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Violence

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 I Learned from the WDR

Nigel Roberts's picture

I came to the WDR 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.

Elections and their limits

Nicholas van Praag's picture

We have heard many calls this past week for free and fair elections to create order, or at least legitimacy, out of frustration and rage. But elections may not always do the trick -- or the many tricks -- that people expect of them. In this interview, Professor Jack Goldstone of George Mason University, who authored a paper for the WDR on Representational Models and Democratic Transitions in Fragile and Post-Conflict States, discusses the limits of the ballot box as a tool of reconciliation and the conditions necessary for elections to play their part in complex transitions.

WATCH:

To vote or not to vote

Nicholas van Praag's picture
  

A vote too soon?    Photo © Corbis

The wisdom of elections in fragile places is questioned by those who fear they will exacerbate tensions and provoke the kind of violence we saw in Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti last week.  This poses a big question: whether to plough ahead regardless or to hold-off on elections until conditions are propitious.

While some conflict experts argue it would be better to wait, many citizens are keen to vote. It’s humbling to see the determination of people in fragile countries who put up with threats to their safety and long lines at polling booths, as well as fraud and intimidation.

Is this another example of hope triumphing over experience?  Perhaps, but it also demonstrates people’s desire to have their voices heard and to influence the course of their lives. So we need to think hard before postponing plebiscites.

Electoral politics are always polarizing, no matter where.  I remember watching CNN night after night in my hotel room in Almaty, Kazakhstan during the hanging chad saga that followed the US presidential elections in November 2000.  Even at a distance of 10,000 kilometers, the negative energy was palpable.  After weeks of wrangling, it took US citizens a while to unwind and accept the outcome.

Was Keynes right about fragile states?

Nicholas van Praag's picture

Keynes said that “In the long-run we are all dead.” But for people living in fragile states affected by violence, the short run can be deadly too.

The challenge is to balance swift action with long-term stability and security. The two must be carefully paced and sequenced if we are to make progress, both sooner and later.

Not by bricks alone.

Frustration with the slowness of recovery efforts has focused attention on the short-term part of the story. No wonder. We have seen the promise of peace dashed so often by tardy action on meeting immediate needs.

Look at Haiti. Whoever emerges from the presidential elections will be under huge pressure to get a lot done fast, from controlling the cholera epidemic and rebuilding homes to getting intimidating gangs off the streets and creating jobs.

We've been there many times before in fragile places the world over - whether they are emerging from the devastation of violent conflict, exacerbated in Haiti by the earthquake, or about to plunge into it. Neither national leaders nor the international community have been effective enough in responding to the pressures that lead to conflict or reignite its embers.

Speedy action to meet immediate needs is a good start but it is not enough on its own to solve what is perhaps our greatest development challenge -- giving a stake in the future to the 1.5 billion people who are forced to look on as the middle income countries power ahead, with many lower middle income states on their heels.

Dangerouser and dangerouser? Aid workers on the front lines

Nicholas van Praag's picture
   Threatened symbol of neutrality

When I was working as a field officer with UNHCR in eastern Sudan in the mid 1980s, the living conditions were tough but we did not fear for our lives.

A couple of years later, a faction of the PLO attacked the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum, the city’s main hang-out for aid workers and journalists.  Four people were killed and more injured.

The aid fraternity was in shock at what they saw as a dagger lunged into the heart of their community.

Today, such an incident would still get headlines but stories of attacks and kidnappings of aid workers are depressingly familiar.

As the amount of overseas development assistance going to countries in conflict or affected by conflict rises, the growing numbers of humanitarian and development staff frequently find themselves in harm’s way.

This trend is due in part to the recurrence of violence.  Research for the WDR shows that many conflict-hit countries experience repeated violent episodes.

The linear progression from war and destruction to peace and development is now the exception rather than the rule.

This means that aid workers are increasingly caught up in the ebb and flow of conflict rather than coming in when the guns fall definitively silent.

20 years after conflict: Mauritania

James Martone's picture

It’s almost time to stop work for the day in the village of Fass in southern Mauritania near that country’s border with Senegal.

38-year-old farmer Omar has been picking eggplant and hot-peppers since dawn in the hot sun. He says he makes enough to support his wife and six children, but that he’d hoped to do something different with his high school degree:

“What spoiled it for me is 1989,” he says, referring to the Mauritanian-Senegalese border conflict which sent tens of thousands of black Mauritanians like Omar fleeing into neighboring Senegal.

Photo: James Martone. Elders in the village of Fass in southern Mauritania say they will never forget the violent events of their country’s 1989-1991 conflict with neighboring Senegal.

Omar says that when he finally came back to Rosso in 1993, the area was destroyed and neither he nor his brothers could find jobs.

“We tried many different things, but we ended up in agriculture.”

 

In April 1989, a dispute between Senegal and Mauritania over grazing rights erupted into violence. In both nations, people thought to be linked to the other side were forced into exile. Violence in ethnically mixed Mauritania led about 70,000 black Mauritanians to flee to Senegal. When the conflict ended in 1991, many of those, like Omar, slowly trickled back.

 

Soulaymanou never left.

 

The black Mauritanian from the southern city of Rosso says he stayed in his hometown during the conflict 20 years ago, despite Arab lynch mobs and police attacks on blacks. He stopped going to high school, bought a gun and holed himself up with his family in their small house for three months.

 

Prevention is better than post-conflict catch-up

Nicholas van Praag's picture
   An end to conflict conformism

Violence is the antithesis of development.  It tears down what’s been built up.  It destroys lives, shortens horizons, and inflicts huge psychological and physical pain.

Once violence ends, it takes a generation, on average, to get back to square oneand that’s only when strife does not reignite or morph into other forms of man-on-man beastliness, as often happens. 

No wonder so many people at the Millennium Development Goals summit in New York this week are taking a hard look at how to improve the often nasty, brutish and short lives of people living in states wracked by violence. 

At a side event organized by the WDR and the International Dialogue on Peace Building, and co-hosted by Timor Leste and the UK, Andrew Mitchell, Britain’s aid chief, reminded us that no fragile state or conflict-affected country has yet achieved a single MDG. Most lag 40 to 60 percent behind other low and middle-income countries in MDG attainment.

If you were born without a birth attendant or lack access to clean water or never went to primary school or go to bed hungry, the chances are pretty high (between 65 and 75 percent, depending on the indicator) that you come from a country mired in or emerging from violence.

With more than 1.5 billion people living in conflict-affected countries, the challenge is daunting.  There’s no chance of coming close to attaining the MDGs at the global level unless we move from bumper-sticker aspiration to policy action in fragile states.

Bob Geldof and the food riots in Mozambique

Nicholas van Praag's picture

Last Friday, Bob Geldof’s face gazed pensively from the front page of the FT’s business section over a story that he was seeking to raise a billion dollars for a venture capital fund for Africa.

The front page of the main paper, meanwhile, told of violence on the streets of Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, where more than 20 people died in food riots after the price of bread went up by 25 percent.

Same day, same paper, same continent. But for me, the two stories were linked in another way. Let me explain.

Geldof’s transition from advocate for aid to fund manager, seeking to capitalize on resurgent economic growth, is not as surprising as it may sound.

Africa can certainly use more investment in agri-business, financial services and telecommunications that will be the focus of the new fund.

And these investments, if capably managed, should contribute to creating economic growth and opportunity.

But the scenes of violence in Maputo show that economic growth is not enough to ensure a peaceful future in a society that has known or is prone to violence. Rather, they indicate that even the most enduring transitions away from conflict and fragility can experience a violent tipping point.

Media freedom and violence prevention

Nicholas van Praag's picture
© Brooks Kraft/Sygma/Corbis
  
True believers in press freedom. 
© Brooks Kraft/Sygma/Corbis

How often it’s happened. Standing at the podium, almost finished with the press conference, when the question which I would love to ignore is shouted out from the gaggle of reporters.  As a communications professional, I wholeheartedly believe in press freedoms, but I would be lying if I didn't admit that there were times I wanted to muzzle an aggressive journalist with his "gotcha" question, or the reporter who quotes me out of context or misrepresents an issue I hold dear.   

In those moments, I can see how a politician or government official, with the ability to clamp-down on the media, might succumb to the urge.  The reality is that freedom of the press is a messy business.  But like Winston Churchill once said of democracy, it's the worst form of government, except for all those other forms.

The current debate over press freedom in South Africa, with the government considering legislation that would allow the state to keep secret any information, if it decided that disclosure would harm the “national interest”, has drawn fresh attention to the role of the media as societal watchdog.

Some people question whether media freedoms are appropriate or even relevant in fragile states where, they argue, the delicate political and social balance may be upset if people are allowed to write or broadcast exactly what they think about their government or their fellow citizens.

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