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What next in research on the economics of violent conflict?

Dr Patricia Justino

The ninth annual workshop of the Households in Conflict Network (HiCN) took place at the University of California’s Berkeley campus on 20–22 November 2013. HiCN was set up in 2005 in order to bring together researchers interested in analyzing the relationship between violent conflict and household welfare, a research field that has gained significance recently. What predictions can we make about future developments in the research agenda of this fast-moving field?

Until about a decade ago we had only limited evidence of the effects of violent conflict on civilian populations in terms of who was affected by violence, as well as why and how. Thanks to improved new data and the creative use of existing datasets, we now have a substantial body of evidence on the effects of violent conflict on a variety of social, economic and political outcomes—including education, child nutrition, household consumption, labor market participation, political preferences and social engagement—at the household and individual levels. This research now covers most conflict-affected countries.

While there is still a place for research on the individual and household consequences of violent conflict, research in recent years has subtly moved into a more in-depth understanding of the patterns and structures of different conflicts and their implications for local populations. Two areas have been particularly important.

The first is the better understanding of the long-term legacies of violent conflict. While initial studies focused on the short-term impacts of violent conflicts, over the past few years a number of studies started to analyze the long-term effects of conflict, particularly the long-term effects of childhood exposure to violence. Results show that children exposed to violence at young ages are less likely to grow to their full potential, less likely to accumulate human capital and more likely to command lower earnings. Some of these effects result from in-utero exposure to violence, and resulting high levels of fear and stress among pregnant women.

The second area of research is about understanding the relationship between violent conflicts, local institutions and micro-level outcomes. New work has focused on social organizational structures and norms of behaviour such as individual participation in local organizations, the relationship between armed groups and civilian populations, voting outcomes, political identities, altruism and trust and social cooperation. Results from this body of research are so far mixed but have opened the path for some of the most exciting research work today in development economics.

These areas of research are important because they provide glimpses into important mechanisms that shape the long-term legacies of violent conflicts on societies, markets and political systems.

So, what next? Research on the economics of violent conflict is still in its infancy with much to offer in terms of understanding how development processes occur—and how they can be promoted—in some of the most deprived and vulnerable populations in the world. However, most existing research has been driven by new empirical advances spurred by more and better data.

Theory is slowly making its way into this research, as seen in many of the papers presented at the recent HiCN workshop, but much can still be learned in terms of applied behavioural analysis, household economy theory, intra-household bargaining processes, industrial organization, information theory, labour supply and demand, price theory and other areas of theoretical microeconomics. Further theoretical work will allow us to better identify causal mechanisms shaping the effects of violent conflict on long-term development processes.

Another area that remains unexplored is the extent to which micro-level outcomes can explain processes of conflict at more aggregate levels of analysis. These micro–macro links have remained largely under-explored, but are the measure through which we will be able to assess whether this new body of research on violent conflict is able to provide the micro-level foundations needed to understand the causes, endurance and consequences of violence in the wider political and economic arenas.

Finally, research on the economics of conflict has mostly focused on civil wars. This is partly due to data availability, but is also a reflection of the prevalence of civil wars in modern conflicts. However, low-intensity forms of violence such as riots, ethnic violence and violent protests have been on the rise around the world. Examples include many of the countries where the events of the Arab Spring occurred, most of Latin America and Asia and several African countries that have recently emerged from long civil wars.

While these forms of violence may not have the same impact magnitude of civil wars, they can severely affect how people live and survive in politically unstable contexts. This is a very promising area for future research because violence that occurs outside of a war context is often an important element of the complex forms of social and political change that can be observed in many parts of the world today.


This blog post is published as part of a collaborative partnership between SIPRI and Economists for Peace and Security (EPS).


Dr Patricia Justino is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).