Do Jobs Really Aid Peace?

“The logic follows that more employment reduces conflict risk, which in turn fosters the economic environment for investment and more jobs, which further increases stability that leads to more jobs and so on. However, the potential to realise this virtuous cycle is a lot more complicated…” Writes Neil Ferguson.

Without getting into hyperbole, ‘employment for stability’ is about as ubiquitous a theme as there is in development programing in countries considered ‘fragile’. Indeed, the pursuit of peace (and social stability more broadly) probably explains why employment is listed as a top priority for the government of nearly every fragile state. In a way, it’s easy to understand why. The direct costs of conflict are bad enough but conflict also brings with it an associated array of adversities for health, education and social cohesion. When considering this list, it’s very easy to see a pernicious cycle develop, not least because many of the adversities caused by conflict have also been established as correlates of the onset of violence and instability.

The desire to replace such a pernicious cycle with a virtuous one is both optimistic and noble. Employment for stability certainly delivers on these fronts. The logic follows that more employment reduces conflict risk, which in turn fosters the economic environment for investment and more jobs, which further increases stability that leads to more jobs and so on. However, the potential to realise this virtuous cycle is a lot more complicated and that’s before one starts thinking through a whole host of contextual influencers that are unique to each region, country or sub-national entity.

Indeed, although the basic idea may seem intuitive, the logic that underpins the concept isn’t entirely obvious even when there are apparently sound theories to support the idea. At times, the logic is overly optimistic and, at others, strangely detached from the reality faced by the governments of conflict-affected, fragile and post-conflict states. One of the most prominent theories, for example, espouses that widespread employment encourages good government through a widening of the tax base. A widened tax base, in turn, gives people more say in the actions of the government. By responding to what the citizenry demands or by providing quality public services, governments increase their own legitimacy and stave off conflict risk. The economics of the argument are entirely faultless, regardless of how cynically one views governments. At the same time, it takes a lot of imagination to believe that dodgy governments suddenly see the error of their ways and, if they don’t, will (or at least can) be replaced by another that does. 

The big problem is that, in general, the realities required for such a theory to hold – not least meaningful tax collection and enforcement – are also things that developing countries, even those relatively unaffected by conflict, often struggle with. In war torn countries, it is not just people, infrastructure and buildings that are harmed. Bureaucracies, institutions and capacities are often also destroyed. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the basic capacity for governments in fragile scenarios to collect tax – let alone spend it in accordance with the wishes of the population – is there, particularly in the short-to-medium term. Anecdotal evidence makes for entertaining reading that masks just how serious the underlying premise is. A BBC journalist, for example, claims to have been able to choose her own rate of income tax (3 per cent) in Mali as a reward for bothering to register to pay at all, such are the weaknesses of enforcement in the country. 

Of course, this is an extreme example hand-picked to make a point but the apparent plausibility of the tale illustrates the point at hand. At times, there is a weird disconnect between the amount invested in the idea of employment for stability, the theories that explain the link and the evidence that supports these theories. As Chris Blattman and Laura Ralston state, the absence of supporting evidence should be surprising, given the sheer volume of money that is spent on employment and training programmes. Angus Deaton won a Nobel Prize in economics, in part, for pointing out the root of such failures in analysing the impact of development spending. Yet while the evidence base may be lacking, it is also obvious that – both in academic worlds and in practitioner ones – it is not for a lack of thought with a multitude of complex and profound theories drawing potentially causal lines from increased employment to greater stability. 

Rather than an absence of established theories, there are in fact many that develop competing narratives.  At the same time, at least in a very reduced form, these main theories map neatly onto one of three key concepts:

  • Grievance;
  • Opportunity;
  • Contact.

Grievance is a simple enough idea – it is little more than an aggregate of individual feelings of resentment over something that is, or at least is perceived to be, unfair.

There are multiple potential delineations for such feelings:

  • Between the citizenry and the government;
  • Between ethnic groups;
  • Between national groups;
  • Between religious groups;
  • Between socio-economic classes.

The impact of employment, and certainly of employment interventions, on grievance is then intuitive. Any program that goes some way to redressing the balances between divided groups will reduce grievance and, with it, conflict risk. Of course, in reality, this could well be a double-edged sword – just as an intervention can redress the balance, it could also exacerbate them if an intervention is (or is perceived to be) beneficial for only one group but not another. 

Opportunity theory works on the basis that grievance is universal but that opportunity isn’t. Everywhere people have gripes and some groups perceive themselves as unfairly worse off. It then follows that not all such grievances lead to conflict or social instability. What differs, under the opportunity theories, is that richer people, even those who perceive themselves to be unfairly worse off, have high costs of engaging in violent or conflictual behaviour due to their own socio-economic status. The theory runs along identical lines to Gary Becker’s seminal observations on crime and punishment; by making the costs – both real and opportunity – of engaging in crime, violence or conflict high, the relative gains from doing so become smaller. This leads to changes in preferences and associated behaviour.

Giving people access to income streams and employment changes the calculus of rebellion and violence. Give people access to enough income and employment and the likelihood of rebellion and violence decreases as the associated costs are so high relative to expected gains. Rising up in protest simply isn’t worth it. Such logic can feel almost faultless but how it plays out in real life isn’t so straight forward. In Liberia, for example, motorcycle taxi drivers are a common sight. These drivers are typically young, male and incredible frustrated. These young men are viewed as a part of the group most likely to threaten peace in Liberia, with arguments that they are easily mobilised and prone to illegal activity. At the same time, these young men, although not rich, are by no stretch the worst off in Liberian society. Their reported income – approximately US$4 per day – is not inconsiderable by Tunisian standards. It is estimated 60% – 80% of the population live on less than $1.25 per day which means they languish near the bottom of the Human Development Index. This isolated example, of course, does not discredit economic logic that has its base in a research article that has received over 15,000 citations and has spurred a substantial supporting literature. It does, however, suggest that there is perhaps more than just economics at play in the decisions to engage in the actions that cause social instability. And this brings us to contact.

Contact is something of an oddball in the trio of theories of change as it opens the door for conflict to be a matter of the heart. Like the grievance theories, it focuses on divisions between definable “in-groups” and “out-groups” but doesn’t take an economic approach to overcoming them. Instead, the aim of contact is to change hearts and minds, rather than to influence the underlying calculus of dissent. It’s a simple logic – division is a breeding ground for irrational hated and ignorance. In this breeding ground comes the unconditional beliefs about the lives, attitudes and wealth of others that do not, or at least do not have to, bear any resemblance to reality. Bringing people from different sides of this gap together then provides the opportunity to break down these barriers. There is good evidence for such logic, particularly in the developed world. The optimism also appears to hold in Iraq and Nigeria. Although in Kenya, there are examples where the opposite seems to be true and where the presence of multiple ethnicities may actually lead to downstream inefficiencies. How, or why, this plays out in the real world is difficult to ascertain. If it stems from a deficit of trust it is plausible to believe that working together in the long-term provides a chance for individuals to show their capacity, to build that trust and to break down those initial barriers. Other sources of the bias, though, are not so neatly dismantled by contact alone, not least those that are grounded in irrationality.

All of these arguments seem entirely plausible, taken either in isolation or in combination yet they are largely speculative because of a general lack of evidence, particularly at the individual level. When looking at the impact that development programs can have, particularly those that never really get beyond the pilot stage, change is much more likely to come at this individual level as few programs are large enough to affect aggregate indicators like government choices.

There is a growing literature that attempts to close these gaps but it also opens up a host of questions that are pertinent in multiple research communities:

  • how to measure individual involvement in crime, violence or conflict?

It is a well-known fact that people tend not to respond well, or truthfully, to direct questions about personal involvement in illegal or revolutionary activities. Implicitly, however, this is precisely the kind of data that is needed. Individual-level evidence linking employment or income to decisions to engage in antisocial behaviour is important in determining the veracity of the link between employment and stability. It is also important for understanding how, or why, employment programs can build stability (or why they may fail to do so). The establishment of this evidence should allow better program design than is afforded by a range of intuitive and logical theories; theories that do not always seem to apply in real-life scenarios but which currently underpin the range of programing based on this notion.

This article has been drawn heavily from Jobs Aid Peace; a report published in September 2016 by International Security and Development Center.