Conflict and Violence: The World Development Report 2017

“Violence shapes governance systems because it affects the distribution of economic, social and political power among social groups” writes Patricia Justino.

The prescriptive tone of the recently launched World Development Report (WDR) 2017 is more or less what we would expect from a report subject to endless rounds of political negotiations and compromise. But the WDR 2017 goes further than any other attempt before by the World Bank to address the issue of conflict and violence.

This year’s report is entitled Governance and the Law. While there is much to discuss about the report, one chapter is particularly noteworthy; chapter four on ‘Governance for Security’, of which I was involved in supporting the chapters’ authors.

The chapter takes off from where the WDR 2011 on ‘Conflict, Security and Development’ ended. The WDR 2011 was one of the first attempts by the World Bank to discuss the relationship between political conflict, violence and economic development. Broadly, the WDR 2011 makes the argument that violent conflict is the result of institutional failures. Chapter Four of the WDR 2017 asks how those institutional failures can be addressed through the lens of governance. To this purpose, violence is conceptualised as the result of three types of breakdown in governance:

  1. The unconstrained power of individuals, groups and governments.
  2. Failed agreements between participants in the bargaining arena.
  3. The exclusion of relevant individuals and groups from the bargaining arena.

The authors propose four types of institutions to reduce the probability of violent conflict:

  1. Sanction and deterrence institutions that increase the costs of violence.
  2. Power-sharing institutions that increase the benefits of security across social groups and improve social cooperation.
  3. Re-distributive institutions that will strengthen the social contract.
  4. Dispute resolution institutions (formal or informal) that reduce incentives to use violence to protect property rights.

In addition to these prescriptive solutions, there are two key messages in this chapter that will (hopefully) have profound implications for how the World Bank and their partners will engage with/in countries affected by conflict.

The first message is the recognition that governance and violence are interlinked. Violence emerges from certain types of governance and can be an integral part of how governance takes place in many parts of the world. At the same time, violence shapes governance systems because it affects the distribution of economic, social and political power among social groups. As highlighted in the chapter, ‘today’s governance is the child of yesterday’s violence’. Longstanding literature in political science, history and sociology has examined these complex relationships in much detail (for instance, this project). But the explicit discussion of the linkages between governance and violence is a substantial departure from the blank slate post-conflict societies implicit in the WDR 2011.

The second message is the acknowledgement that governance happens in the midst of violent conflict. Typically, and erroneously, armed conflict tends to be theorised as a departure from social order and studied as a symptom of state collapse or state failure. But the collapse of state institutions in conflict-affected countries is rarely associated with the total collapse of political order or governance. Instead, political actors outside the state apparatus occupy the space left by weak, absent or contested state institutions and build new institutions that advance their own war objectives. These political actors are violent, but not everywhere nor at all times. In fact, many engage in the art of governing populations and territories in an attempt to control and rule them – thereby advancing their political objectives.

Current and historical examples include, among many others, the FARC in Colombia, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Hezbolah in Lebanon, El-Shabaab in Somalia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and, more recently, ISIS in Syria and Iraq. These groups have several characteristics in common: they govern or have ruled over substantial amounts of territory, their presence is persistent and they are at the heart of some of the most intractable conflicts in the world.

Therefore, understanding how these armed groups operate, and govern, is central to how development, diplomatic, peace or military interventions will succeed or fail in such contexts.

This is a new perspective in international development circles and implies a view of violence and governance anchored in long historical and cultural processes in societies affected by armed conflict that has been uncommon to date. It also brings to the forefront the reality that violence is not an abnormal departure from social and political order but is rather intrinsic to the creation and change of institutions and governance. This is an important message, and something that NGOs, peace missions and civil society organisations have attempted to grasp and navigate for a long time. The challenge now is to ensure that international development actors have the capacity to engage with these complex political structures. Easier said than done.


This blog was first posted by the Institute of Development Studies on 17 March 2017.