In the past half century, more than 200 civil wars have killed millions of people and left countless others destitute. Civil wars result from grievances and antagonisms which are deep-seated enough to cause neighbours to be willing to slaughter neighbours. Peace is often fragile. In half of all civil wars, the peace does not hold and the war starts again. Civil war has been one of the biggest causes of suffering and underdevelopment in recent decades.
Neighbours don’t normally kill each other and very different ethnic and religious groups normally live side by side successfully. Of course there are conflicts, but most countries have ways of resolving those conflicts peacefully. The most common grievances are where a group feels it is discriminated against in access to political power, or resources such as jobs.
It is tempting to dismiss wars as being the result of a long history of hatred, say between Christians and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis. But that is to ignore that these groups have lived together in peace for centuries and it also ignores the underlying grievances, which have often been made starkly worse by outside pressures – from colonialism, the Cold War, and now free market globalisation. We in the north bear some responsibility for most of the civil wars in developing countries.
Many civil wars were anti-colonial independence wars. But the heritage of colonialism has been long lasting. Colonial powers usually privileged one group over another and those divisions were perpetuated after independence; sometimes the only way to bring about change and equity seemed to be to go to war.
During the 1948-88 Cold War between the Capitalist West and Socialist East, the two sides fought several "proxy" wars. In Afghanistan, Allende's Chile, Nicaragua, Angola and Mozambique the Eastern bloc supported a socialist-oriented government and the West created and supplied an armed opposition movement, provoking bloody civil wars. On the other side, the West propped up dictators in Indonesia, Iraq, Zaire (now Congo), Pinochet's Chile and elsewhere where the opposition was brutally suppressed, hundreds of thousands died, and where civil war was often a result. More recently the "war on terrorism" has led to the support of brutal dictators and justified suppression of opposition movements.
Outsiders have supported one side or the other in civil wars to obtain drugs, diamonds, oil and minerals.
'If modernisation benefits one sector... this can lead to violent conflict'
Globalisation and modernisation have also played critical roles. Increasing globalisation in recent years has impoverished many states, especially in Africa. Squabbling over decreasing resources can lead to war. If modernisation benefits one sector of a society and not another, this can lead to violent conflict. In Sierra Leone, for example, young people went to war against an increasingly corrupt government which could no longer provide enough school places and jobs.
Civil wars are often presented in simplistic terms, typically as ethnic or religious violence. In fact, the roots of the war are usually more subtle. Civil wars are typically between identifiable groups but they are usually about access to resources and power. A group which is discriminated against and which has no other recourse may turn to violence to redress a grievance, but it does not mean that it hates the other group. Long standing discrimination may date back to the colonial era, as with Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, but the war is more likely to be about discrimination than about identity.
Civil wars involve bitter antagonisms and atrocities committed by both sides which create both fear and anger. Neutral and trustworthy outsiders are often essential to help make and maintain the peace – from negotiators to UN peacekeeping troops to aid agencies. But one of their first tasks is to get beneath the surface description of the war and discover the underlying grievances, which are likely to be about access to jobs, land, and political power rather than about identity.
There is also a danger that interveners will simply try to restore the situation that existed before the war, while failing to recognise that the grievances of that period caused the war. The need is to help to build a newer and fairer society, in which grievances can be successfully resolved.
This can often require different kinds of policies. The World Bank, for example, has discovered that some of its policies are actually harmful in a post-war environment. The Bank stresses the free market, small government, and fiscal austerity. Yet in the immediate post-war era, there is a need to restore commerce and services in all parts of the country, especially those areas which were occupied by opposition forces, with an emphasis on equity rather than efficiency. Private traders tend to stay in the capital so the state needs to take the lead in rural areas, which means more government spending and an increase in the size of government.
In Sierra Leone, for example, one of the grievances of the youth which started the war was a lack of access to education. After the war, in 2003, the International Monetary Fund said that fiscal austerity meant that Sierra Leone could not afford to hire enough teachers to provide universal primary education. This could stir discontent and lead some excluded young men to suggest a return to war.
Similarly, non-government organisations and aid agencies are always anxious to get quick results, while the post-war period often requires working more slowly in order to build skills and confidence and to ensure equity. It may be easier for foreign aid workers to carry out projects, but taking more time to employ and train local people can have more impact.
'After wars there is a need to restore services, which means more government spending'
Indeed, development is the most important way to prevent war. Economic development is essential, but it is not sufficient. Development must also been seen in terms of creating a better and more equitable future for all, and about creating better ways for the society to resolve future conflicts non-violently. It is important to think back to the reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War, in which the state played a major role in directing development and rebuilding and the private sector worked within that framework. The role of foreign aid, such as the Marshall Plan, was also important. But Marshall Plan aid was not directed and administered by the donors: instead it was controlled by the recipients, who were able to set their own priorities. And throughout Europe, each country set its own priorities and path – in a way that is very different from the one-size-fits-all prescriptions of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund today. Preventing war or a return to war requires that countries develop a national vision of the future which is equitable and acceptable to all, and that the international community help them reach that future.
Conflict is inevitable in any society, and rapid change exacerbates conflict. Peacebuilding is about developing mechanisms to negotiate and resolve conflicts to ensure they do not become violent. Outsiders can play a key role by supporting local institutions and organisations that have a clear peacebuilding component to their mandate.
The needs in civil war countries are huge: to end the war, to prevent it starting again, to help rebuilding, and to assist the construction of a more equitable society that can move forward and put the war behind it. Most countries have gone through civil wars and countries as diverse as Finland, Spain, Ireland and the United States show that the wounds of a civil war are deep and long-lasting, but that it is possible to move forward.
This article was orginally published on 03/02/05