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The Market for Civil War

This week Devnews focuses on the World Bank’s development work in conflict areas. The work is an inherent part of the Bank’s mission, with poverty being both a cause and a consequence of conflict. Eighty percent of the world's 20 poorest countries today have suffered from a major conflict in the recent years. Devnews has talked to Bank staff on the ground, to get a clearer sense as to what this work entails on a daily basis, what progress is being made, what challenges are faced and what lessons they have learnt. "Conflict and Development: a View from the Ground" is a series of five stories, that will run from May 12-16. Today, Devnews reports on the launch of a new World Bank report, "Breaking the Conflict Trap" by Paul Collier et al, on the causes of civil war.

May 14, 2003—The end of the Cold War ushered the world into an era of relative global stability, yet peace did not come with it. Civil wars proliferated indiscriminately throughout countries, threatening national and regional stability and diverting international attention and scarce resources away from pressing development problems.

Accusatory fingers have tended to point towards ethnic tensions, ancient political feuds and the destructive remains of colonialism. But a groundbreaking new study on civil war from the World Bank lifts the curtain on the true culprits.

Contrary to popular opinion, economic forces such as entrenched poverty and heavy dependence on natural resource exports are usually the primary causes behind civil wars.

"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."

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."

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.

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.

Useful links: For more information on the World Bank’s work on Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction, please click here.

To hear the radio news release on Paul Collier’s "Breaking the Conflict Trap" report, please click here.

Click here to view the the full text of the report and here for the press release.





"Some countries are more prone to civil war than others but distant history and ethnic tensions are rarely the best explanations," said Paul Collier, the author of the report. "Instead look at a nation’s recent past and, most important, its economic conditions."




Ian Bannon, World Bank Manager of the Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction Unit of the World Bank, spoke of the technical assistance and project work the institution is involved in with regards to conflict.


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