University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

David Cortright is Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He is coeditor of Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict (Chicago University Press, 2015) and author of Ending Obama’s War (Paradigm, 2011).

The connections between development and peace are firmly supported by social science research. All the standard indicators of economic development, including per capita income, economic growth rates, levels of trade and investment, and degree of market openness, are significantly correlated with peace. Virtually every study on the causes of war finds a strong connection between low income and the likelihood of armed conflict. Economist Edward Miguel describes this link as “one of the most robust empirical relationships in the economic literature.” Irrespective of all other variables and indicators, poverty as measured by low income bears a strong and statistically significant relationship to increased risk of civil conflict.

No one has made this point more convincingly over the years than Paul Collier. He and his colleagues have shown that civil conflict is heavily concentrated in the poorest countries. The risk of civil war is strongly associated with joblessness, poverty and a general lack of development. They famously conclude, “The key root cause of conflict is the failure of economic development.” They also make the reverse point. Raising economic growth rates and levels of per capita income may be “the single most important step that can be taken” to reduce the likelihood of armed conflict.

War is reverse development. It undermines economic well-being and reduces income levels. War may bring profit for the few, those ‘masters of war’ as Bob Dylan called them, but it creates economic misery for many. Once started, war becomes a self-sustaining system, an “economy of war” Mary Kaldor calls it in New and Old Wars, a feeding trough for profiteers, warlords and mobsters that becomes exceedingly difficult to stop.

War reduces life expectancy and destroys education and public health systems. It tears apart the social fabric. The World Development Report 2011 calculates the cost of a major civil war as equivalent to more than 30 years of typical growth for a medium-size developing country. Trade levels take 20 years to recover. The negative economic impact of conflict helps to explain why countries at war are often caught in a deadly conflict trap, why the chief legacy of a civil war is another war.

The linkage between poverty and war has a human face. We can see it the hallowed out stare and angry glare of the mostly young men who fight in these wars. Surveys of insurgents and militia fighters confirm that many are driven by poverty and unemployment. The majority of child soldiers “are drawn from the poorest, least educated and most marginalized sections of society.”

The link between low income and conflict risk does not mean that poverty causes war, however. There is no automatic connection. Some poor countries, such as Zambia or Bangladesh, have not experienced recent major civil conflict. Other mid-level income countries, such as Croatia and Serbia, have fought bitter wars. It is not poverty per se but a general lack of economic development that is most strongly associated with armed conflict. Poverty and a lack of opportunity are most disruptive when communities experience a decline in social and economic status, and when they perceive an unjust discrepancy between what they have and what they expect or feel they deserve.

Many of those who lead insurgent or terrorist movements are not poor. Studies show that militant leaders tend to come from more advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and have higher educational levels than the people they claim to represent. Alan Krueger’s well known analysis of Hezbollah militants is but one study showing this pattern.

The leaders of rebel groups may not have the personal experience of poverty, but they are responding to and seeking to change general conditions of underdevelopment and oppression in their communities and within their social identity group. They consider themselves part of a vanguard fighting against injustice. This is no justification for terrorism, but it helps to explain why some may be misled to think it necessary.

Inequality matters greatly, especially horizontal differences in wealth and power between social groups, as Frances Stewart and her colleagues have demonstrated. Research shows that the risk of conflict is greatest when social identity groups are excluded from political power and when their relative wealth is far below that of other groups. Political exclusion and significant economic disparities increase the likelihood of civil war.

Overcoming the scourge of war requires integrated peacebuilding and development strategies. One approach without the other will not work. Strategic peacebuilding means bringing together multiple efforts to address the complex challenges of violent conflict. It requires combining programs of diplomacy, dialogue and reconciliation with social and economic investments that raise national incomes and reduce political and economic inequalities.