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Entrenched Poverty A Main Cause Of Civil Wars - 2003-05-14

A new World Bank report says, “Contrary to popular opinion, ethnic tensions and ancient political feuds are rarely the primary cause of civil wars.” The report says instead, “entrenched poverty and heavy dependence on natural resource exports are usually to blame.”

The World Bank study “analyzed 52 major civil wars that occurred between 1960 and 1999.” It says the typical war lasts seven years, leaving behind “a legacy of persistent poverty and disease.”

The report is called “Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy.” It finds countries in civil war “often get locked into persistently high levels of military expenditure, capital flight, infectious disease, low growth and entrenched poverty.”

However, lead author Paul Collier disagrees with popular opinion that ancient feuds and ethnic tensions are the main causes of civil wars.

"Truth is," he says, "if we go back a thousand years, we can find warfare pretty well everywhere - and that the world used to be a rather violent place. So, it’s always possible to delve back in history pretty well on any part of the globe and say, oh, there used to be conflict. And so you try to explain present conflict in terms of the past, you can always find something nasty in the past."

Mr. Collier says you don’t have to look very far to discover what triggers civil war.

He says, "Now, it’s true that history matters, but it’s recent history. It’s as if you’ve fallen into a conflict in the last few years, then you’re much more likely to get into a vicious circle of going back into conflict. That’s why we call the whole report the conflict trap."

He says the main economic drivers for civil war are poverty, economic decline and dependence on natural resources.

The negative effects of civil wars, according to the report, “extend to neighboring countries and even to distant, high income countries.” In fact it says, “Three major social evils are in large part the by-product of civil wars: hard drugs, HIV and international terrorism.”

He says, "The best example I could give you is hard drugs. Ninety-five percent of the world’s hard drugs production is in civil war countries. And that’s because civil war countries means there’s territory outside the control of a recognized government. It’s easy for criminals to get in there and take the opportunities to produce drugs. The same is true for the spread of disease. The same is true for safe havens for international terrorism."

The World Bank official says, “Very often the costs of civil war persist even when the war is over.” For example, while the average civil war lasts seven years, the consequences may last twenty.

He says, "For example, we know that infant mortality during a civil war. But it stays way up even when the war ends because the disease patterns have developed and they persist."

The “Breaking the Conflict Trap” report offers a three-part agenda for trying to prevent civil war. The first is more and better aid.

He says, "Partly, we can try and re-target our aid efforts, our trade efforts to bring these countries into the global growth process. And that can make a big different because we’re talking about only a minority of countries. There are about six billion people in the world; only about one billion people are living in countries that are seriously in the conflict trap."

The second recommendation is better international governance of natural resources, such as diamonds, oil and timber.

He says, "For example, diamonds, we know, help to finance rebel groups. They financed UNITA in Angola. They financed the RUF in Sierra Leone. The world has been able to do something about diamonds. The new process called the Kimberly Process tries to track diamonds so they rebel groups can’t sell them. Or in practice have to sell them at a deep discount."

He says similar measures are underway for timber. As for oil, the report recommends greater transparency of petroleum revenues and how they’re spent.

Finally, the World Bank report proposes coordinating reductions in military spending – and for international financial institutions to monitor compliance.

He says, "In post conflict situations, we can show that big domestic military spending actually increases the risk of renewed conflict. So governments in post conflict situations can’t buy their way into safety by spending a lot on the military. That’s actually part of the problem not part of the solution."

The World Bank says currently about one in ten countries are in civil war at any given time. It says if these recommendations were implemented, that figure would fall to one in twenty.