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World Bank Urges International Action to Prevent Civil Wars

Available in: Español, Français, 日本語
Press Release No:2003/325/S
Lawrence MacDonald (202) 473 7465
Andrew Kircher (202) 473-6313
Cynthia Case McMahon (TV/Radio) (202) 473-2243

PARIS, May 14, 2003 — International action to prevent civil wars in poor countries could avert untold suffering, spur poverty reduction, and help to protect people around the world from negative spill-over effects, including drug-trafficking, disease, and terrorism, says a new World Bank study.

Contrary to popular opinion, ethnic tensions and ancient political feuds are rarely the primary cause of civil wars, says the new study. Instead economic forces such as entrenched poverty and heavy dependence on natural resource exports are usually to blame.

Because of this, the study concludes that the international community has both compelling reasons and the means to prevent such conflicts. It urges three sets of actions to prevent civil wars: more and better-targeted aid for countries at risk, increased transparency of the revenue derived from natural resources, and better timed post-conflict peacekeeping and aid.

"Every time a civil war breaks out some historian traces its origin to the 14th century and some anthropologist expounds on its ethnic roots," says Paul Collier, the lead author of the report, Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy. "Some countries are more prone to civil war than others but distant history and ethnic tensions are rarely the best explanations. Instead look at a nation's recent past and, most important, its economic conditions."

Since 1995 the Bank has supported reconstruction in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, other Balkan states, East Timor, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan. In response to these and other conflicts, international attention and the Bank's own work have focused increasingly on conflict prevention.

The new World Bank study analyzed 52 major civil wars that occurred between 1960 and 1999. The typical conflict lasted about seven years and left a legacy of persistent poverty and disease. The study found that the negative effects of these wars extended far beyond the actual fighting, to neighboring countries and to even to distant, high-income countries.

Perhaps surprisingly, neither ethnic and religious diversity nor income inequality increased the likelihood that a country would fall into civil war. For the average country in the study, the risk of civil war during any five-year period was about 6 percent. But the risk was alarmingly higher if the economy was poor, economically declining, and dependent on natural resource exports. For a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in the late 1990s, with deep poverty, a collapsing economy, and huge mineral exploitation, the risk of civil war was nearly 80 per cent.

"Failure to develop greatly increases the chance that a country will be caught in a civil war, and such conflicts in turn destroy the foundations for development," says Collier. "Countries can break this conflict trap by putting in place the policies and institutions necessary for sustained growth. Our new understanding of the causes and consequences of civil wars provides a compelling basis for international action."

Collier is currently senior advisor to the World Bank's vice president for Sub-Saharan Africa and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford. He undertook the study during a just-concluded stint as director of the Bank's research department.

The study challenges a common assumption that civil war combatants should be left to fight it our among themselves. "This attitude is not just heartless, it is foolish," Collier says. To start with, most of the suffering caused by civil war - death, injury, disease, dislocation and loss of possessions - is experienced by non-combatants who have little say about whether the war should begin or how long it should last.

Moreover, the domestic costs of civil war continue long after the fighting ends. Countries that suffer a civil war often get locked into persistently high levels of military expenditure, capital flight, infectious disease, low growth and entrenched poverty. A country that has recently emerged from war is at especially high risk of falling into conflict again.

Local Wars, Global Casualties

But the negative effects do not stop at the border: neighboring countries suffer immediate and long term effects, including the costs of providing for refugees, increased infectious disease (such as malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis), and higher military expenditure. Throughout the region, investment dries up and economic growth declines, heightening the risk that neighboring countries will themselves fall into civil war.

Globally, three major social evils are in large part the by-product of civil wars: hard drugs, HIV and international terrorism. For example, about 95 percent of the global production of illegal narcotics is located in civil war countries. Epidemiological research suggests that the initial spread of HIV was closely associated with the 1979 civil war in Uganda, and the large number of rapes along the border with Tanzania. Finally, international terrorists need areas outside of government control for large-scale training camps, such as those that Al Queda ran in Afghanistan.

"The world is too small and tightly networked for the damages of conflict to be contained within the country at war" says Nicholas Stern, World Bank Chief Economist and Senior Vice President for Development Economics. "The study shows that even if we are not prepared to act from a sense of common decency, self-interest dictates that the international community must work together to reduce the number and length of these tragic and deeply destructive conflicts."

An Agenda for Action

Fortunately, there is a growing record of successes in such collective action. For example, new international regulations in the diamond trade have cut financing for rebel groups dependent on "blood diamonds," helping to end rebellions in Angola and Sierra Leone. Rich countries' agreement to make bribery of developing country officials a crime has reduced the corruption that is often a contributing factor in the onset of conflict. And an international ban on landmines instituted in 1997 has already halved the number of causalities.

"There is a growing recognition that there can be no peace without development and no development without peace" says Ian Bannon, head of the Bank's Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction Unit. "Developing countries, donors, international organizations, NGOs and private firms have a common interest in ending civil wars and an untapped potential to build peace."

The study proposes a three-part agenda for action that incorporates a variety of initiatives already underway:

  • More and better aid. Increased aid and changes in allocation and administration could make such assistance more effective in preventing conflict and in supporting countries recently emerged from war. These changes include targeting aid to the poorest countries, which are most at risk of civil war. In extremely poor countries with very weak governance, assistance should focus on a few simple reforms, such as improving elementary education or maternal health, in order to build the constituency for further reforms. The World Bank's most concessionary assistance is already targeted in this manner and a growing number of bilateral aid programs are adopting similar allocation rules.
  • Improved international governance of natural resources. Rich endowments of diamonds, timber, oil, gold and other natural resources are often associated with conflict, poor governance and economic decline, in part because they provide a tempting source of revenue for would-be rebels. The study proposes a series of measures to address this problem: shutting rebel organizations out of international markets, as is being done with diamonds; reducing poor countries' exposure to commodity price shocks through insurance mechanisms; and increasing the transparency of natural resource revenues, for example by establishing a common format for reporting payments and supporting public scrutiny of how these revenues are spent.
  • Coordinating Reductions in Military Spending and Sequencing Military Interventions with Aid and Reform: Civil wars often lead to regional arms races which undermine development and increase the risk of war. One solution is for regional political organizations to negotiate coordinated cuts in arms spending, and for international financial institutions to monitor compliance. When the international community intervenes militarily to stop a war, the military and aid commitments should last long enough for development take hold. This typically takes four to five years, but peace keeping forces and aid are often sharply reduced after just two years, increasing the risk of resumed hostilities.

The study concludes that if these three sets of measures were put into place then civil wars would be fewer and shorter, and countries emerging from war would be less likely to relapse. As a result, the number of countries in civil war at any given time would fall by half, to about one-in-twenty, from the current level of about one-in-ten.

Additional analysis on the relationship between civil war and dependence on natural resource exports is contained in Natural Resources and Violent Conflict: Options and Actions, a forthcoming volume edited by Bannon and Collier.

The full text of the report is available at:

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