Thursday, November 26, 2015

Violence and fragility, by Håvard Mokleiv Nygård

Violence and fragility are so closely interlinked that they are essentially two sides of the same coin. Fragile countries see more violence, and violent countries are the most fragile. In any year over the last decade, 25-30 countries in the world have experienced internal armed conflict. These conflicts disproportionally occur in a group of about 50 countries, or in “the bottom billion” population of the world. These 50 countries would appear at the top of any ranking of the world’s most fragile countries.

Fragile and conflict prone countries are the ones struggling the most to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals. The link can be seen clearly in the map below. It shows the proportion of the MDGs the country is not able to fulfill. The countries that are most off-track in meeting the MDGs are the countries that have experienced the most conflict. If we are to achieve development, understanding violence is therefore critical. Indeed, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, conflict remains the biggest threat to human development.


There are good reasons to be optimistic about the future of violence in the world, but we cannot escape the fact that 2014 was a year of war. More people were killed in warfare than in any other year in the past two decades. Not since 1999 have there been this many on-going armed conflicts. In stark contrast to this dark scenario, since the early 1990s, the number of conflicts has fallen sharply. In 1991, one fifth of all countries worldwide had at least one ongoing internal conflict – and several countries had more than one. The proportion of countries with ongoing conflicts fell consistently throughout 1990s and into the early 2000s. From 1991 to 2002, the number of armed conflicts dropped by 40%.

In its annual summary of conflicts worldwide, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) reports that there were six more conflicts in 2014 than in the previous year. 2014 saw 40 active armed conflicts; the highest total since 1999. The number of conflicts qualifying as a war (a conflict incurring at least 1,000 battle-related deaths) increased by five. For the first time since 1989, 2014 recoded over 100,000 battle-related deaths -- and this is a conservative estimate. 

‘Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’
Violence can be both a defining feature of present fragility and a cause for future fragility. To better measure this dynamic process, more and more people are calling for a disaggregated approach. To better understand how people adapt to fragility, more attention, it is argued, needs to be paid to areas of “limited statehood”, or to regions or groups that are essentially self-governing. In general, I strongly support the move to a more disaggregated study of violence, but to understand the root causes of violence and fragility, we need to start at the capital. 

The most basic role of any state is to provide safety, security, and stability. Any state incapable of doing this will also be powerless to provide the services citizens have increasingly come to expect from their governments. Socio-economic development, along any of the dimensions highlighted as important by the MDGs or the new SDGs, is contingent on having states that can control violence.
Countries where non-state groups provide quasi-governmental services, like Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, exemplify an interesting adaptation to fragility. But, we need to acknowledge that this adaptation is itself caused by the fragility of the state. When measuring fragility, any such adaptation should therefore count for a higher fragility score. In contrast, what policy response is required from the international community, including the OECD, to such adaptation is far from clear. 

In many cases, supporting such groups (ones less morally corrupt than Hezbollah) could make it possible to achieve limited short-term development. In the long term, though, such groups will either take control of the government, or continue to contribute to the fragility of the country. To escape fragility some group eventually needs to monopolize violence and the provision of services

Dictatorial peace: fragile or not?
The types of states that routinely see their “statehood” violently challenged, are the ones most easily identified with fragility. Other highly violent countries are harder to label. How states organize and control violence, and especially how they organize and control the wielders of violence in society, is crucial for understanding fragility. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are profoundly violent. They make use of government sponsored groups to control the population. Similarly, countries such as North Korea respond to any slight divergence from what is seen as acceptable behavior with massive human rights violations. But are these countries fragile? They see hardly any organized armed conflict, they are not marked by rampant crime, and in general they appear stable. We are used to thinking about a democratic peace being possible, but countries such as these have rather achieved a dictatorial peace. 

A proper measurement of state fragility needs to take this into account and disentangle the types and aspects of violence that are fundamental to fragility from those that are not. Clearly, organized armed conflict and rampant levels of homicides indicate fragility. It is less clear what role human rights abuses, or violence directed at individuals’ integrity rights, should play in a model of fragility. The uneasy truth might be that this type of violence should, in specific contexts, be disregarded.

The views expressed in our blogs remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the OECD or its members

Håvard Mokleiv Nygård is a Senior Researcher with the Conflict Trends project at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).