The independent resource on global security

The consequences of internal armed conflict for development (part 2)

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

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.

Internal conflicts are particularly devastating since they affect both the supply of and demand for social services and health infrastructure. Violence increases the demand for many types of services. At the same time, countries in conflict are less able to provide these, for at least two reasons. First, during conflict, regimes divert resources from health and social services to military expenditure. Second, fighting itself destroys critical infrastructure such as hospitals and health centres, and the transportation network that brings people to these locations.


Table 1: The consequences of conflict

MDG* ndicator Effect
1 Undernourishment Detrimental
1 Poverty headcount Detrimental
1 Life expectancy Detrimental
1 GDP per capita Detrimental
2 Primary school enrolment Detrimental
2 Secondary school attainment Unclear
4 Infant mortality Detrimental
5 Birth attended by skilled personnel Unclear
7 Access to potable water Detrimental
7 Access to improved sanitation facilities Unclear

GDP = gross domestic product; MDG = Millennium Development Goal

* MDGs 3 and 6 are excluded for lack of reliable comparative data; MDG 8 is excluded for lack of relevance.

The consequences of conflict

We estimated statistically the effect of armed conflict on the indicators listed in table 1. We found that conflict had a detrimental effect on most of the MDG indicators. To show how great these effects were, we calculated the effect of a conflict of median severity (2500 battle deaths over a five-year period) on each indicator. We found, for instance, that a median-severity conflict increased the proportion of the population that is undernourished by about 3.3 per cent. This corresponds to about 330 000 persons in a country with about 10 million inhabitants. Data sparseness precludes a thorough analysis of the effect of conflict on poverty. Instead, we analysed the consequences of conflict on economic growth.

Figure 4: Conflict and growth

A median-size conflict decreased gross domestic product (GDP) per capita by 15%. Figure 4 shows simulated GDP per capita levels for the 1970–2000 period for a country that started out at $1100 per capita (about the level of Algeria in 1970). The dotted line shows the average growth trajectory for a non-conflict developing country. The dashed line shows the same for an identical country experiencing conflict—specifically, a country that had an outbreak of war in 1974 that lasted until 1986.

Immediately following the outbreak of the conflict, shown by the first red line, the two trends diverge. GDP falls sharply in the conflict country, but continues to grow in the otherwise identical country at peace. This effect notably persists long after the conflict ended (marked by the second red line).

Towards the end of the conflict and in the initial post-conflict years, we see evidence of recovery. There is considerable uncertainty surrounding the enduring effect of this recovery. The aggregate recovery growth is on average not sufficient to close the gap caused by the conflict; the median conflict country is almost 10 per cent below the trajectory it would have followed without the conflict. The uncertainty illustrated in Figure 2 includes both growth miracles and persistent disasters.

Among the other MDG indicators, we find that a conflict with 2500 battle-related deaths is serious enough to deduct almost one year of the overall population’s life expectancy. This effect is closely related to that of conflict on infant mortality: 2500 battle deaths correlate to a 10 per cent increase in infant mortality, a huge worsening in statistical terms. The current average mortality rate in developing countries is about 50 per 1000 live births. In a median-sized country of about 10 million people and 200 000 births, this corresponds to 10 000 infant deaths per year. A 10 per cent increase, then, means an excess mortality of 1000 infants per year. Over the five-year period, a conflict with 2500 battle-related deaths seems to be associated with twice as many infant deaths.

We found that conflict adversely affects education rates, but this finding is somewhat unclear, though it obtains for both primary school enrolment and secondary school attainment rates. Conflicts in a country’s neighbourhood in contrast clearly appear to hurt secondary education. A country with a neighbour that had five years of minor conflict in the preceding period experiences an average reduction in educational attainment of 1.3 per cent as compared with one without such neighbouring conflict. This roughly corresponds to an individual’s losing 3–4 years of education relative to an individual located in a similar peaceful neighbourhood.

The analysis indicates no clear relation between conflict and access to sanitation, but there is a significant detrimental effect of conflict on access to potable water. The median conflict cuts off access to potable water for about 1.8 per cent of the population.


Children and conflict

Infants and young children are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of conflict. Poverty, child mortality, and access to potable water and denial of education all directly deprive children of essential ingredients for human development. Water stands out as a critical factor. A lack of access to clean water affects all other development goals. Waterborne disease, especially diarrhoea, is a killer. A prolonged lack of access to adequate water supplies can cause brain damage, thereby affecting the development of cognitive abilities with lifelong consequences.

The conflict trap

The consequences of conflict are not confined to the duration of the conflict and its immediate aftermath. Indeed, low levels of socio-economic development are important causes of conflict, inhibiting the building of stable and strong political institutions capable of mediating and quelling conflict efficiently. Low levels of development, and especially a lack of employment opportunities, also make an individual’s decision to join a rebellion relatively less costly.

While the direct consequences of conflict are detrimental, the indirect consequences can be even worse. Conflict is ‘development in reverse’. The consequences we have documented are liable to catch countries in what Paul Collier labelled the ‘conflict trap’. This represents a vicious circle in which low levels of development lead to conflict, and conflict leads to even lower levels of development. The actual total cost of conflict is therefore likely to be much higher than the conservative estimates we present here. Moreover, we have so far discussed the effects of only a median intensity conflict. Recent conflicts, such as those in Iraq and Syria, have much higher intensity levels. We find that more intensive fighting leads to much longer recovery times.

It should also be noted that many consequences of armed conflict have never been measured, and that some are not even measurable. Among those unincorporated in our analysis are the increased number of young males with war experience; the accumulation of light weapons subsequently used in violent crime; the long-term impact of traumatic experiences; the erosion of trust; and the emergence of ethnic prejudice.

Another effect not easily measured is the environmental impact of war. Few indicators allow a systematic comparison of this burden. We have shown the detrimental effect of conflict on the accessibility of water and adequate sanitation facilities, which are indicators with a considerable environmental component. Some consequences of conflict are highly context-specific. In Cambodia and Liberia, conflict set the stage for large-scale illegal logging; in other places, other aspects of environmental regulation have broken down; and elsewhere, unexploded ordnance is a major problem even long after armed conflict.

Conflict and the post-2015 development agenda

The global community is now in the home stretch of the MDGs. Armed conflict has been an important obstacle for many of those countries that will fail to meet their goals. At the same time, the MDG agenda has been a tremendous success. It has focused the world’s attention on a set of particular measureable indicators of development in an unprecedented manner.

As the global community is gearing up to decide on the next steps, we strongly urge the UN General Assembly to include reduction of conflict as an explicit goal in the post-2015 development agenda. The post-2015 agenda should set clear goals pertaining to the reduction of conflict. For this to be effective the global community must commit both to addressing, the fundamental causes of conflict, and to ‘treating’ the consequences of continuing and recent conflicts.


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