Conflict and Development: Breaking the Cycle of Fragility, Violence, and Poverty

Published on 18th August 2013

The  world cannot achieve the eradication of extreme poverty if corners of our world continue to be wracked by violent conflict and fragility.

There can be no doubt that, at the global level, huge progress has been made on reducing extreme poverty. The momentum generated since 2000 by the Millennium Development Goals has also brought focus and directed action and resources to that effort. The target in MDG 1 of having the global rate of extreme poverty halved from its 1990 level by 2015 was reached in 2010, five years ahead of schedule. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has called this progress “the most successful global anti-poverty push in history.”

Progress has been achieved on many other MDG targets too – not least on improved access to safe drinking water, better living conditions for around 200 million slum-dwellers, and on primary school enrolment and improved infant and child health.

But such progress is not yet universal, nor is forward momentum guaranteed.  Much work remains. Abject poverty and underdevelopment persist - not least where people lack productive employment and livelihoods; where environmental resources are being depleted and natural disasters are recurrent; and where conflict, armed violence, high levels of crime, and weak governance exist. Added together, these factors perpetuate extreme poverty.

The World Bank calculates that countries affected by conflict and fragility lag behind the most in MDG achievement, accounting for 77 per cent of infant deaths, 65 per cent of the world’s population lacking access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, and sixty per cent of the world’s undernourished. People who live in these countries are twice as likely as people living in other developing countries to see their children die before they reach the age of five, and more than three times as likely to be unable to send their children to school. 

In future, the extremely poor in our world will be increasingly concentrated in these states, as countries not torn apart by conflict and with more effective governance pull ahead. Estimates of the concentration of people living in poverty in these fragile states range from one-third of the global total today to projections of fifty per cent by 2018, and two-thirds and upwards by 2030.

The characterization of the mutually reinforcing impact of conflict, fragility, and poverty on development as a “trap” draws from an extensive body of academic and policy literature, including from Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Collier, the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report, and many other sources. I will discuss what drives conflict and fragility; offer some reflections on the impact of conflict and fragility on development; and share UNDP’s current thinking on and approach to supporting countries to break out of the conflict-fragility-poverty trap to move along a path to sustainable development and peace.

What is a fragile state?

The OECD defines a fragile state as “one which has weak capacity to carry out basic governance functions and lacks the ability to develop mutually constructive relations with society.”

Both the OECD and the g7+ group, the latter representing a group of eighteen countries which have self-identified as fragile and conflict-affected, have advanced the notion of a “fragility spectrum” to reflect variations in the degree of fragility of individual states.  In this concept, most countries are more or less fragile, and even stable countries may have sub-national pockets of fragility where armed conflict and/or criminal violence take their toll.

As a group, the fragile states often share a number of characteristics which make it difficult for them to get ahead. These may include weak governance, poor relations between state and society, and a lack of resilience to potential internal and external shocks – including to stresses emanating from climate change and natural hazards.They may also include countries overwhelmed by rapid urbanization and the impact of burgeoning young populations without enough access to work and opportunity.

No single factor determines fragility, and it may be masked by the existence of relatively strong, often authoritarian, institutions, as has been seen in the Arab States region. Rivalry between ethnic groups and along other lines can also drive fragility - especially where authorities lack the political will, impartiality, and/or the ability to intercede and resolve grievances.

All the above factors can contribute to violent conflict – which impedes development. The face of conflict itself is changing: armed conflict has dropped overall in the last two decades. Yet while there has been a significant decline in inter-state conflict and battle-related deaths, smaller-scale violence and the number of violence-related deaths have increased.  Current forms of armed violence include criminal activity, local conflict over land and natural resources, and inter-ethnic or communal violence.

An estimated 87 per cent of deaths directly resulting from armed violence are rooted in organized crime and gang activities, with the highest rates found in Latin America and the Caribbean and parts of Africa. Only around one in every ten reported violent deaths around the world results from what was once considered typical armed conflict or from an act of terrorism.

Tempering the encouraging trend in the decline of large-scale armed conflict over the past two decades, however, is the dramatic increase in the total number of battle-related deaths in 2012, mostly due to the war in Syria, but with an escalation of armed conflict and resultant fatalities also seen in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The number of documented deaths resulting from the conflict in Syria since March 2011 now exceeds 100,000. Its impact on human development is severe as communities are torn apart and people flee their homes to seek refuge elsewhere.

What else exacerbates fragility?  

• Losses from disasters – including extreme weather events: The connection between drought and violence and conflict has been well documented. In Burundi, for example, recurrent drought and food insecurity, coupled with uneven food distribution, have sparked violence between migrants and host communities over access to land. In Afghanistan, facing the consequences of drought and with few livelihood alternatives, youth in Balkh province have joined illegal armed groups.

• Economic vulnerability: for economies to thrive they must connect with markets, but the ability of fragile states to make those connections, and then to ride out financial volatility or price shocks, is sharply limited. Fragile states are less likely to attract either the sustained domestic or foreign investment which drives economic growth.

• High levels of youth unemployment: When UNDP polled Arab youth for its landmark 2002 Arab Human Development Report, lack of jobs and access to education topped their list of concerns. Those concerns were largely unchanged as youth poured onto the streets in the region nearly a decade later to demand political change. Beyond the Arab States region, the global financial crisis and its ongoing repercussions have contributed to high rates of unemployment and underemployment in the advanced economies too. Young people have borne the brunt of this, with negative trends in the youth labour market accounting for 41 per cent of the decline in the global employment-to-population ratio since 2007.

In fragile states, young people aged 15 to 34 already make up more than one-third of the population. Today, about one in three people living in Africa, or about 344 million, is aged 10 to 24; by 2060, that age group is projected to nearly double in size to around 605 million. At the same time, the youth of that region are becoming better educated. The proportion of 20-to 24-year-olds who complete secondary education will likely increase from 42 per cent to 59 per cent between now and 2030. If that talent and potential is not harnessed, however, and if young people are unable to express themselves freely, then a potential demographic dividend could become a demographic “time bomb” as frustrations and despair boil over. The highest priority needs to be given to ensuring the full participation of youth in the economic, social, and political life of their countries so that they can be positive forces for peace and development.

• Governance: Poor governance and weak institutions perpetuate fragility. Governments which cannot execute decisions nor deliver services effectively, and which tolerate corruption, hold back development progress. Climbing out of fragility against a background of conflict and building effective governance can take time; the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report calculates that historically, the fastest rates of transformation in fragile states have taken a generation. Countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia, however, have shown that, with effective leadership and a focus on improving service delivery and tackling corruption, the transition can be accelerated.

• External factors: Global factors also drive fragility. These may include trade barriers limiting economic potential, transnational organized crime, and thriving markets for military and security goods and services. Then there are the clear cases of regional spillover from a national crisis – witness the destabilization of the Sahel as a consequence of the upheaval in Libya, and the heavy impact of refugee flows into the small states of Jordan and Lebanon.

Reflections on the impact of conflict and fragility on development

UNDP has a global mandate and presence with programmes and initiatives in virtually every developing country. Our biggest country programmes are in fragile states, where we have learned a lot about the complex dynamics of conflict, fragility, and underdevelopment. These insights inform our efforts to support countries to lift themselves out of the conflict-fragility-poverty trap.

Some observations:

1. Where states have experienced violent conflict, core institutions are weak, and human capital is depleted.  Generally in the wake of violent conflict, there is a cohort of trained, mobilized young men—usually with little or no civilian training or education, few job prospects, and facing tremendous challenges in reintegrating into their communities. Societies emerging from conflict often have minimal capacity to address such legacies of war, or to achieve genuine reconciliation. Yet if the underlying factors which drove the conflict are not addressed, the stage may be set for relapse into conflict.

2. Some of the worst conflicts have occurred in resource-rich countries, such as Sierra Leone or the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the transition to peace and development can be particularly difficult. Addressing the barriers to development in such cases must be informed by a deeper understanding of the full impacts of the conflict on the social and economic system, and of what alternative livelihoods might merit investment to break a pernicious dependence on illicit resource extraction.

3. Sexual- and gender-based violence rises exponentially in conflict-affected countries – and persists at high levels thereafter. Sadly war does not end for women after a formal cessation of hostilities between warring parties. Violence against women is a strong indicator of fragility; it also exacerbates poverty, as the legacy of war may well be many more women bringing up families alone.

4. Each fragile context is unique: the specific causes, manifestations, and degrees of fragility which perpetuate poverty vary widely, as does the pace at which change may be brought about. Responses must be tailored to the specific circumstances. Applying a standard template will not work.

5. Caution is warranted in celebrating early results in post-conflict transitions, as the foundations of lasting stability may be far from built. Fast-tracking elections and supporting transitional regimes, without regard for the wider context of political participation in a society and the polarized relations between different groups, can fuel destructive competition instead of enhancing the legitimacy of government. Adequate time is needed to address the issues that drove groups into conflict in the first place, and to establish infrastructures for peace and reconciliation.

Development Responses to Conflict, Fragility and Underdevelopment
Given what we now know about the complex and mutually reinforcing dynamics of conflict, fragility, poverty, and underdevelopment, what can be done to support countries to move out of the fragility trap and onto a path to development? The international community has been seized by this important question in recent years.

•  Two recent World Bank World Development Reports have focused on this issue. The 2011 Report concluded that fragility is best addressed by substantial and sustained investment in strengthening legitimate institutions and governance which can provide security and justice, and is conducive to creating jobs and livelihoods. The 2013 Report focuses on the centrality of work to development. This follows an analysis of worrying trends showing that more than 200 million people, a disproportionate share of them youth, are unemployed and actively looking for work; 621 million young people are neither working nor studying; and 600 million more jobs are needed over the next fifteen years just to keep unemployment rates at their current level.

• The European Union has embraced the concept of resilience in its approach to tackling the conflict-fragility-poverty trap, calling for “orienting development models and actions towards strategies meant to build up the resilience of societies,” including the resilience of socioeconomic systems.

•  The New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, agreed at the Busan High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2011, represents further international consensus on how to help fragile states make the transition out of fragility to development. Established with strong support and leadership from the g7+ group of fragile states, the New Deal proposes five priority areas of goals to achieve its vision: promoting legitimate politics based on inclusive settlements and conflict resolution; security; justice; strong economic foundations - including employment and livelihoods; and improved revenue generation and services.

• The report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda recognizes the centrality of peace and good governance to the post-2015 development agenda.  This heralds a possible paradigm shift in the way in which the international community could approach development, and is a shift which UNDP has long advocated. 

Based on decades of research and development practice, UNDP, in partnership with developing countries, donors, and international organizations, is working to dismantle the fragility-poverty-conflict trap, through an approach which centres on building the resilience of fragile states, including through support to the peace-building and state-building goals of the “New Deal.”

i) What does a resilience-based approach entail?

UNDP sees a resilience-based approach as a transformative process of building and harnessing the capability of individuals, communities, institutions, and states so that they can direct their own destinies. Resilient societies are characterized by high levels of social solidarity, the existence of common and agreed social norms, inclusive decision-making, and robust and effective institutions.

A resilience-based approach focuses on tackling the multiple dimensions of fragility in a comprehensive way. Note the complex of factors which led to famine in Somalia in 2011. The international response was in essence a response to the drought; yet it was the presence of conflict and the absence of effective governance which turned the drought into famine in parts of the country. If Somalia is to avert famine in the future, then peace, social cohesion, and effective governance will have to be built. That is slow and painstaking work, as UNDP knows to its cost. Our compound in Mogadishu suffered a terrorist attack recently which left eight people there dead, others killed outside, and many others traumatized.

ii) So where to begin?

a) Invest in deep and comprehensive analysis. Development initiatives in fragile states need to be informed by more comprehensive analyses and understanding of the complex drivers of fragility, and of what builds resilience. The latter includes: the capacity of individuals, communities, and institutions to adapt; their capacity for learning and self-organization; their decision-making processes and dynamics; and their history of collective actions and solidarity. Where organized crime has replaced armed violence, we need a deeper understanding of what maintains criminal groups in communities. Why are they entrenched in these post-conflict societies? Do they in some way carry on the expression of larger fraternal or group grievances?

UNDP is investing in more targeted analytical tools to ensure that the support we give to fragile states is based on rigorous analysis. We are building the capacity of our Country Offices to apply a new Conflict-Related Development Analysis (CDA) tool. We are working on another targeted tool to assess and analyze institutions and the broader institutional environment in conflict-affected fragile states.

Together with the EU, the World Bank, and other UN agencies, we are revamping approaches to how post-conflict recovery and development needs are assessed and supported. This is building greater collaboration between key development actors on responses to the needs of post-conflict states.

b)  Commit to long-term and comprehensive engagement. Support for fragile states will not get lasting results if it is short-term or fragmented. It needs to address all aspects of development, and engage both state and civil society actors and formal and informal institutions. It must be informed by evidence of what works. A balanced response to building resilience will include strengthening institutions, opening up opportunities for economic recovery and work, and promoting social cohesion. Much of this is not new to UNDP, but building resilience as a top priority requires new thinking. Here I offer some examples of what that might involve:

1. Building Resilient Institutions, Encompassing:

• a focus on accelerated human capital development. Over the years UNDP has supported programmes to transfer knowledge and expertise to fragile states, especially from their diaspora communities. This is important, but it is a short-term measure. Development actors need to pay much more attention to investing in the vocational and tertiary institutions which will generate the skill sets countries need for the long term.

•  investment in social accountability systems. While it is important to support the strengthening of state institutions, such action needs to be complemented by a strong civil society and by state-society relations built on trust and accountability. A strong civil society understands how policies are made and implemented and how governance systems operate, and it can hold decision makers to account.

• staying the course. Resilient institutions – state and civil society - are not built overnight. As part of the International Network for Conflict and Fragility (INCAF), UNDP is advocating for long-term, co-ordinated investment by donors to support transitions out of conflict and fragility.

2. Building Resilient Livelihoods and Economies:

• A first response in the aftermath of conflict may be to set up short-term job creation programmes. This works as a stop-gap measure, but ideally opportunities need to be created for more sustainable livelihoods and skills acquisition. It is not useful to put people into short-term jobs, create the prospect of restored dignity, and then end them with no indication of where people should turn next. 

A good example of how to do better can be found in our work in South Darfur, where a UNDP-supported project, the Honey Value Chain, works with a local NGO. Together we promote peace and provide sustainable livelihoods for vulnerable groups, including women, youth, displaced people, and ex-combatants through environmentally sustainable businesses like beekeeping. As of late 2012, 40,000 people in 45 communities had been helped through this scheme.

Two years ago I visited Southern Kyrgyzstan where vulnerable youth had played a role in the communal violence of 2010 in which many people died. One of our responses there was to work with the local vocational college and employers to get youth into skills training which would lead to jobs.

• A major source of support for reviving economies in fragile states is official development assistance (ODA). The OECD has documented that, ODA represents the largest financial inflow to fragile states, followed by remittances and foreign direct investment. Paul Collier has observed that fragile states are capital-poor and often require a prolonged phase of “investing in investing.” A lack of that helps to keep investment away from fragile states--except in the extractive sectors, where those seeking to exploit a resource are prepared to take more risks. Yet that latter kind of investment can encourage a rent-seeking mentality, alongside the criminal profiteering in minerals which generally flourishes through years of conflict and exacerbates it. The movie “Blood Diamonds” was far from being a work of fiction.

• Aid to fragile states needs to be very strategic and catalytic in building the broader enabling environment for recovery. For a number of fragile states, however, aid is too small and not well targeted. The OECD observes that half of the aid directed to fragile states goes to only seven so-called “donor darlings”, and often fails to make a significant impact on fragility and poverty. Afghanistan alone receives more than twelve per cent of the net ODA going to fragile states.

• The role of remittances. These are recognized as one of the most stable and important inflows of funds to developing countries. Accurate data on remittances to fragile states are difficult to obtain, given the poor state of their financial institutions and data collection. The World Bank estimates that the total amount of remittances flowing to developing countries including fragile states was $500 billion in 2012. Flexible systems which facilitate the flow of good remittances are needed – alongside the application of tough measures against money-laundering out of fragile states. 

3.Building Societal Resilience

• State fragility reinforces societal fragility and vice versa. The complex issues, divisions, and social polarization which conflict imposes sap energy and cohesion across groups and between state and society. These cannot be resolved through one-time mediation. Even when we have succeeded in building institutions, triggering growth, and providing jobs, our job remains incomplete. Economic viability is important, but does not in and of itself lead to social wellbeing and political stability. It does not fully restore the dignity destroyed by conflict. We need to support building the foundations of cohesion, solidarity, and greater unity for states to enjoy sustained stability and peace.

• So how can this be done? UNDP engages in wide-ranging work to build societal resilience including on establishing what we call “infrastructure for peace.” This tends to take the form of formal and informal structures of local facilitators and mediators, backed by local governments and/or communities, which help address the residual issues from past violent conflict, adjudicate past abuses, foster reconciliation, and avert further outbreaks of violence.

For example:

• In Timor-Leste, between 2007 and 2009, the return home of refugees and internally-displaced persons (IDPs) precipitated numerous conflicts over land. Left unaddressed, these conflicts could have inspired new violence. With UNDP assistance, a network of community mediators was trained. Their work to resolve conflict facilitated the return and resettlement of 13,000 families by 2010. To reinforce those efforts, the Government, with UNDP support, has established a new Department for Peacebuilding, providing the country with its own mediation system.

• In Ghana, UNDP helped establish an independent National Peace Council, which played a vital role in the peaceful national elections of 2008, helped defuse immediate tensions in the aftermath of national elections in 2012, and mediated a ceasefire in the violent conflict in the municipal district of Bawku in 2010. The Council is mandated to mediate conflicts between and among communities at the local level. It can also mediate between political actors and institutions at the national level. The success of the Peace Council’s mediation has contributed to perceptions of Ghana as a stable country, which in turn contributes to its ongoing growth and development.

• In Kyrgyzstan, following communal violence in the south of the country and escalating tension after the April 2010 political regime change, UNDP helped establish and then provided support to confidence-building efforts of Oblast Advisory Committees (OACs) at the provincial level and at the Local Authority Advisory Committee level.

• After the overthrow of the former regime in 2011 in Tunisia, UNDP was invited to assist the designing of a national consultative process. Key Tunisian stakeholders, within and outside the interim government, received support in crafting a locally-specific and locally-led model for social dialogue to underpin the political transition. The aim is to have a nation-wide and inclusive dialogue which can foster consultation across different sectors.

4. Rebuilding Social and Civic Trust. Societal resilience is grounded in people’s confidence in the political system and public institutions, and in positive relationships in and across groups. It strengthens legitimacy, inspires hope, and increases citizens’ stakes in the larger society. How can this be done?

First, processes need to be devised for renewing the social contract. This can include the way in which a new constitution or citizen charter is drafted, or launching a dialogue to develop a new shared vision for the country.

For example:

In Tunisia, the National Constituent Assembly, elected in late 2011, is drafting a new constitution. The public dialogue to which I just referred is helping to shape the new constitutional arrangements. Public engagement is in itself an important aspect of the democratic and reconciliation processes there. Events in recent weeks and months suggest that Tunisia’s transition is still fragile, and that even greater efforts to embrace political inclusion must be made.

Second, the rule of law and accountability systems need to be firmly established.

In Timor-Leste, UNDP and the UN peacekeeping mission worked to strengthen the rule of law by helping to:

•establish an indigenous dispute resolution system;
•strengthen civilian oversight of the security sector;
•train and strengthen the police force;
•support the electoral system and make political processes more inclusive;
•develop the Constitution, and establish a sovereign wealth fund to ensure that revenues from gas extraction are safeguarded for public benefit.

It is worth noting that after years of intensive international engagement, human development in Timor-Leste is accelerating. Stability has increased, and the UN peacekeeping mission has been withdrawn.

Third, there is a need to enable citizen engagement. Credible elections are an important vehicle for that, although democracy does not begin and end with elections. People’s aspirations for a say on how their countries are governed are also delivered through broader processes of democratic reform. When elections are flawed, or “no more than a façade”, political violence and even civil wars can follow.

UNDP has contributed towards this goal in a number of countries. For example:

• In Sierra Leone, a national, multi-party body, the National Code of Conduct Monitoring Committee, was established with UNDP support prior to the crucial 2007 elections, with corresponding local committees. It worked under the auspices of the Political Parties Registration Committee, whose national and local conflict management capacities were also strengthened. This system was crucial to delivering Sierra Leone’s first ever peaceful political transitions in 2007 and the peace held in the 2012 elections.

• In Kenya, a constitutional referendum went ahead in 2010 without violence—a significant step forward from the devastating clashes that had followed the December 2007 elections. UNDP was heavily engaged in the major reform programme set up after the violence. In the run up to the next elections, we also supported training of police, peace councils, and government and civil society in how to use information and communications technology and crowdsourcing to identify potential hotspots and act, through improved security or mediation, to defuse conflicts.


Let me conclude by emphasizing some key points.

• The conflict-fragility-poverty trap is preventing a number of countries from achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and, in general, from getting traction on development. Unless countries can climb out of this trap, extreme poverty cannot be eradicated.

• While, overall, civil wars are in decline, devastating conflict continues – not least in Syria. There has been a relapse since 2012 into instability in Mali and the Central African Republic, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the international community has invested billions of dollars in peacekeeping and in attempts to restore state functionality.

• These relapses demonstrate how great the challenge of lifting countries out of the conflict-fragility-poverty trap can be. But we also see success stories – not least inTimor Leste where New Zealand has played a role over the past fourteen years.

• The post-2015 development agenda, currently under discussion, could promote a transformative shift in our approach to sustainable development which emphasises leaving no-one behind. Building resilience to crisis and shock needs to be at the centre of strategies to achieve that.

• In UNDP’s new strategic plan, building resilience is a key pillar. Our aim is to help dismantle the complex conflict-fragility-poverty trap, and enable previously troubled countries to offer a better future for their people. This work needs concerted international support. It will not be possible to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 or by any other date if a proportion of the world’s people continue to live in fear of war, conflict, and armed violence ripping their communities apart.

By Helen Clark
UNDP Administrator.

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