5 Questions on Development and Conflict

The COVID-19 pandemic could have an impact on the civil war in Syria. Photo courtesy of Christiaan Tribert.

By guest contributors Eli Berman and David Lake

Violence is a feature of life in many developing countries. As governments, private philanthropic organizations, and communities work to reduce inequity, alleviate poverty, and improve the well-being of people living in low- and middle-income countries, what role does conflict play in stymying development? And can development reduce conflict?

David Lake, distinguished professor of political science at UC San Diego, poses five questions about development and conflict to Eli Berman, research director at the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and professor of economics at UC San Diego.

What are the most important hot spots to watch in 2020—and why?

The world is a lot less predictable with COVID-19, but sub-state violence is horribly predictable: Syria and Yemen have raging conflicts, which outside intervention continues to exacerbate rather than dampen. A “treaty” in Afghanistan will likely trigger an aggressive Taliban fighting season over the summer. Ukraine is unresolved. The Libyan conflict is festering just south of Europe. Lebanon, Iraq and Iran have experienced waves of domestic protests that seem unlikely to escalate without foreign intervention, but that’s what we thought initially about Syria. 

The wild card is COVID-19. It may reduce foreign interference, which amplifies some conflicts, but could also reduce the ability of peacekeeping forces to dampen conflicts. Some governments may also see the distraction as an opportunity for suppression, unleashing new conflicts or refugee flows.

Does poverty cause violent conflict—and can economic development reduce conflict? 

Not quite. Our research has shown that poor or absent governance that fosters violent substate conflict is also a major contributor to poverty—no surprise to economists, who know that property rights and human rights are a necessary condition for functioning markets and investment. In that sense, development projects that complement local governance (which includes policing) have been shown to reduce political violence and apparently foster development as well.

What do we know about how to reduce—or, failing that, manage—conflict more effectively?

Again, a robust commitment by local government to attentive governance works quite well in reducing conflict. When allies lack the capacity or the will to do that, intervention to help out has been shown to be effective.

Former Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis said that if the US doesn’t “fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately,” implying that diplomacy and foreign aid—both housed within the State Department—are necessary complements to, and sometimes substitutes for, military action. If that’s true, why doesn’t the United States fund and expand its diplomatic and development programs?

It’s a great question. I’m not a scholar of domestic politics but I’ll say this: We’ve failed to communicate that logic sufficiently to the general public here in the US. Scholars in the Empirical Studies of Conflict project, which the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation helped to create, have accumulated lots of evidence that General Mattis is correct. His cohort of commanders learned the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan that diplomacy, development, and coercive force are complementary tools in achieving security and development. Yet the phenomenal cost-effectiveness of development and diplomacy in achieving national security goals has not been well communicated to the media and general public, which I think Congress is very responsive to.

What are the big unanswered questions scholars should be focused on today?

An immediate question is how a pandemic can be contained in ungoverned or poorly governed space. Regions with active civil wars and refugee flows are the most worrying, but neglected pockets of countries with high spatial variation in income and basic services are ubiquitous in the developing world. So far, the traditional model of project-based development assistance has often failed in these countries and regions, because they are too dangerous for oversight by unarmed forces. COVID-19 vaccination will test that model again, hopefully a year from now.

Another pressing question is how to help refugees and migrants in a world in which borders are closing up but threats and poverty where they live are only exacerbating.

In the long run, I think we need to ask how the Western liberal model of democracy and markets will compete—and cooperate—with a more autocratic model advocated by China, Russia, and Iran? That autocratic model has its own approach to countering political violence, and to fostering it (for Russia and Iran). It also has an aggressive approach to disinformation, not only in the US but in developing countries as well.

David A. Lake is the Jerri-Ann and Gary E. Jacobs Professor of Social Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. Eli Berman is IGCC Research Director for International Security Studies and a Professor of Economics at the University of California, San Diego.

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