Conflict and Poverty
Violent conflict is development in reverse. It destroys societies and is a shortcut to extreme poverty. The destruction and chaos that violent conflict brings leads to lawlessness and human rights atrocities and the erosion, diversion or destruction of resources – natural, human, financial or infrastructure – limits people's access to basic needs, such as health, education and food.
Since the end of WWII, and even since the end of the Cold War, violent conflict has not significantly reduced. Rather, a decrease in state-on-state conflict has been replaced with an increase in conflict within states, and between sub-state groups1. Furthermore, violent conflict is likely to be a cause or a symptom of poverty.
Violent conflict around the world is not only a source of human suffering, but is increasingly a threat to the peace and security of all nations2.
Violent conflict can quickly undermine state institutions in developing countries and gives space for illicit groups and activities to be harboured - this can have trans-national implications in the form of terrorism, organised crime, and the trafficking of drugs, arms, or people (Foreign Policy, 2008). The 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America argued that:
“America is now threatened less by conquering states than by failing ones.”
Violent conflict derails efforts of communities to develop, and can seriously undermine capacities to develop upon its cessation.
- Economies in conflict grow 1-2% slower than peacetime economies and divert money into war rather than poverty reduction and development.
- The World Bank estimates that civil conflicts last an average of seven years, cause a 2.2% reduction in GDP per year and cost an estimated US$54 million annually for a low income country.
- Nine of the bottom ten countries on the Human Development Index experienced conflict at some time since 1990, while 35 of the 46 fragile states are in conflict and account for 30% of those living on $1 per day.
- All of the countries the World Food Program identifies as “hunger hotspots” are in conflict or inundated by refuges as a result of crisis.
- In Africa for example, conflict has wiped 25 billion from agriculture’s production between 1970 and 1997.
- Worldwide, an estimated 25 million people are displaced by conflict.
- The camps housing an estimated 1.8 million people in the region of Darfur have become a symbol of the displaced. In Colombia a protracted civil war has led to one of the largest displacements since those caused by the Second World War in Europe. Three-quarters of a million people were displaced within Guatemala or had fled to Mexico by the mid-1980s, accounting for nearly a tenth of the population. Over 600,000 Chechens— half of the population—are internally displaced after nearly a decade of conflict.
“As civil wars have accumulated and persisted, they have generated or intensified a significant part of the global poverty problem that is the World Bank’s core mission to confront.”
Nicholas Stern, Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist of The World Bank
Violent conflict disrupts normal life, and through its impact on children, culture, education and myriad other aspects of communities, its impact continues on long after the conflict might have been resolved.
One clearly visible impact is on a society's capacity to continue working:
- Conflict takes people - particularly males - away from their livelihoods, such as in farming, providing for their families or managing their communities, which leads to the breakdown of production and community life. It is often women that are left to deal with the turmoil.
- Resources of a community - such as financial, natural and food resources - are diverted for the purposes of fighting rather than for development.
- Infrastructure can be destroyed, degraded or restricted in access, meaning that it is not there to support the community.
- Areas of land that are caught up in conflicts can be made unavailable to communities to pursue usual productive activities, or can be made unsafe for use by mines or unexploded ordinances from the conflict for years to come.
- On top of fatalities, violent conflict can lead to large increases in disabilities, which can reduce people's capacity to develop themselves and realise their full potential.
What can be done?
Violent conflict can be stopped or prevented.
Some successful interventions were based on the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, which gives a legal and ethical basis for the humanitarian interventions of the international community into states that have failed to protect their citizens. For example, United Nations peacekeeping operations have been successful in bringing a cessation of violence in countries such as Cambodia and Timor Leste. State-led interventions can also be successful in halting violence, such as in the Solomon Islands and the Balkans.
Military intervention can be successful in preventing a continuation of the suffering and damage caused by violent conflict, but they are rarely effective in addressing the underlying causes of conflict and are also complicated by the aspirations of states. It is far preferable for the underlying grievances which lead to conflict be addressed before violence arises.
The causes of violent conflict can be many and varied, but research has suggested that severe scarcity - that which is synonymous with extreme poverty - can lead to "deprivation" conflicts such as civil strife and insurgency.
What you can do
By helping to end extreme poverty, you also helping to bring peace to the world in multiple ways. Poverty does increase the risk of violent conflict, so efforts to reduce poverty also help to reduce the risk of conflict.
“A striking relationship [exists] between the wealth of a nation and its chances of having a civil war. A country with GDP per person of just $250 has a predicted probability of war onset (at some point over the next five years) of 15% ... This probability of war reduces by half for a country with GDP of just $600 per person. Countries with income per person over $5000 have a less than 1% chance of experiencing civil conflicts"
- Humphreys & Varshney, 2004. Violent Conflict and the Millenium Development Goals: diagnosis and recomendations.
There are also more specific ways that you can prevent violent conflict, and even help to bring a end to ongoing conflict. Petitioning your government to participate in peacekeeping interventions into violent conflicts can make a difference. Australia spends over $20 billion a year on Defence - over 5 times as much as its aid budget - and much of the resources, capabilities and expertise that this buys is directly applicable to humanitarian interventions. Writing letters to your local members of parliament, or to newspapers, is a good way to influence policy and participate in public debate.
Governments also need to be encouraged not only to intervene, but to stay around for the post-conflict recovery. This is usually the more significant commitment, but research has shown that conflict begets conflict, and sustained peace is best acheived by addressing the underlying causes of the conflict - such as poverty - rather than just the conflict itself.
Research has shown that it is the high-value, "lootable" resources that can be exported can prolong conflict in poor countries - more so than resources such as land or water. These resources can end up as the goods that we inadvertedly consume ourselves. High profile examples include diamonds from Angola and Sierra Leone, timber from Cambodia, or drugs from Colombia.
Having an idea about where the goods that you consume come from is a good idea in general, but keeping an eye out for goods that might come from conflicting states in particular is a good way to make sure you're not inadvertedly adding to the problem.