What I Learned from the World Development Report

Posted on June 11, 2011



Via Blogs of the World Bank

I came to the World Development Report with years of field experience in conflict-

affected countries, but I learned some startling things from the exercise.

One is that violence today is very different from the violence of the Cold War era. Another is that how to escape from persistent violence isn’t something we can really learn from academic or policy literature — we need to listen to those who have managed actual transitions from violence to stability.

Modern violence

When I joined the Bank in 1981, Cold War politics dominated the debate on violence. Proxy wars between the US and its allies and the Communist Bloc were playing out across the world. Researchers and policy-makers, caught up in this global contest, focused on the wars that formed the pieces of this jigsaw. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eclipse of Soviet power, a great deal changed. There was a brief surge in the number of civil wars in the mid-1990s, but since then the incidence of “conventional” civil war (wars for political control of the state) has declined. Inter-state warfare is also rare now.

What we see, though — in part because we’re casting the analytical net wider than we used to— is still pretty alarming. We’ve estimated that 1.5 billion people live in areas experiencing or threatened by organized violence; that’s roughly a quarter of the world’s population.

Violence today is frequently localized, mutates from one form to another or just repeats. Motives often defy easy categorization. In central Africa, militias fight for control of mineral deposits, not the state. The FARC in Colombia, once known for its revolutionary Marxist credentials, is now notorious for kidnapping and cocaine trafficking. Moreover, global communications and transport networks have supercharged the international drug trade and have created virtual alliances between violent transnational groups — as well as animating the citizens’ democracy movements we saw in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and in the Middle East today.

Annual deaths from civil war are a quarter of what they were in the 1980s, but homicides from organized gang and drug violence are rising steeply, and leaving large parts of Central America and West Africa beyond effective government control.

The world is still a violent and frightening place.