Development and Conflict

by | Mar 5, 2013

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Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

One does not need to look for long for examples of conflict impacting on development.  Take the case of Mali: a year ago, conflict in the north of the country and a military coup detailed two decades of constitutional government and development progress.  Elections were scheduled to be held in Mali a month after that coup took place – and the President, adhering to the Constitution, had clearly stated that he would not be a candidate. 


Mali’s experience is not atypical or unique – it is an example of the types of conflicts the world is increasingly witnessing.  The conflict there is not a war between states, but rather, within a state.  It has regional dimensions – in this case the upheaval in Libya had spillover effect for the north of Mali, and Mali’s regional neighbours have been very engaged in the debate about what to do. The battle lines of the conflict were not clearly drawn, either territorially or in terms of issues, suggesting more complex dynamics at play.

Mali’s road back from this combination of violent conflict and constitutional crisis is not an easy one.  It will require international support for some time, including for resuming development progress.

So what form might such support take in countries like Mali which are working their way back from conflict and instability?

Undoubtedly roots of discontent often do lie in poverty; but political and social exclusion and inequality can also be powerful motivators of upheaval leading to conflict as has been seen in a number of countries in recent times.

At UNDP, therefore, we do not see reductions in poverty per se as necessarily reducing the chances of violent conflict. Instead, we think conflict and poverty might be better perceived as symptoms of a cluster of problems – including weak governance and institutions and significant levels of inequality related to a combination of economic, political, and social exclusion.

UNDP’s work has long been guided by a belief that transforming poor governance systems to ensure that institutions are effective, inclusive, accountable, and responsive is essential for restoring the trust and confidence needed for peace. More broadly, UNDP’s recent thinking and work is also guided by the following two assumptions:

First, that greater emphasis must be placed on building resilience to shocks and vulnerability – whether economic, political, or environmental, including through more effective and inclusive governance systems.

The risk of conflict or violence can be addressed just as that posed by natural disasters can be.  One can strengthen river banks and build levees to protect against a flood.  Equally, one can strengthen institutions, equip communities with the skills to prevent conflict and the technology needed to monitor and predict where violence may occur in the hope of minimizing its impact, and develop tools which support the mediation and resolution of conflict where it arises.

Second, the complex causes of violence cannot be addressed with separate, piecemeal interventions. Prevention, as well as early recovery, requires collaborative effort by a range of actors.

The range of potential causes of conflict and armed violence needs to be tackled in integrated ways, and the work of humanitarian, peacekeeping, and development actors should be mutually reinforcing.  Comprehensive approaches can include violence prevention and crime control measures to further human security and protect human rights; targeting social cohesion, along with efforts to combat drug trafficking, the proliferation of illegal firearms, and human trafficking; and addressing the particular needs of youth, women, and migrants.

While inter-state wars have declined in number, many states and communities around the world are destabilized by violent conflict and crime, and/or by inter-community tensions – including recurring conflicts over land, natural resources, and identity.

UNDP sees the prospect of peace and sustainable development deriving from the same set of variables: the ability of all people to have voice and be able to participate in decisions affecting their lives; the level of effectiveness and inclusiveness of institutions; and the ability to manage emerging risks and crises.

There are no shortcuts to building enduring peace. It requires investment in good governance, improving the conditions in which people live, reducing inequality, and addressing political, social, and economic exclusion.

Helen Clark is the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and former Prime Minister of New Zealand.  This post draws upon a presentation delivered in Oxford on 11 February 2013.


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