Middle East and North Africa: Does Development Reduce the Risk of Conflict?

February 1, 2012

Interview with Colin Scott, Lead Social Development Specialist and Caroline Bahnson, Social Development Consultant

How does this study relate to the core mission of the World Bank in the Middle East and North Africa, and how is it relevant to current developments in the region?

Colin ScottColin S. Scott, Lead Social Development Specialist: In MENA, like in any other region, peace and development are inextricably linked. There’s no development without peace, and there’s no peace without development. We’re not arguing that development assistance is the difference between war and peace in the region – many of the causes of conflict are beyond the reach of development assistance – but we do believe development assistance has a contribution to make toward mitigating conflict risk. With the report we wanted to identify what that contribution was, and then see how it could be best achieved.

What has the study identified as some of the root causes of conflict in MENA?

CS: That really is for our client governments and populations to decide for themselves. Many of these lie in international politics which are beyond the reach of development assistance. What our study looked at was less the root historical and international causes and more the developmental drivers of conflict. And among those, there are many which are amenable to development assistance. We looked at the decade prior to the current events, so we cannot claim that we were actually researching the ‘Arab Awakening,’ but we do believe that there are overlaps in our findings and what’s going on in the region at the moment. What became clear was that governance as a development concern was clearly at the root of some of the historical conflicts in the region, and, clearly, governance issues underlay the ‘Arab Awakening.’ We didn’t try to prescribe specific governance measures for particular countries, but we feel that if countries themselves identify governance as an issue, then there are findings in our study that will be useful to them.

Caroline BahnsonCaroline Bahnson, Social Development Consultant: We also found that political transitions, even if peaceful in themselves, actually carried an increase risk of conflict in the subsequent years. So the report is also a reminder for relevant countries that the period immediately after a transition is a fragile one.

What is a ‘conflict trap,’ and how does this manifest itself in the region?

CS: A ‘conflict trap’ is a research term describing a vicious cycle. Once countries fall into conflict, they often maintain the risk for further conflict for a good period of time after its resolution. Much of the research that has been done, for example, in Africa, has shown this ‘conflict trap’ to be an economic one, or to have large economic factors. What we found, when we looked at the vicious cycles of conflict in MENA, is that they had an element of security risk. Although conflict has many of the usual kinds of impacts on the Millennium Development Goals, and has clear impacts on development, in some ways, its biggest impact is to renew and increase the risk of further conflict.

CB: The use of the term ‘trap’ is to say that conflict produces its own ‘chicken and egg.’ You have impacts of conflict that then become drivers of further conflict. So, to use an economic example, the deterioration of economic possibilities can lead to frustration which leads to further conflict. What we see in MENA is that we often have very weak governance indicators. So, as people get frustrated, tensions rise. Some of these regimes are repressive in nature, and they respond by becoming even more repressive, upsetting people further producing an increase in political violence, which sows the seeds for future conflict.

Have conflict prevention and mitigation always been explicit goals of the World Bank?

CS: I would argue that they have not. Certainly post-conflict reconstruction was part of its original role, but the Bank has been reluctant to put itself up as an agent of conflict prevention, especially when there are other institutions in the international system like the UN, who have a much more explicit role in it. What we’re trying to emphasize through this report, is the contribution that development can make to mitigation. We’re not saying it’s the sole responsibility of the Bank, or development assistance.

The Bank’s primary relationship in a country is with the national government. Does this affect its ability to address issues related to conflict?

CS: Clearly, we’re not allowed to interfere with the sovereignty of a nation state and we’re not allowed to make decisions based on political judgments. We look at social and economic development, and that has to be our guiding light. But I do think if we’re to work further in this area of the relationship between conflict mitigation and development, it’s about national governments themselves recognizing that development assistance has a role to play in reducing conflict risk. If, for example, you look at some of the community development projects that we’ve done in conflict affected countries, even within the MENA region, you see substantially better outcomes. But we also see the involvement of local people in a way that’s bound to mitigate the risk of them feeling alienated and resorting to violence. It’s more about showing by example than dictating by principle.

CB: The apolitical mandate of the World Bank makes it difficult to comment on governing as such. However, beyond a strict focus on the conflict agenda, we have over time shown the links between governance and development. As a result the Bank has become more engaged in dialogue about some of these issues and certainly engaged in dialogue with a broader range of stakeholders across civil society.

Are new development strategies needed to support the long term process of converting fragility into stability?

CS: Often what we’ve seen in countries that are affected by conflict is development strategies that look like business-as-usual. This is something that the 2011 World Development Report (WDR) really highlighted. When we looked at our strategies in four conflict-affected countries in MENA, there were times when we couldn’t really see how they’d actually been adapted to the very fragile context, where conflict did indeed recur. So I think it’s more about adaptation and sensitivity to conflict than new development strategies.

CB: The WDR placed great emphasis on security, justice and jobs. We find something very similar looking at the role of youth employment, for example, as a driver of conflict. That is something that needs to be addressed, irrespective of whether it’s good for economic growth. We need to pay attention to the demand for justice and dignity, for example. We could perhaps benefit from looking at the issue of justice in more detail, and how it intersects with governance and, ultimately, economic growth. We would still be within the Bank’s mandate but focused on a critical area, and how it relates to conflict.

Does MENA have the necessary regional institutions to cope with the international dimension of many conflicts?

CS: We don’t argue for new institutions in the region to address conflict risk, but we think some of the existing institutions probably need to be encouraged by member states to look at this more systematically. Some of our own partners have actually approached us, and have shown a much greater interest both in the impacts of conflict on development and the potential for development to reduce conflict risk. To give a couple of examples, the Islamic Development Bank is working with us in conflict-affected countries. The League of Arab States has also looked at working with us on development in emergencies. I think the institutions are there in the region, I think they need more encouragement and resources from member states.

Are there lessons to be learned from other regions that have undergone similar conflicts and social transformations?

CS: What became clear in our research is that you do see development assistance being used in other regions to greater effect. One example I would give is Indonesia, where you see a much greater emphasis on investing in local development. We’ve certainly tried to encourage that in some of the conflict-affected countries in MENA, but we haven’t always had the kind of response we would have liked. We do see development too often centralized, and we don’t see a delegation and movement of resources down to a local level in a way that’s proven effective in other regions. MENA governments could look at the Bank’s dialogue with some of the countries in the Africa region which have been far more ready to accept the interplay of conflict and development, and far more ready to talk to the Bank about the use of development in reducing conflict risk.