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OPINION March 5, 2020

It’s Not Enough to Wait for Conflict to End; We Must Tackle Fragility, Conflict, and Violence Head On

Every day across the Middle East and North Africa, the World Bank is focused on one overarching goal: to end poverty, in all of its forms, wherever it is found.

Increasingly, poverty is concentrated in areas suffering from fragility, conflict, and violence – also known as FCV. New World Bank research estimates that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s extremely poor people will live in fragile and conflict-affected situations. Extreme poverty is falling around the world, but it is increasing in areas with fragile governments and social contracts, persistent conflict, and high levels of violence.

Conflict and violence have traditionally been seen as a humanitarian challenge, the province of Blue Helmets and refugee agencies; however, reconstruction has always been the core of the World Bank’s mission. The Bank was founded to help rebuild Europe out of the ashes of World War II. But in recent years, we have learned that it’s not enough to wait until conflicts end to start picking up the pieces and rebuilding. Fragility saps growth, creating a fertile ground for poverty. Conflict reverberates through surrounding countries, creating shocks such as refugees. And prosperity can never take hold if people fear for their lives and the safety of their families.

We must tackle fragility, conflict, and violence head on and focus on the hard work of development at every stage of this complex challenge. Last week, the World Bank released its first comprehensive FCV strategy, which details how we can drive development in both low- and middle-income countries affected by fragility, conflict, and violence.

That means first addressing the root causes of fragility and conflict such as inequality, exclusion, and corruption. By focusing on issues like transparency, accountability, justice, and the rule of law, we can prevent grievances from turning into full-blown crises. Our research shows that a dollar invested in conflict prevention saves $16 down the road.

It means staying engaged during active conflict. Even in areas with ongoing fighting, we can preserve key institutions and access to services like healthcare, sanitation, and education, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable.

And it means helping countries transition out of conflict by building institutions, preventing cross-border crises, and facilitating private sector investment. Local small and medium-sized businesses, which provide 80 percent of jobs in fragile areas, are the foundation for economic growth.

Over the past decade, we have led in each of these areas across the Middle East and North Africa. For example, in Tunisia following the Arab Spring, GDP growth slowed to just 1.1 percent last year. Unemployment remained stubbornly high, especially among women (23 percent) and university graduates (28 percent). Even with relative political stability, this kind of economic situation creates a fertile ground for instability.

The total World Bank financial support in Tunisia between Fiscal years 2011 and 2019 reached $4.6 billion. This support focused on reinforcing stability across the country by creating economic opportunities, especially in the inland and rural areas; promoting opportunities for youth; and using technology to improve the delivery of vital services.

Where conflict has struck, we are doing everything possible to prevent further loss of life and preserve key institutions. One example is Yemen. Last year, the UN estimated that more than 24 million Yemenis – 80 percent of the population – were at risk of hunger and disease. Nearly 18 million people had no access to safe water or sanitation, and nearly 20 million had no healthcare.

We’re using financing from IDA – our fund for the poorest countries – to provide emergency grants in Yemen. Working with our international and local partners, we have financed $1.7 billion in emergency interventions in areas such as crisis response, health and nutrition, and electricity access. This ongoing work is important for two reasons – first, to prevent the situation from deteriorating further; and second, to give us a deep base of knowledge about the country’s needs and a foundation to assist further as fighting abates.

Another example is Iraq, where we engaged in the middle of the conflict with Daesh. The World Bank helped bring life back to Mosul by rehabilitating three vital bridges across the Tigris linking east and west Mosul as soon as the areas were liberated. As of today, more than 300 kilometers of roads and 23 bridges have been completed in Mosul and other liberated regions in Iraq through the emergency reconstruction project totaled $750 million. The project helped create jobs for hundreds of men, women and youth, reinstated access to services, markets, clinics, schools and universities and supported the return of thousands of displaced families to their hometowns.

Instability and conflict – especially the ongoing war in Syria – have forced millions from their homes and created a refugee crisis that threatens to further destabilize the region. Thankfully, Lebanon and Jordan have provided a global public good by caring for millions of refugees. Lebanon, a country of just over 4 million people, has sheltered roughly 1.5 million refugees – nearly a quarter of its population. Jordan, a country of just over 8 million people, has sheltered more than 1.3 million refugees. The cost to each country is estimated to be between $2 billion and $3 billion per year, not to mention possibly irrevocable shifts in the countries’ delicate social balances.

To help support Jordan and Lebanon, the World Bank established the Global Concessional Financing Facility, which has provided more than $500 million in concessional financing. In Lebanon, the World Bank is helping enroll 200,000 Syrian children in public schools. And in Jordan, we’re helping create 100,000 jobs for Jordanian nationals and Syrian refugees.

Ensuring stability and prosperity in fragile and conflict-affected areas is one of the most difficult development challenges. The path is steep, but we have no choice. We must face that challenge head on. Meeting the aspirations of those who have suffered for so long requires lasting peace – one that we will work to build across the region in the years to come.

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