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What I Learned from the WDR

Nigel Roberts's picture

I came to the World Development Report with years of field experience in conflict-affected countries, but I learned some startling things from the exercise.

One is that violence today is very different from the violence of the Cold War era. Another is that how to escape from persistent violence isn’t something we can really learn from academic or policy literature — we need to listen to those who have managed actual transitions from violence to stability.

Modern violence

When I joined the Bank in 1981, Cold War politics dominated the debate on violence. Proxy wars between the US and its allies and the Communist Bloc were playing out across the world. Researchers and policy-makers, caught up in this global contest, focused on the wars that formed the pieces of this jigsaw. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eclipse of Soviet power, a great deal changed. There was a brief surge in the number of civil wars in the mid-1990s, but since then the incidence of “conventional” civil war (wars for political control of the state) has declined. Inter-state warfare is also rare now.

What we see, though — in part because we’re casting the analytical net wider than we used to— is still pretty alarming. We’ve estimated that 1.5 billion people live in areas experiencing or threatened by organized violence; that’s roughly a quarter of the world’s population.

Violence today is frequently localized, mutates from one form to another or just repeats. Motives often defy easy categorization. In central Africa, militias fight for control of mineral deposits, not the state. The FARC in Colombia, once known for its revolutionary Marxist credentials, is now notorious for kidnapping and cocaine trafficking. Moreover, global communications and transport networks have supercharged the international drug trade and have created virtual alliances between violent transnational groups — as well as animating the citizens’ democracy movements we saw in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and in the Middle East today.

Annual deaths from civil war are a quarter of what they were in the 1980s, but homicides from organized gang and drug violence are rising steeply, and leaving large parts of Central America and West Africa beyond effective government control.

The world is still a violent and frightening place.

The triggers of organized violence

What is important to understand is that these various forms of violence are triggered by similar kinds of stress factors — and that good policies can make a real difference.

Some stresses emanate from the global environment (such as drug trafficking and steep food price hikes), but those generated within societies are mostly rooted in exclusion, inequality and injustice – unfairness, in other words, be this in the sphere of security, politics or economics.

What transforms these stresses into open violence is a lack of credible, legitimate national institutions capable of mediating demands in ways that people find acceptable. Legitimate institutions, above all, are what break equations of violence.

This is powerful information for policy-makers.

Escaping the gravitational pull

We focused our research on countries like Ghana, Vietnam, Rwanda and Indonesia — countries that have managed to extract themselves from repetitive, destructive cycles of violence over a generation or more. They did so through a simultaneous combination of short-term confidence building measures, and sustained efforts to build national institutions.

Short-term measures include creating inclusive political and social coalitions to help defuse the incentives for violence, and visible actions that signal positive change — particularly to those with grievances. Convincing signals come in many forms: firing abusive policemen, reinstituting rural health services, creating employment. Whatever has real local resonance.

Building institutions that people trust takes time, in many cases 20 years or more, and will always involve setbacks. As with any political process, institution-building is usually contested. It took over a decade for Nepal’s community-based forestry program to show serious results. This isn’t surprising when you consider that a feudal government was being asked to cede effective control over property to ordinary villagers.

What this means for the World Bank

Such findings have major implications for the way donors operate, starting with the Bank.

One implication is that our traditional division of labor between civil war and criminal violence makes little sense. The motivations behind different forms of violence are similar, the forms blur together and the solutions have much in common.A second is that knowledge of how to deal with today’s violence lies less with western institutions, more with emerging nations. Latin American community crime programs have much to offer to US and European cities struggling with gangs and drugs. This suggests very different ways of transferring knowledge than the ones we are used to.

A third is that institution-building is inevitably contentious, and that it takes decades to deliver durable results. This reality sits uncomfortably alongside the Bank’s relatively short operational time-horizons and risk-averse technical culture.

There are other implications too, and accepting them will require uncomfortable internal change. I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far by the enthusiasm the Bank is showing for reforming its approach to fragility and violence, and I’ll write about this in more detail in another blog.

I hope you’ll take a look at the report now on the WDR site.


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