10 things I kind of believe about conflict and governance

That is the title of a talk I gave today in New York. Along with a few other academics, I’m spending a couple of days with the leadership of the International Rescue Committee as they rethink their approach to reduce conflict and improve governance.

The slides are here (pdf). The quick run-down of my top ten:

  1. Civil war is on the decline (while NGOs are on the rise)
  2. There’s little evidence that poverty causes conflict
  3. Poor and unemployed young men don’t seem to be a source of social instability
  4. Conflict and violence are at root a governance failure
  5. The MDGs and good governance may be at cross-purposes
  6. Elections do not good governance make
  7. Political development, like economic development, evolves slowly; Good governance will take a long, long time
  8. Institutions develop through internal forces, not foreign NGOs
  9. Just being there may be a governance intervention; outside the capitol you could be the only professional, impersonal, meritocratic bureaucracy in town
  10. We don’t really know how to build better governance systems (but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try)

The slides go into more detail, though they lack most of my text. (Sorry.)

Some of the main implications for international NGOs (as I see it):

  • It’s a good moment for conflict NGOs to rethink their future
  • Institutional change and peace-building are a local processes you can (at best) support
  • It’s harder than most of the things you do
  • Do it seriously or don’t mess around
  • Have realistic expectations of the pace of change
  • Experiment and innovate

There are many interesting speakers and staff. I will try to blog my favorite thoughts in the coming days.

8 thoughts on “10 things I kind of believe about conflict and governance

  1. A bit intrigued by no.4. Conflict and violence are at root a governance failure. I would’ve thought this would be the other way around?

    From a lay(wo)man’s perspective: If the government fails in it’s provision of public goods and services, this is usually where extra-governmental bodies performs step in, sometimes violently (I’m thinking Hezbollah here, for example)? Or people with enough resources to participate in a free market are kicked out for want of control by a government, they find ways to wield influence (I’m thinking gangs here)?

    Why would conflict and violence come before governance failure, and not the other way around?

  2. Hi Chris, I’d be interested to see what evidence or further explanation you have on 3, either way, as it’s a bit difficult to understand your point there from the slides or the blog post. The rest of it makes a lot of sense.

    Saratu, I think you’re say what Chris is saying, i.e. that conflict is often a consequence of poor governance.

  3. Hi Chris – I feel like you’re trying to prove too much here. If you’re trying to disabuse IRC/us of the idea that job creation for young men is a silver bullet, point taken. But to say that poverty (#2) and unemployed young men (#3) do not contribute to the incidence of violence, that seems to be going to far. We might also say that peanut butter doesn’t contribute to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because, after all, peanut butter is also present outside peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; and peanut butter alone is never results in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But we wouldn’t really mean that, would we? (Ok, sorry, that is a bit sarcastic…)

    You are pointing to evidence that poverty and unemployed young men are neither “necessary” nor “sufficient” to produce conflict; but those strict criteria seem to miss the point that they might both be important elements in recursive social processes that produce violence. (You attribute conflict to poor governance, but then define poor governance as lack of security — where does that come from?) It’s useful to point out that those elements do not stand alone, but the fact that they do not stand alone doesn’t mean that we can pull them out of the picture.

    Kudos, though, for presenting the points are hypotheses rather than findings!

  4. @ Brad — I think Chris is right about the links between poverty and unemployed youth on the one hand and violent conflict on the other, and I think the key here is the distinction between conflict and violence. There is no question (in my mind, anyway) that poverty and unemployment engender political conflict, but that conflict does not have to turn into large-scale violence and usually does not. To understand where and when that happens, we have to look to other processes, including the quality of interactions between state and society. In the long run, it would be great if we could eliminate those underlying sources of political conflict, but in the meantime, we should focus our energies elsewhere if we want to prevent political conflicts from erupting into violence.

  5. They are definitely hypotheses, but what I stress is that all the attempts to causally link unemployment and poverty to violence have failed. Obviously poverty is not unrelated to violence, but the idea that reducing poverty and unemployment lessens the risk of violence is, I think, a false one. Proof to come.

  6. We should definitely look harder at no 5. While development is more and more defined as meeting the MDGs funding moves along, and away from supporting basic functions of the state.

    Funding is normally a better indicator for priorities than any declaration. Governance, except for the “near abroad”of the EU and elections, normally gets a lot of lip-service but scant funding or support.

  7. Interesting. In World Vision we assessed 30 conflict analysis workshops from 20 countries in every region over the last 8 years. In every single instance, the participants (90% local aid workers and civil society types) identified good governance as a key strategic need that NGOs needed to focus on to get their country out of instability. in over 80% of these workshops, the key strategic needs for stability were: civic participation (beyond elections), sustainable and equitable economic development, and peace and reconciliation processes. Some interesting divergences and convergences with your presentation to IRC.