Armed forces are generally not effective in combating terrorism; regional cooperation initiatives work better. The challenge is to form regional partnership forums, with support of donors and national policymakers, and given the flexibility to work with local communities. Such regional platforms should find the right combination and mix of different approaches towards engaging local communities in countering conflict
Conflict has increased globally during the last decade. It has affected nearly 2 billion people and resulted in a loss of more than 10% of the global economic activity. While the world has made rapid progress in reducing poverty, regions affected by conflict have been left behind.
Conflict is not just one-off events, but cycles of repeated violence. It comes in multiple forms. International ideological movements can merge with local grievances, and different forms of violence can get linked to each other. Local grievances can escalate into acute demands for change, when economic change falls behind the expectations of local community.
No country can afford to ignore areas where repeated cycles of conflict flourish. Unemployment, corruption and social exclusion increase the risks of violence. Governance that gives everyone a stake in national prosperity is the immune system that protects everybody from repeated cycles of conflict.
What is conflict?
Conflict could be external or internal to the country. Internal conflicts can be further classified into two different categories (see Ejaz Ghani and Lakshmi Iyer, Conflict and Development: Lessons from South Asia, World Bank; https://goo.gl/N1zrzj). The first category of internal conflict is a conflict against the state. Examples of this are separatist movements, and suicide bombings. Suicide bombings are an extreme manifestation of conflict, carried out by a relatively organised group of non-state actors, and their goal is the destabilisation of the state. These incidents are referred to as terrorism. The second category of internal conflict is people-to-people conflict between different ethnic, religious and social groups. This could include religious riots, homicides, domestic violence, common violence, and other crimes. Ethnic and religious violence stand out in people-to-people conflict.
Internal conflict has replaced external conflict. While people-to-people internal conflict has declined, internal conflict against the state has increased. The adverse economic and social impact of internal conflict against the state is much greater compared to people-to-people conflict.
Conflict and poverty
Internal conflicts are related to economic dynamics. Youth unemployment is consistently cited in citizen perception surveys as a motive for joining both rebel movements and urban gangs. Feeling more secure and powerful is also cited as an important motivator. Political exclusion and inequality affecting different ethnic groups have also been associated with higher risks of civil war.
Global evidence supports a strong inverse relationship between conflict and per-capita income level. Why would conflict coexist with poverty? It is easier for terrorists and rebels to recruit people to their cause in poorer areas because their opportunity cost is low. This opportunity cost could be low for ethnically-based or separatist conflict, because recruitment can be made on the basis of ethnicity or regional affiliation. Poorer regions also have poorer state capacity, and hence the government is not able to deal with the rebels effectively. Geographic conditions, such as the presence of forest cover, can also be associated with the incidence of conflict. States in India that have a higher forest cover have experienced higher conflict intensity. This is consistent with numerous accounts of Naxalites using forest cover to hide effectively from law enforcement forces. Conflict can also increase due to adverse economic shocks, such as famines and rural distress.
In addition, there is a strong spatial dimension to conflict. It is concentrated in areas that have higher poverty rates, weak institutions and are poorly integrated. The lagging regions have experienced more than three times the number of terrorist incidents per capita, compared with the leading regions, and almost twice as many deaths per capita in such incidents. The combination of poverty and conflict can slow down the pace of poverty reduction and achievement of multilateral development goals.
What can be done?
Reducing conflict through collaboration has been at the heart of development efforts from the ancient times, with the formation of village communities to improve collaboration. In modern times, policymakers have tried various approaches to reduce conflict. The most common approach is to use police forces to establish law and order in the affected areas. In areas where police forces are insufficient, the armed forces are called in to deal with the insurgency. In most cases, this has not been a successful strategy. Even when successful in defeating the insurgents, the human costs associated with military operations are very high.
A different approach to dealing with conflict is to conduct negotiations and sign peace agreements with the insurgents. To be effective, this approach needs two requirements: the government must conduct coordinated negotiations, and the insurgent group must be genuinely interested in joining the political mainstream. This approach has been tried in India. For instance, the Indian government has signed peace deals with several separatist groups in the north-eastern states. Similarly, negotiations with some Tamil groups in Sri Lanka have resulted in their integration into mainstream politics. Complementary to the security-based solution is an economic solution, whereby the government expands social and welfare programmes, and reduces poverty in the conflict-affected areas to undercut the support for the insurgency.
Policy choices are critical for reducing repeated conflicts. Economic policies should be geared not just to maximise growth, which could take time, but on proactively engaging the local communities, and addressing the distributional or political factors that led to the conflict. Policy choices must be structured to reduce both real and perceived inequities, and focus should be on short-term economic and social goals first, and addressing medium and longer-term efficiency considerations later. This approach calls for humanitarian and community-based treatment for conflict-affected people, closure of refugee camps, and reintegration of refugees within the society.
Increased cross-border regional cooperation between countries should also be an integral part of any strategy to reduce conflict. Many internal conflicts in South Asia have cross-border dimensions. The Taliban in Afghanistan has significant support in Pakistan’s border areas. The Maoists in Nepal formed close links with the Maoist movements in India. Many separatist groups in India’s north-eastern states had training camps and cells in neighbouring countries. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other Tamil separatist groups in Sri Lanka have traditionally enjoyed support from the Tamil diaspora. In such a context, a regional cross-border cooperation is an essential part of any counterinsurgency strategy. Regional cross-border platform remains an underutilised strategy in combating terrorism.
A key lesson on reducing conflict is that armed forces are generally not effective in combating terrorism. Regional cooperation initiatives are much more effective in countering terrorism. The challenge is to form Regional Partnership Forums, with support of donors and national policymakers, and given the flexibility to work with the local communities. Such regional platforms should find the right combination and mix of different approaches towards engaging local communities in countering conflict, as well as implementing economic policies adapted for post-conflict development, and reducing poverty.
The author is lead economist at the World Bank