War Breeds War

As a result of civil wars, some of the world’s least developed nations are now further away from achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals than they were when the goals were first adopted. 

13 years after the civil war is over, a school dormitory in Mozambique looks like this. Photo: Adam Valvasori via Flickr

The UN General Assembly adopted the Millennium Development Goals in September 2000. Following lengthy debate, the assembly agreed on eight goals that the whole world could endorse. The eight goals centred on poverty and hunger; child mortality; maternal mortality; education; HIV/AIDS; equality; sustainable development; and global partnerships for development. The deadline for achieving the goals is the end of 2015.

Many countries have now achieved all eight goals. In particular this is true of a group of Asian countries that have experienced impressive socio-economic growth in recent years. Unfortunately, the world’s least developed countries are generally failing to achieve the goals. Some of these countries, for example the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and Nigeria are now further from achieving the goals than they were when the goals were adopted.

Destructive civil war

One of the main reasons for this failure is civil war. Several of the countries that are furthest from achieving their millennium goals are also those countries most affected by civil war in recent decades. These countries are caught in what Paul Collier (visiting PRIO this month) called the “conflict trap“. The civil war in DR Congo was caused by the country’s poor socio-economic development. At the same time the war exacerbated the country’s problems so that, now the war is over, DR Congo has been left even more underdeveloped. This is phase one of the conflict trap. In stage two, the country’s aggravated socio-economic problems lead to a new war. History repeats itself and the country is trapped in a vicious circle in which low levels of development lead to conflict, conflict destroys chances for socio-economic growth, and the deteriorating situation then leads to renewed conflict. War breeds war.

The Conflict trap: Poverty breeds conflict, conflict breeds poverty… DRC refugees on the run, once more. 2013. Photo: European Commission via Flickr.

Until recently we knew little about the true power of this “conflict trap”. Now new research has measured for the first time – across all eight Millennium Development Goals – the destructiveness of civil war. The results make depressing reading.

Increased mortality

The average civil war lasts for approximately five years and kills about 2,500 people in events of a purely war-related nature. These fatalities are the most visible consequence of the conflict. To these 2,500 people whose deaths relate directly to the fighting, one must add all the deaths that result indirectly from the war. It is generally believed that as many people died in the epidemic of Spanish influenza that resulted (to a large extent) from the First World War as died in the war itself.

But this is just the beginning. In the average civil war, infant mortality increases by approximately 10 per cent. This figure may not sound very high, but in pure statistics this means that for every person who is killed in fighting during a war, an infant that would otherwise most likely have survived will die before his or her first birthday. The same conflict will produce, on average, an additional 300,000 people who are malnourished and a further 150,000 who lack access to clean drinking water. In addition, it will rob a whole year from each person’s life expectancy.

A barrier to achieving goals

The average conflict will reduce a country’s gross national product (GNP) by 15 per cent. And what is worse, this effect will persist once the conflict is over. A civil war experienced by only one of two otherwise similar countries will create an economic disparity between the two countries, and we can find few if any signs that the conflict-affected country will be able to close this disparity. Burundi and Burkina Faso were two relatively similar countries. At the end of the 1980s, per capita GNP in both countries was around USD 150 and they were experiencing similar rates of growth. In 1990, a long-lasting and bloody conflict erupted in Burundi. Within just a few years, this conflict had destroyed several decades of economic growth. By 2008, Burkina Faso was more than twice as wealthy as Burundi. The likelihood that Burundi will experience even more conflict in the years to come is also much greater than it is for Burkina Faso.

Similarly striking comparisons can be made using indicators other than GNP. Mozambique experienced a long and bloody civil war from 1977 to 1992 that was particularly devastating for the civilian population. Five years after the conflict ended, more than half the country’s population suffered from malnutrition. In the same year in Burkina Faso, which like Burundi was very similar to Mozambique before the latter’s civil war, under 12 per cent of the population suffered from malnutrition.

The overall outcome is that civil war will prevent a country from achieving its Millennium Development Goals. This is because civil war has consequences for both the supply of and demand for the same fundamental services that the Millennium Development Goals were intended to secure for people’s enjoyment.

Robbed of health services

Clearly civil war will increase demand for, for example, public health services. One only needs to see some of the television coverage from Gaza to understand why. But civil war also affects the supply of such services. Countries that are at war invest less in hospitals and health services, and more in the military. The effect is that the country’s health services are at their weakest just when they are needed most – in other words, the supply of health services declines.

During civil war, a country’s health services are at their weakest just when they are needed most. Malaria patients at hospital in Burundi. Photo: UN Development Programme via Flickr

This effect is not restricted to the health sector. Countries that are at war also spend less on education, roads, other infrastructure and social services. This means that the populations of war-affected areas are exposed not only to a much greater risk of death or injury, but are also robbed of healthcare for what would normally be minor diseases and of education. The effects may be felt by an individual for the rest of his or her life.

The World Health Organisation calculates what it calls Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs). These measure the number of years that a person can expect to live in good health. Studies show that the civil wars fought in the 1990s robbed the world’s population in the aggregate of over eight million years of good health in 1999 alone.

A clear success

This autumn the UN General Assembly will debate what should be done once the Millennium Development Goals expire. Not all the goals have been achieved, but they have been a clear success. They have focused global society on a set of fundamental development goals that are unparalleled in global history. The goals have also been ground-breaking in their focus on clearly measurable indicators. They have made it possible to see where we have succeeded and where we have failed. Without such clearly measurable indicators it is impossible to identify what works and what does not.

When the UN General Assembly reconvenes to debate development, there is much to suggest that it will adopt a new set of goals. This is gratifying. The UN should follow up on the success that the millennium goals represent. But the UN should go a step further.
In the next round it should explicitly set a goal of dramatically reducing the number of conflicts that the world is currently experiencing. This will encourage a focus on reducing both the effects of ongoing conflicts, and the underlying factors that may lead to new conflicts. Socio-economic growth is critical in both respects.

This text was first published in Norwegian in the daily newspaper Bergens Tidende 12 August 2014: ‘Krig avler krig’

Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

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