The 5 Ps of Poverty

Why Countries are Poor: Peace

Or, actually, the lack of peace…

Conflict and Poverty

Oxford economist Paul Collier has called war “development in reverse.”   Think of the state of European countries at the end of WWII, and what it took to put them back together again.  And, think of the death and personal trauma visited upon hundreds of millions of people.  Wars taking place in the countries of the bottom billion today may be on a different scale, but they are no less devastating.  And the recovery process is much harder when you started with very little in the first place.

International conflicts are more rare than in the past.  Today, most wars are civil wars, or civil conflicts with cross-border rebellions or incursions. The World Bank has estimated that poor countries are 15x more likely to experience a civil war than developed countries.  Many of these wars are considered “resource conflicts” where people come into competition for natural resources (water, oil, diamonds).  In fact, even wars that look like they are politically or ethnically motivated are, at their heart, usually about resource or land grabs.

The last 3 Ps of the 5 Ps of Poverty are especially intertwined – peace is closely related to a country’s past and politics.  Colonial legacies are strong precursors to violence and conflict in poor countries (see “divide and conquer” policies of imperial powers and what they did to ethnically diverse colonial societies).  Peace is also a function of local leadership and governance.  All conflicts have multiple roots – some internal, some external.  Some wars are proxy wars, where local factions become pitted against each other because of larger geopolitical tensions and relationships.

The Particular Toxicity of War for Poor Countries

War takes an enormous toll on a society.  For a poor country, there is perhaps nothing as bad for economic growth as a war.   Military service (in conventional armies or rebel groups) removes young, able bodied citizens whose labor and talents could otherwise be harnessed for development.  Military expenditures crowd out social and economic investment.  Death and disability – of soldiers and civilians – hollow out generations of human potential.  Fear and trauma haunt and debilitate survivors.  Physical devastation of infrastructure and livelihoods destroys communities and sets them back, sometimes hundreds of, years.

Research by  Paul Collier and others has found that the occurrence of one civil war doubles the risk of another war breaking out.  The current US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, wrote about this phenomenon when she was at the Brookings Institution, calling it a “doom spiral,” where poverty leads to war which leads to more poverty, and on, and on.  Energies of multiple generations are diverted away from growth, and towards survival and reconstruction.  Foreign investors are deterred by risk.  Factions in neighboring countries often take advantage of vulnerable resources and populations.

Wars that are fought on your own territory are obviously the worst, because of the destruction and displacement that occurs.  Displacement is one of those terms that sounds less harsh than it is.  In reality, displacement can mean loss of everything, life on the run or in refugee camps – a complete reversal of fortune.

Your neighbors’ peace is also important.  Civil wars often cross borders: rebels go on resource hunts in other countries, arms proliferate in the region, refugees strain already fragile (and sometimes hostile) neighboring societies.  Ethnic, family, and religious ties can spread violence across boundaries.  Outsiders get dragged in because of complicated alliances and proxies, or are motivated by opportunism to enter the fray.  The ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a perfect case in point, involving not only neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, but spreading regionally at intervals.


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