Violence and the failure of institutions


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The World Bank has just published its annual World Development Report, something it has been doing for more than three decades.  [Disclosure: this economist has been contributing comments to early drafts of the WDR for the past 20 years.] The new volume is about security and development.  It says that societies are constantly under internal and external “stresses”—think corruption, youth unemployment, racial discrimination, religious competition, foreign invasion, and international terrorism.

Those stresses can become violent conflicts if we lack the “institutions” to manage them. A typical institution is an independent judiciary, an elected parliament, or a police force.  When those are bad or bent, not only are people more likely to go at each other, they are also more likely to go at each other over and over again—conflict becomes a repetitive trap. 

So the big question is not just how to stop violence, but how to avoid its recurrence.  Finding an answer is urgent, not least because the cost of conflict is huge—on average, it sets an economy back 30 years and sends a fifth of its population into poverty. Add to that the loss of life, the psychological trauma, and the lasting social rancor.  Sad, isn’t it?  Well, one in four human beings currently lives in a violent place.

The report proposes a rather predictable solution to break the cycle of violence: we need better institutions. This is as true for, say, Cote d’Ivoire today as it was for Europe after World War II. But, what does it actually mean for people? In practice, what are the “institutions” that matter to each of us?

Take the case of the 80-year-old grandmother who stepped out of her church in a working-class neighborhood. Two teenagers came up to her, pulled her purse out of her hands, tore off her necklace, knocked her to the ground, and ran away. She stood up and, trembling, walked home.  It never crossed her mind to report the assault to the police—she knew better. Question: in the eyes of this lady, which institution failed?  Who neglected to protect her community, educate her attackers, and inspire her trust in justice?

Now, scale the case up. A gang of drug traffickers enters a disco at a border city during a birthday party, shoots dead everyone inside, and leave.  A warlord sends 12-year-old soldiers to massacre an entire village that happens to live close to a diamond mine. A president is unseated by popular vote but refuses to accept the election’s outcome, unleashing a wave of terror on his opponents. A charismatic university professor convinces poor peasants that their poverty will go away if they just eliminate anyone that is not poor like them.  In all these cases, institutions failed the victims of violence—the state, the market, the army, the education system, the media, the international community, none of them did what they were supposed to.

Which brings us back to the World Development Report.  It says that we can build institutions good enough and legitimate enough not just to prevent violent conflict, but also to avoid falling back into it. It suggests some quick wins—things like firing crooked officials, publishing the budget, scrapping discriminatory laws, and dismantling secret police forces.  It also points out some long-term reforms: build a fair judiciary, let local communities administer schools, prioritize job creation among the young, and so on.  But behind all these proposals there is a common element: institutions are good and legitimate only if people can trust them. And the only way to create trust is through results.

In the eye of the common citizen, the police will be “good” when the streets are safe, the schools will be “good” when children attend, learn and graduate, and the electoral commission will be “good” when it shows independence.  Yes, measuring safety, educational achievement or political freedom is technically much more difficult than it sounds.  But you get the point: institutions are about confidence, and confidence is about performance. That is the essence of the social contract that makes peace, and thus development, possible.

Africa is a great example of how the social contract between people and institutions can change, and how violence can give way to development.  The continent is growing fast, and its future looks promising.  Much of the growth is due to good luck—high commodity prices mean more resources to build badly-needed infrastructure and unlock the enormous potential of the region’s economy. But much is due to better institutions and, more specifically, to better mechanisms to hold institutions accountable for results.  Look at Ghana: its Parliament recently passed legislation giving civil society a direct-view balcony on how oil and gas contracts and revenues will be managed. Others are doing the same. Respect to them.


Marcelo Giugale

Director, Poverty Reduction and Economic Management

Join the Conversation

Rafael C. Hernandez
April 12, 2011

I very much agree with Marcelo's view and for that matter the WDR's that institutions are vital to prevent violence and to break the vicious cycle of violence. Furthermore, there is no question that the cycles of violence are caused by internal as well as external causes, thus I will add to the external stresses mentioned by Marcelo, the effect of organized crime and the illegal trafic of drugs and guns. There is no question that a significant portion of the urban violence seen in LAC countries is due to the effect of these two external factors. Insecurity is not by any means relegated to FCS countries and currently has become the number one risk in LAC according to the most recent Latin Barometer indicator. In some areas, such as Central America, insecurity is perhaps the largest obstacle to development nowadays and the only way how these countries could fight back is with the aid of the international comunity. The problem of the illegal drug traffic is not only a problem of to those countries producing it or those allowing a passage through but more importantly, those where the comsuption takes place. Therefore, as long as there is no recognition that there is a principle of corresponsibility into this problem, it does not matter how much effort is done by the individual countries.

Caleb Leseine
November 14, 2011

I couldn't agree more. Institutions are ideal as they are more dependent on systems than they are on people.
This allows them to operate free of the bias that comes with the latter. Their actions are guided by the constitution rather than unpredictable emotions or convenient logic.
This is not to mean that institutions can operate independent of people. People are an integral part of the system.
Policy makers should invest in education and training to ensure proper management of institutions. This is because it is the institution's competence that guarantees results.