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The consequences of internal armed conflict for development (part 1)

Håvard Hegre, Håvard Mokleiv Nygård, Håvard Strand and Scott Gates

War is a development issue. War kills, and its consequences extend far beyond deaths in battle. Armed conflict often leads to forced migration, long-term refugee problems, and the destruction of infrastructure. Social, political, and economic institutions can be permanently damaged. The consequences of war, especially civil war, for development are profound. In this two-part post, we examine the development consequences of internal armed conflict. Part 1 focuses on how conflict affects development. Part 2 turns to the conflict trap and the post-2015 development agenda.

Development in reverse

The Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) has investigated the consequences of internal armed conflict on several of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs are a set of globally recognized development objectives, encompassing the conquest of poverty and hunger; universal education; gender equality; improved child and maternal health; combating HIV/AIDS; achieving environmental sustainability; and building a global partnership for development.

The MDGs represent the closest thing we have to a global consensus on developmental priorities. However, there has so far been no systematic and extensive examination of the effect of civil conflict on the attainment of these goals. The analysis presented here indicates that civil war does indeed have deleterious effects on the achievement of most of the MDGs.

Figure 1. Categories of conflict

We find that, for instance, that when measured in terms of infant mortality rates, the indirect effects of conflict are as important as the direct effects: conflict typically results in surplus infant mortality on a par with the direct deaths observed. This means that, in an average country of 10 million inhabitants, for every child casualty in conflict, another infant who would otherwise have lived will not survive. Most countries have experienced reduced infant mortality over recent decades, but conflict-affected countries have experienced a much slower improvement.

Conflict and the Millennium Development Goals

We studied the effect of conflict on progress towards seven Millennium Development Goals, represented by 10 observable indicators. Figure 1 categorizes developing countries according to their conflict status during the period 2003–2008: countries with armed conflicts causing at least 1000 battle deaths (‘conflict’); fragile countries without continuing conflict (‘fragile’); countries that did not have continuing conflicts and, although not fragile, had been in conflict in at least one of the preceding 10 years (‘post-conflict/fragile’); Russia, India and China as a separate category; and countries that had neither had conflicts nor been fragile during this period (‘other countries’).

Figure 2. Proportion of Millennium Development Goals not achieved

Compare this with figure 2, which shows the share of MDGs each country is predicted not to achieve by 2015; the darker the shade, the fewer the MDGs on track. We excluded industrialized countries since they largely achieved the MDGs a long time ago.

The maps in figures 1 and 2 clearly show an overlap between not being on track to achieve the MDGs, and armed conflict. Compare, for in-stance, Yemen and Oman, or Namibia and Botswana. Yemen and Namibia have experienced conflict and are not on track to achieve the MDGs. Oman and Botswana, by contrast, have not experienced conflict and are achieving a higher proportion of the MDGs.

How conflict affects development

This raises the question of whether the gap be-tween conflict countries and other countries is a result of conflict, and not a result of other factors associated with both conflict and poor development. Several studies indicate a causal effect of conflict In their 2003 paper, ‘Civil wars kill and maim people—long after the shooting stops’, Ghobarah, Huth and Russett argue that civil wars have long-term effects on civilian suffering. Analysing the World Health Organization’s measure of disability adjusted life years (DALYs), they stipulate that 8.01 million DALYs were lost in the year 1999 from civil wars that occurred during the period 1991–97.

The additional burden of death and disability caused by the lingering effects of civil war is nearly double the immediate and direct effects. The primary reason is that internal armed conflicts increase exposure to disease, adversely affect access to the supply of medical care, and destroys health infrastructure.

Studying the consequences of conflict

In order to understand the development gap caused by armed conflict, we need to assess the counter-factual—what would the situation have been if civil war had not occurred. In an experimental sense, this implies comparing a treated case with conflict to an identical control case without conflict. In a quasi-experimental setting, we can compare similar countries either by matching or by simulating the effects of conflict for a given country.

Figure 3: GDP growth in Burundi and Burkina Faso

Figure 3 compares two relatively similar countries—Burundi and Burkina Faso—over time. The upper half of the figure shows that the two countries followed a similar growth trajectory up to 1990, while the lower half of the figure shows their conflict histories represented by bars with heights proportional to the number of battle-related deaths. Both countries had short, minor conflicts during this period, with no visible effect on the economy. In the 1990s, however, their paths diverged. The civil war in Burundi swiftly destroyed three decades of growth, while Burkina Faso took part in the strong global growth of the post-cold war area. By 2008, Burkina Faso’s average income was more than twice Burundi’s.


In the second part of this post, to be published on 6 April, we turn to the conflict trap and the post-2015 development agenda.


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