of conflict
Take for example two of the most important indicators of the stability and wellbeing of a society: the level of economic development and the rate of growth of the economy. It is no secret that poverty is dangerous because of the numerous social problems it generates; however, if in addition we also have a country with very little or almost no economic growth, this then tends to put a lot of pressure on very volatile societies that are already ripe for conflict. Hence, it is important, especially for very poor countries, to maintain steady levels of peace and stability to allow for a prolonged rate of economic growth.
Now, when war does break out, it tends to very quickly destroy the local economy as a consequence of the damaging of the local infrastructure, the rapid deterioration of the rule of law, the migration of talented people and workers out of the conflict zones, and the destruction of confidence and trust in public institutions. The instability generated by conflict also tends to drive away spending and entrepreneurial activity, as well as much needed public investment, aside from the natural increase in military spending (Collier, Elliot, Hegre, Hoeffler, Reynal-Querol & Sambanis, 2003).
In addition, the creation of legal vacuums due to the destruction of rule of law in conflict zones, especially in already weak states, promotes the development of criminal entrepreneurs who profit greatly from the exploitation of the local population, as well as easily accessible natural resources found in the areas under their control. These groups will traditionally act like piranhas blocking any attempt to stabilize the conflict, because a return of the rule of law would put and end to their powerful sources of income and power.
I believe that when we look at the economic cost of war, we can then have a quite accurate perception of how incredibly destructive this force can be. It is estimated that the economic cost of a typical civil war in some of the poorest countries in the world can roughly be equivalent to losing two years of economic income, or on average $20 billion of that country’s economy (Collier, 2009). Now, as massive as this sum of money might be for a very poor society, this estimate, however, most likely underestimates the actual cost of war if we take into account the long-term social, economic, environmental and cultural damages made to society.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo serves and as a sad example where after more than a decade of conflict, the number of estimated victims of the numerous armed conflicts that have ravaged this land round the 5.4 million mark, the great majority of them attributed to civilians killed as a consequence of the spread of diseases, the displacement of peoples, and the virtual collapse of some of the most basic types of public health service provided by the state (Mealer, 2008).
According to Collier’s economic analysis of conflicts worldwide, he estimates that the average length of a civil war is seven years, and he puts its average economic cost at a growth reduction of 2.3 percent per year. What this means is that by the time the conflict is stabilized, there is a high likelihood that the average country would be about 16 percentage points poorer than it would otherwise have been had it not grown at all during that same time span (Collier, 2009); development in reverse indeed.
What does this mean? Well, if we consider that according to some estimates the average low-income country should grow around 7 percent a year for at least a decade in order to enter a middle-income bracket (Moyo, 2010), then we can say that for those societies stuck in a perpetual state of conflict, significant development still seems to be decades away. One can imagine what this could mean for some of the poorest societies in the world that have already suffered through decades of almost continuous war.
Even when you don’t have the presence of an active war, the level of volatility and risk produced by a past conflict is in and of itself a major deterrent for future private investment, which quite often tends to stifle significant and sustained economic growth for several years during the immediate post-conflict stage. This is precisely the point when a post-conflict society is more at risk and has a greater need for renewed economic growth.
Now, it is important to note that this understanding of the importance of economic growth comes from a presumption that extreme poverty is very dangerous for a society, and thus the level of economic development tends to be a good indicator of its level of security and stability.
Sadly, war not only destroys the economy; it also affects a number of vital factors within a society like that of the radicalization of people during the fighting. Conflicts, especially in some of the poorest and most volatile societies in the world, often tend to revolve around ethnic and tribal lines, which may very well not be the root cause of the conflict, but which would, nonetheless, often be dragged to center stage, eventually becoming vital in defining one’s place in a war. That is to say, ethnic or religious diversity within a society is often not the main cause of an armed conflict, but will inevitably play a major role once violence has erupted[[i]].
The long years of war would tend to produce a strong polarization of the society and an intensification of the hatreds among all parties involved. These are the same groups that will need to reunite once the situation has been stabilized if the country and the region want to have a successful opportunity to rebuild their societies in the future. The same can be said for the case of rebel groups that have been demilitarized and need to reintegrate back into the communities they have pillaged and destroyed for decades. In addition, the brutality of war and the absence of the rule of law would naturally lead to the widespread use of violent behaviors within the society, like in the case of extreme abuses of human rights, acts of mass killing, rape and abduction, the indoctrination of child soldiers, and the mass use of imprisonment and torture tactics.
All of these are behaviors that would permeate and affect not only former fighters and combatants, but also the way the government sees and reacts to its citizens, even once “peace” has been achieved and the conflict stabilized. The governments of societies that have gone through long and ruthless armed conflicts often do not know how to manage public dissent in a respectful and healthy manner; they tend to see any type of serious public disagreement as a threat to the stability of the state, and would thus feel the need to make use of previous tactics of repression and censorship usually employed widely during times of war [[ii]].
In essence, during the madness of war, the social cohesion that binds societies and peoples together completely breaks down. To put this complex social fabric back together and to begin to heal these relationships takes decades of work, commitment, and stability. This process is often spoiled by the emergence of ethnicity-based politics, which feeds on latent animosity, underdevelopment, and social tension in order to pursue political gains, which, in the process might easily lead to a return to armed conflict (Collier, Elliot, Hegre, Hoeffler, Reynal-Querol & Sambanis, 2003).
It is also vital to note that war has not only a local, but also an often unseen regional impact, as well. The consequences and effects of war are hardly contained within a country’s borders, and the question of how likely it is that its effects will spill into neighboring countries is generally more a question of to what degree, rather than what is the likelihood of it happening. When war breaks out, local as well as regional economies are greatly affected, populations flee and are displaced across borders, rebel and insurgent groups find refuge and support in neighboring countries, and very often regional governments hold a stake in the outcome of the conflict, which motivates them to intervene in a direct way through the use of force, or in an indirect way through the use of proxy militias and their influence. We can see a clear presence of all these factors in the developments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since the early 90s [[iii]].
It is also vital to mention one of the most unseen and long lasting legacies of armed conflicts: the ever increasing level of militarization of the society. During war, governments traditionally pursue a policy of increased military spending as a way of winning the war and remaining in power. Nevertheless, once the conflict has been stabilized, most governments tend to rely on continuous military spending because of a persistent sense of insecurity and paranoia. This is fueled primarily by the perception that a reduction in military spending might convey military inferiority, and thus motivate adversary groups to take advantage of this opportunity (Doyle & Nicholas, 2006).
Prolonged conflicts also have the tendency to create a persistent military lobby, which not only prevents a short term reduction in the levels of military spending, but also leads to the creation of a military cadre with ever growing powers and influence within the political life of the society. This often generates an increase in economic and social pressures in already extremely poor countries. When we realize that the typical civil war comes close to almost doubling a country’s military budget (Collier, 2007), we can then imagine what the implications of this increase in military spending can mean for the development and security of some of the poorest countries in the world. An interesting paradox present in military spending is that its increase very often tends to produce a continuous mistrust on the part of the adversary rebel groups who often see this behavior from the part of the government as dishonest and threatening, which is something that quite frequently moves the conflict closer to reigniting, rather than assuring long term stability.
There is no denying that conflicts are very hard to stop, and once they have been ignited the effects make it extremely difficult for the same society to avoid falling into a new conflict in the future. War distorts the social and economic fabric of a society in such a way that even after the situation has been stabilized, the same factors that triggered the start of the conflict are still very much present and often enhanced.
On average, a country coming out of an armed conflict has a 44 percent change of falling back into war within the following five years (Collier, Elliot, Hegre, Hoeffler, Reynal-Querol & Sambanis, 2003). This risk percentage significantly diminishes over time to the point where a decade after the conflict has ended, the country will typically have a much lower risk of returning to war; this percentage would, however, still be higher than the one present before the start of the conflict. What this means is that after going through an armed conflict, a country will need to experience several decades of continuous economic growth in order to return to risk levels comparable to those previous to the start of the conflict, which means that true peace and stability are achieved within generations, not a couple of years. Some societies are able to fight these difficult odds, but those that are unable tend to get stuck in a permanent cycle of war and peace to the point where conflicts are so recurrent that they become “normal” to the different parties involved. Their interests become distorted in such a way that they only know how to thrive and profit during conflict; at this point they have in effect become stuck in a “conflict trap”.
Revolution, a risky option
The ideas of armed struggle and revolution have for many decades been seen in some contexts as a brave and romantic way of pursuing regime change. I believe the argument could even be made that in some cases the structures of power are so rigid, corrupt and repressive that an armed revolution is possibly the most feasible way to get rid of a ruthless dictator and to topple the authoritarian regime that supports him. We could even discuss numerous examples of armed revolutions and independence struggles that have succeeded in bringing about a more healthy, transparent and representative political system. If we go back to Collier’s estimate that the average civil war would end up costing a country 16 percent of its economic growth, could we then legitimately consider a method that would easily lead to a major armed conflict as a fair price to pay in order to get rid of a Mugabe, a Gaddafi, or a Saddam?
Interesting as this argument may be, we must nevertheless recognize that an armed struggle is an extremely risky way of seeking regime change and future social progress. Armed conflicts are inherently chaotic and volatile, and as we have mentioned before, the means through which they are carried out tend to generally intensify social problems in a very short period of time. Take for instance the case of the most recent revolution in Libya, where the desire for regime change led to the ignition of an armed conflict mostly located in the East, but which later spread to most parts of the country after NATO forces intervened. Yes, one of the most ruthless and long lasting dictatorships of recent times has been put to a stop; yes, the Libyan people have recovered a feeling of empowerment and hope for their new future; yes, Libya now has the opportunity to begin to develop a more representative political system, which it might otherwise not have. However, we must not forget that the Libyan society has also been forced into an extremely risky and volatile position. Armed revolutions attract all sorts of leaders with all sorts of interests that may not necessarily be representative of the wishes of the wider population. For proof of this we need only look at some of the members of the Libyan National Transitional Council [[iv]].
War has now destroyed a great part of the Libyan economy and infrastructure, as well as forced the migration of tens of thousands of migrant laborers and skilled workers, creating a large-scale humanitarian disaster with regional implications [[v]]. The armed conflict has also managed to further destabilize a good part of the North Africa region thanks to a great influx of weapons, many of which could have easily landed in the hands of local extremist organizations, the most important of which is considered to be al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group that has widely operated in this region since early 2000[[vi]].
In addition, Peter Gwin from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting reports that Gaddafi’s long time support and propping of the Tuareg community has now led to the disenfranchisement one of the most legendary and fierce nomad groups in the Maghreb. According to Gwin, now that their benefactor has been ousted, the Tuareg, who had been living for decades in Libya, could possibly be motivated to return to some of their home countries like Mali, Niger and even southern Algeria, in order to pursue past claims that could possibly contribute to further instability to the wider Sahel region[[vii]].
It seems like the Libyan rebels were able to successfully shake off an extremely brutal dictatorship, but have they not in the process helped destabilize an entire region even more? Has this tradeoff been worth it? Was this the best route to take? Had the Libyans no other options? It is probably still too soon to attempt to answer some of these questions, but what has become quite clear is that the current price paid by the Libyan people has already been extremely high.
Should we ever intervene?
Having seen the lethal effects armed conflicts can produce not only in one society, but in an entire region as a whole, it is hard not to make the case for a need to intervene “in some capacity” in order to prevent a situation from escalating into a large-scale armed conflict. It is thus hard for me to support a view like that of former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who considers that “international interventions should be reduced to a bare minimum because of the great risk that in the long run they will not only fail to achieve their set goals, but are also inherently flawed from the start” (2008). Rather, I stand in support of the idea that war is inherently negative and incredibly damaging to a society, and it is in the best interest of the international community to play an active role in preventing situations from ever escalating or falling back into an armed conflict situation.
One of the most powerful and controversial concepts of international law developed in the last years as a tool to curtail the escalations of conflicts around the world has been that of the Responsibility to Protect, also known as R2P. This emerging norm of international law states that governments within the international community have not only the right, but also the responsibility to intervene in any country which actively takes part or is unable to protect its population from mass abuses of human rights, crimes against humanity or indiscriminate killings (Doyle & Nicholas, 2006). Such a broad and ambitious principle doesn’t come without criticism and controversy. Noam Chomsky famously compared the spirit behind R2P with that of the explanation given by the Japanese government to justify its 1931 military intervention and occupation of Manchuria, or the Nazi-German intervention of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Chomsky described R2P as an “instrument the powerful use to justify their actions against the weak” [[viii]].
The latest NATO lead intervention in Libya has been portrayed by many critics as a clear example of this policy, where the strong states make use of international norms and principle like R2P to legitimize the pursuit of their own interests, with almost complete disregard for those of the country they are intervening in, or the “collateral damage” produced as a result of the excessive reliance on the use of military force. I believe that some of these criticisms are quite fair and present us with a legitimate argument, but we should also recognize that the spirit of R2P lies more in the idea of preventing an escalation of the situation, rather than intervening once widespread violence has broken out.
With that being said, one could argue that there are previous examples of interventions made under the spirit of R2P where military force was used and which proved to have played an important role in stabilizing the situation on the ground. This is the case of the British deployment of a stabilizing force in Sierra Leone in 2000[ix] or this year’s French military intervention in Ivory Coast[[x]]. As flawed and limited as these interventions might have been, they have contributed in an important and fundamental way in preventing a further escalation of these conflicts.
Nevertheless, the concept of R2P doesn’t have to necessarily limit itself to a military intervention. The 2007-2008 Kenyan post-electoral crisis is often referred to as a good example of how the spirit of R2P was successfully applied without the need to resort to violence or the use of military force[[xi]]. In response to the increase in violence, a “Panel of Eminent Personalities” was assembled and chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The panel was tasked with facilitating mediation between incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and opposition candidate Raila Odinga. Annan arrived in the country nearly a month after the election and was able to successfully bring both sides to the negotiating table, which eventually led to the signing of a power sharing agreement in 2008[[xii]]. To date, the situation in Kenya has by no means been settled completely, and there are still significant factors that put the country in a latent state of conflict. Nevertheless, an argument could be made that the 2007-2008 electoral crisis in Kenya presented a good number of elements that made it very likely for the situation to have escalated into a wider armed conflict.
Another important tool in the conflict prevention arsenal is that of the continued use of peacekeeping forces around the world. Unfortunately, we can point to well documented cases of massive corruption, abuse, rape, prostitution and negligence committed by UN troops around the world, namely in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and Kosovo (Doyle & Nicholas, 2006). Just recently there have been numerous riots in the Haitian capital against the presence of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which stands accused of numerous instances of abuse, as well as negligence and corruption[[xiii]].
Nevertheless, peacekeeping forces still have a vital role to play in stabilizing and containing conflicts around the world. I believe their contribution can most evidently be seen in some of the most volatile conflict zones around the in world. Collier makes a very compelling economic argument for a cost-to-benefit ratio in the deployment of peacekeeping forces. According to Collier, a $100 million-a-year peacekeeping mission has the capacity to reduce a country’s probability of returning to conflict by 21 percentage points after a decade of peace. Now, if we take Collier’s previous rough estimate that the cost of the average civil war is valued at $20 billion, then we can say that every percentage point that reduces the risk of a return to conflict could be worth $200 million.
What this means is that after the post-conflict decade the cost of this peacekeeping mission would round $1 billion, while the economic value of a 21 percentage point reduction in the probably of returning to war would be worth $4.2 billion to that country’s economy. Collier argues that this shows how the ratio of benefit-to-cost in the average peacekeeping mission is better than four to one (Collier, 2009). This analysis doesn’t include the economic benefits to neighboring economies as well, which would indirectly benefit from the absence of war.
We can also point out that peacekeeping operations have an impressive capacity to control the levels of hostility on the ground, as well as providing at least a minimal level of security that can allow for the implementation of much needed negotiation, dialogue and mediation. All are vital necessities that increase the likelihood of achieving some level of peace by stabilizing and deescalating tensions on the conflict zone (Doyle & Nicholas, 2006).
In essence, peacekeeping is costly and unpopular, but its capacity to bring stability and security in a still volatile area must not be underestimated. Perhaps one of its biggest limitations is that peacekeeping operations tend to be limited to areas where a ceasefire and some level of peace have already been achieved.
Finally, we could seek to support more organic, grassroots approaches as a way of seeking innovative ways and approaches to stabilizing a conflict-ridden society. A good example of this approach is the case of the self-declared government of Somaliland, which, in spite of having virtually no international recognition and hardly any type of foreign support or funding, has nonetheless managed to create a functional government successfully bringing relative stability to one of the most unstable regions of the world[[xiv]].
I strongly believe war is such a dangerous and destructive force that the international community should truly take it upon itself to help those societies that continuously fall prey to this deadly power. Much like in the case of Somalia, as long as we don’t truly understand what happens when a society goes to war and is subsequently trapped by this sick and destructive force, we will not be able to effectively comprehend the need and urgency to act to avoid this outcome.
Whatever we might think about the right to intervene in the internal politics of a country, whatever we might think is the “proper” role of the international community in maintaining international stability, whatever we might think history has taught us in the past, and whatever we might think about the use of force as an effective policy for regime change, I believe we must never take it lightly when a society is thrown into a path of war and violence. Diminishing the impact of the effects war can have, and dismissing the role we can play in preventing it, can very easily leave many societies stranded in a perpetual state of conflict and despair.
[i] Fearon, J. (August 20, 2001). Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War. Retrieved from: http://www.stanford.edu/group/ethnic/workingpapers/apsa011.pdf
[ii] We can see clear examples of these behaviors in the sever crackdowns of the press and freedom of expression in post-conflict societies like Sri Lanka and Rwanda.
[iii] Mukenge, B. (May 10, 2011). Corporative Governance: United Nations Peace Mission for Congo (MONUC) and the Forces Armée de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC). Retrieved from Peace and Conflict Monitor: http://www.monitor.upeace.org/archive.cfm?id_article=798
[iv] Ayad, C. (Sept. 04, 2011). ‘We Are Simply Muslim’: Libyan Rebel Chief Denies Al-Qaeda Ties. Retrieved from Time Magazine: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2091744,00.html
[v] Chossudovsky . M. (September 20, 2011). Destroying a Country’s Standard of Living: What Libya Had Achieved, What has been Destroyed. Retrieved from Global Search: http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=26686
[vi]J. (September 28, 2011). Libya and the Sahel’s nightmare scenario. Retrieved from Al-Jazeera English: http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/09/2011921142949286466.html
[vii]Gwin. P (September 8, 2011). Interviewed on Tuareg Mercenaries in Libyan Army. Retrieved from Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting: http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/tuareg-timbuktu-reporting-peter-gwin-muammar-gaddafi-libya
[viii] Conference on Responsibility to Protect held in the United Nations Headquarters in New York by a Panel of Distinguished Scholars. July 23rd 2009. Retrieved from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS9bSUdW6b4&feature=related
[ix] Due to the deteriorating situation in Sierra Leona’s 1991 Civil War, in May 2000, the British government ordered the deployment of a small but heavily armed contingent of troops under Operation Palliser with the objective of expelling the RUF rebel forces from Sierra Leon’s capital Freetown and its surroundings. Even though there had already been a UN peacekeeping force in the ground since 1999, the rapid and well equipped British intervention force has been widely considered as the catalyst for the ceasefire that eventually ended the civil war.
[x] The 2010–2011 Ivorian electoral crisis originated from the disputed November 28 presidential election, that saw incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo faceoff against opposition leader Alassane Ouattara. After months of unsuccessful negotiations and deadlock, tensions between forces allied to both camps lead to the beginning of sporadic violence and fighting that eventually lead to Ouattara’s forces seizing control of most of the country. Reports of killings and intense fightin
Bio: Andres Jimenez has a BA in International Relations and is currently pursuing a masters degree in International Peace Studies at the UN-mandated University for Peace. firstname.lastname@example.org