Walking on eggshells

What drives countries into conflict? One of the most important findings about civil war is that economic factors such as growth and structure of income are significant triggers. Between 1960 and 1999, poorer countries - countries with low growth rates - or those with a high proportion of primary commodity exports in their GDP, were more likely to experience war. Striking oil is a high-risk factor for civil unrest. Low incomes and low growth rates make for a lack of opportunities, making it easier for rebel forces to sign up recruits.

One year of conflict reduces a country's growth rate by roughly 2.2 per cent. Civil conflicts tend to go on ten times longer than international conflicts - lasting seven years on average. So, by the end of the average civil conflict, that country's economy will be roughly 12 per cent smaller than if the war had not taken place. Overall, it takes about 21 years for a country to climb back to a level of GDP that would have existed had the conflict not taken place. In addition, there will be increased military spending during and after the war, and many of the costs of conflict occur only after conflict has ended, further reducing the welfare of the population.

The prospect of peace may not fit with the goals of those whose interests lie in prolonging violent conflict. Many organisations spring up during war that are useful only in the context of continuing violence; it is not easy to transfer the energy of such organisations so that they develop a stake in maintaining peace.

Even if a settlement can be reached, it may be fragile. As the relative power of rebel groups crumbles, it can be easy for governments to think that they can overturn deals or go back on agreements, eventually leading to more civil unrest. Historically, about 40 per cent of armed conflicts that stop start again within a decade. If a settlement can be achieved, the restoration of peace, stability and development requires a concerted effort, first to address humanitarian needs and then to rebuild the state with effective service delivery.

The most secure prevention strategy is one that achieves rapid economic development. This reduces the risk of insurrection directly through the growth rate, cumulatively through the level of income, and indirectly through diversification of the economy. Poor governance may give rise to conflict, more because it shuts down opportunities for economic development than because of the grievances it generates.

Even if it is well managed, economic recovery typically takes a decade to deliver substantial reductions in the risk of conflict reoccurring, so usually some temporary remediation is required to maintain the peace. If domestic military spending is counterproductive, the only option may be to use external military assistance to achieve stability. Given the exceptional weakness of many post-conflict governments, there is often a crucial role for inter­national involvement across a spectrum of economic, political and military assistance. Participants in our round-table discussion debate what this assistance might actually look like, as well as the role of the Department for International Development and its proposal in the new white paper Building Our Common Future, that up to 50 per cent of new bilateral funding be made available to fragile states. The round-table chair, David Loyn, introduces the background themes to this subject on page seven.

In Martin Bell's article, he describes how now, more than ever before, the media play a central role in the perception of war and conflicts, and how they can be a weapon as strong as many others. The media can play a vital part in the rebuilding process, and can help broker and maintain equilibrium where rumour could prevail. He argues for firm state control of media regulation under conditions of conflict to prevent them from being used as a force for evil.

This piece was originally published as part of a supplement, "Propagating Peace", sponsored by Atos Consulting in the 7 December 2009 issue.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George