Astri Suhrke and Ingrid Samset:

The World Bank has just published its 2011 World Development Report (WDR). Its focus is conflict, security and development. The topic is important and timely; however, the analysis in the report gives rise to three concerns:

1.  The report assumes that violence and development are opposite poles: that violence is development in reverse, and that development means change without violence and conflict.

This was also the premise for an earlier major World Bank report on this topic, with Paul Collier as lead author, published in 2003 and called “Breaking The Conflict Trap”.

This premise has been profoundly questioned by social scientists who argue that, historically, violence has accompanied social and political change and that reform policies often generate conflict and violence, particularly in a transitional period.

2.  The WDR revives a claim also made in the 2003 report to the effect that civil wars tend to repeat themselves. The threshold for 'recidivism' has now been lowered dramatically: any country that has experienced two or more 'internal armed conflicts' since 1945  is counted to support the claim that civil wars come in 'repeated cycles’. This is so even though the conflicts in question may involve entirely different parties and issues, and take place half a century apart. And importantly, what the WDR counts as 'internal armed conflict' includes not only wars or ‘major conflicts’, as the report claims. A careful examination of the data presented (on pp. 57-58 in chapter 1) shows it is taken from a background paper by Barbara F. Walter,which states that the count includes both major and minor conflicts, that is, not only skirmishes that produce 1,000 or more 'battle-related deaths' per year (‘major’ conflicts), but also strife resulting in between 25 and 999 annual battle-related deaths (‘minor’ conflicts, p. 1, Walter 2010).

The result is bizarre. For instance, in this count India has experienced 20 civil wars since independence (footnote 2, p. 1, Walter 2010). Yet is India a fragile state requiring the kind of special international support the report recommends?

3.  In the WDR report, the history of conflict starts in the post-independence period. The counting of conflicts start in 1945, but wars of independence and violence during the colonial period are not included: they do not figure as past 'conflicts' in countries created as a result of decolonization. The result is twofold: (i) statistically speaking, violent conflict tends to increase as the post-independence period progresses (since many countries were 'new' in the 1960s and 1970s and hence by definition did not experience any previous conflict); (ii) in analytical terms, colonialism and its legacy are ignored. The possibility that violence in the 'new' countries might have roots in earlier structures of repression is obscured. 

This leads us to a question: What is the purpose of this statistical analysis? In particular, why revive the old claim of civil war recidivism? The claim has been hotly debated and largely modified since the 2003 report, not only by Collier (who revised the rate of recidivism down from 44 percent during the first five postwar years to 23 percent during the first four in Post Conflict Risks) but also by independent scholars (including ourselves in "What’s in a Figure? Estimating Recurrence of Civil War”, International Peacekeeping ). Whatever the motives, the claim arguably serves to legitimize a heavier international footprint in managing conflict in war-torn states; just as the recidivism figure of 50 percent was cited to legitimize the establishment of the UN Peacebuilding Commission in 2005 and more intrusive peacebuilding led by international agencies. Good policy must be based on nuanced research. This is in line with a laudable recommendation of the 2011 WDR, namely to mobilize more knowledge in the service of preventing and mitigating violence.