Conflict Prevention: a Policy Dilemma

4th March 2010 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

The intensification of globalisation following the end of the Cold War has brought with it strong pressure to remake the economies and politics of many developing societies by creating more open markets. The current liberal consensus that prevails among mainly the major Western powers is now also deeply entrenched in their donor agencies and in the UN system, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They are widely and vigorously promoting market-oriented economic reform, democratisation, human rights, rule of law, civil society, and good governance in Africa.

Although much of this activity is beneficial, it presents a largely ignored policy dilemma for conflict prevention policy. For a long time, most officials and professionals within these organizations tended to assume that any and all of these liberal values advance peace and prevent conflict. However, the liberal approach presents a dilemma for conflict prevention policy makers of the major powers and within multilateral organisations. While this doctrine is still dominant, thinking on the subject is evolving. Some believe that poverty alleviation needs to be resurrected as a prime concern, with concern for sustainable development now legitimating the incorporation of environmental consideration into policy and planning.

Conflicts in Africa have taken a terrible toll on the people of the continent. They also threaten the international community. Conflicts have become a breeding ground for international criminal activity, terrorist infiltration, and the spread of disease. African leaders realise this and they are undertaking impressive initiatives to bring these conflicts under control. Yet, they still lack not only the resources and the physical and human infrastructure but also the institutional capacity and policies. This indicates that without international cooperation at every level - diplomatic, peacekeeping, post-conflict reconstruction and development - African initiatives will fail and so too will many of the international community`s hopes and objectives for the continent.

Until recently, development actors have had very little direct engagement in conflict and security issues. However, the increased salience of intrastate conflict and the concomitant focus on civilians in post-conflicts countries have served to bring the formerly separate worlds of development, peace and security, together. It has become the conventional wisdom that violent conflict is likely to continue unabated in the world`s poorest countries including in Africa without a renewed and persistent commitment to the elimination of poverty and the promotion of sustainable development. This includes addressing the underlying sources of conflict. As a result, it is also now accepted that development actors have a crucial role to play in conflict prevention.

For the World Bank, the problem became increasingly clear in the early 1990s: civil wars, in Africa in particular, began to pose a significant challenge to its traditional approach to development. With military expenditure crowding out social and productive expenditure and the emergence of failed or collapsing states from Somalia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Bank soon realized that it could no longer continue to conduct business as usual. In 1992, the Bank for the first time supported the demobilization and reintegration of former combatants in Uganda. This new cognizance of the negative implications of war for development led the World Bank to create a Post-Conflict Unit (PCU) in 1997 to deal explicitly with post-conflict issues as well as countries, and to launch a related research programme in the Development Economics Research Group (DECRG) in February 1999 with the aim of advancing understanding of the causes and consequences of large-scale political violence and designing strategies to manage post-conflicts transitions.

Nevertheless, one should keep in mind that a characteristic of African economies is their atypical high dependence on the external environment. Most African countries have preserved a major legacy of colonialism, that is, concentration of export earnings on one or a few primary commodities that are highly vulnerable to exogenous terms of trade and demand conditions. There are a number of factors outside the control of policymakers. These include trade-related factors (terms of trade and volatility of markets for Africa`s exports); climatic conditions like drought and the prevalence of civil strife and wars on the continent.

In conclusion, if policy is to make sense, it is important to have as precise a knowledge as possible of the objective conditions, both internal and external, that determine the context. Moreover, even if the external factors were to blame, it will primarily be the responsibility of Africans to devise policies to reduce the vulnerability of their economies to such exogenous factors. If the factors are internal, it is again the Africans who will have to devise and implement the necessary policy changes.

Africa must, and can, compete in an increasingly globalised world. Acquiring such a competitive capacity is not facilitated by the State alone. An open, transparent, and democratic process of consultation and debate over policy, facilitated by local technical competence, is central to such decisions.

Written by: Debay Tadesse, Senior Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Addis Ababa