September 12, 2006


Caption: The trick to handling conflict is to do something before the snapper bites.

People interested in a more peaceful world are often asked, with good reason, for practical ideas for dealing with armed conflict.

There's an old saying about "an ounce of prevention."

One of the wisest and most practical books ever written is the Tao Te Ching, a Chinese classic attributed to Lao Tzu, the legendary founder of Taoism. It offers similar advice:

Prepare for the difficult while it is still easy.
Deal with the big while it is still small.

An interesting article by economist Edward Miguel in the print version of Business Week (Outside Shot column, Sept. 18th issue) has some concrete suggestions about how to do just that.

Here's the lead:

Dozens of countries have suffered through civil conflicts in the past few decades. The humanitarian consequences have been staggering: 3 million civilian deaths in Congo and hundreds of thousands more in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. The direct human impacts for survivors are enormous, and there may be lasting economic setbacks for whole societies.

Such conflicts often spread to neighboring countries and can create further crises in terms of refugees, lawlessness, illegal drug and arms trading, terrorism, etc.

It has long been known that economic crises, poverty, and falling incomes are associated with civil conflict. But academic debate has persisted over "reverse causality" or the question of which causes which. Specifically, arguments have persisted over whether economic hardships cause violence or vice versa.

Miguel and colleagues Shanker Satyanath and Ernest Sergenti at New York University avoided that pitfall by researching the effects of drought on African countries in the 1980s and 1990s.

As far as anyone can tell, civic conflict doesn't cause drought.

The results were pretty dramatic. According to Miguel,

a 5% drop in per capita income due to drought increases the likelihood of a civil conflict in the following year by nearly one half. That's a very large effect. This analysis highlights the key role that economic volatility can play while suggesting some important real world implications for the design of foreign aid.

Specifically, Miguel suggests that some forms of aid could be like a kind of insurance triggered by short term factors such as drought and drops in export commodity prices. He calls this kind of aid "Rapid Conflict Prevention Support" or RCPS.

The need for RCPS can be evaluated fairly objectively, and aid could be reduced as conditions improve. One example of such aid might consist of providing temporary public works for unemployed young men who might otherwise participate in armed violence.

Obviously, this wouldn't replace other kinds of aid but could play a key role in preventing civil wars, terrorism, and a sea of troubles.

It has long been El Cabrero's view that the best way to get a more peaceful world is to promote widespread economic security.

Official Goat Rope verdict: dude might be onto something.

For more reading on the connection between economic dislocations and other ill stuff, check Jared Diamond's Collapse.


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