The De-politicisation of Complex Humanitarian Emergencies

Posted on Posted in Analyses, International Developments

By Evangelos Koulis, Analyst KEDISA

1. Introduction

From the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Kosovo and lately in the Central African Republic (CAR), complex emergencies have become an ordinary occurrence. Although armed conflicts have reduced between late 1980’s and 2000 (Goodhand, 2003), new conflicts still arise and old ones resurgent. The common characteristic underlying all these conflicts is the distribution of suffering, as contrary to past conflicts, the majority of casualties nowadays are civilians. This in turn raises the number of internally displaced people and refugees. To avert this development, agencies have acquired a new role in their projects, i.e. conflict prevention (Goodhand, 2003). Development for them is a panacea seeking to address the causes of these complex humanitarian emergencies.

This paper questions the Developmentalist notion that underdevelopment is the root cause of conflicts, which consequently poses the aporia that development is the cure for them. In doing so it will be argued that instead of the root cause of conflicts, underdevelopment is a symptom of politically underdeveloped countries. Furthermore, this problematic assumption depoliticises complex humanitarian emergencies and ‘shapes’ the wrong policies for them.

It needs to be clarified that in this essay development is conceptualised as the efforts of agencies to alleviate poverty and strengthen the infrastructure in conflict-affected states. Consequently, underdevelopment signifies extreme poverty and failing institutions. Accordingly, ‘Developmentalism’ signifies the perception of development theory towards complex emergencies. In sum, this perception is characterised by the teleological belief that harmony is the normal state of the world, making chronic instability and complex emergencies seem as an interruption to the ordered development (UNDP, 1994; Duffield, 1996; Schuurman, 2000).

This paper consists of four sections. It begins by establishing a brief overview of development and its nexus with security. While the second section de-constructs the developmentalist notion that underdevelopment causes conflicts, the third section focuses on the role of ‘political underdevelopment’ in triggering conflicts. The final section illustrates how this problematic developmentalist assumption depoliticises complex humanitarian emergencies.

2. The Development-Security Nexus

A. Development theory

During the last three decades, development has become the key strategy for state-building in post-colonial societies in need of growth and political consolidation (Simon, 1999). Development was considered the quick way out from the prevailing underdevelopment (de Janvry & Kanbur, 2006). In addition to natural disasters, development has also been established in ‘complex emergencies’, a term that emerged in Africa in the late 1980s by the United Nations (UN) in an effort to conceptualise multi-causal humanitarian crises. In other words, this term includes the interaction of poverty, environmental degradation, institutional collapse, and conflict (Duffield, 1996).

Development is an applied field of social science. Historically, the concept of development is understood as a process of biological evolution for humankind to become what is supposed to be (Nisbet, 1980). It develops theory and practice in order to achieve economic targets and higher standards of living for Third World countries (Sylvester, 2006). Thus, development signifies progress in human well-being which equates to economic growth (Steward, 2004). However, nowadays strict economic growth alone seems to be inadequate for development as it fails to capture other aspects of human well-being like health, education, capabilities, opportunities and security (Sen, 1999). Similarly, as the Department for International Development (DFID) (2005:9) points, poverty reduction as a goal translates into a number of things such as “economic growth, better health and education, good governance, legitimate and functioning state institutions, respect for human rights, fairness and inclusion”. Therefore, development has come to encompass more objectives, thereby expanding its ‘reach’.

B. The ‘nexus’

When it comes to responding to emergencies, the relation between development and security has been marked by distance, ‘antipathy’ (Shaw, Maclean & Black, 2006) and antagonism (Uvin, 2008). However, after the 1990s they have come to be depicted as inextricably linked (White & Cliffe, 2000; Stern & Ojendal, 2010; Duffield, 2007). In the words of the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan:“Development and security are inextricably linked. A more secure world is only possible if poor countries are given a real chance to develop. Extreme poverty and infectious diseases threaten many people directly, but they also provide a fertile breeding ground for other threats, including civil conflicts. Even people in rich countries will be more secure if their Governments help poor countries to defeat poverty and disease by meeting the Millennium Development Goals.” (United Nations, 2004:vii)

Through these words it becomes apparent that the solution to underdevelopment-insecurity lies in development assistance. More explicitly, the security-development nexus signifies a three-way connection: i) conflict leads to underdevelopment, ii) underdevelopment causes conflicts, and iii) development practices prevent conflicts, thereby creating more security. The security-development nexus has been interpreted by many academics (Stewart, 2004; Buur, Jensen & Stepputat, 2007) as a vicious cycle in which they reinforce one another. This vicious cycle has transformed sustainable development as a tool to tackle the root causes of complex emergencies. Accordingly, violence and conflicts are considered as a development issue (McIlwaine, 1999).

Although this three-way connection is problematic as a whole, this paper retains its scope on emphasising the inaccuracy of the second aspect (i.e. underdevelopment causes conflicts), which consequently undermines the credibility of the third point (i.e. development prevents conflicts).

3. Underdevelopment as the root cause of conflicts

A variety of economic and social explanations that have sought to explain how underdevelopment breeds conflicts concentrate on poverty. Some of them consist of qualitative or quantitative approaches that measure the level of development through poverty levels and per capita incomes, while others tend to focus on ‘greed’ and/or ‘grievance’ in complex emergencies (Stewart, 2004). However, it needs to be noted that these methodological approaches face serious limitations in acquiring reliable data and disentangling other factors that are active at the same time during a conflict (Luckhamet al., 2001). For example, DFID in a per capita research on civil wars shows that lower level of GDP per capita are highly associated with conflicts (2005:8). Another example is Indonesia where the 1998 financial crisis, which resulted in a 10% fall in income, led to a conflict (DFID, 2005). Similarly, a number of academics have stressed on the importance of poverty, greed, and grievances in triggering conflicts (Collier and Hoeffler, 2000). For Keen (1998), ‘bottom up’ violence can be seen as a result of the lack of economic alternatives poor people face. Additionally, econometric studies that measure conflict incidence illustrate the importance of per capita income and lower economic growth (Elbadawi and Sambanis, 2001; Collier and Hoeffler, 2000).

Although arguments like the former are not absolute in their results, they have helped shape the notion that underdevelopment, and more specifically poverty, is the cause to conflicts. As a result, one can easily hypothesise that the role of development is indeed conflict prevention. However, the same and other studies have also highlighted other factors that consist of predispositions to conflicts. These factors are education, social marginalisation, environmental degradation, bad governance, history, and relative instead of chronic poverty. Again, as demonstrated below, most of these factors seem to be relevant for some complex emergencies and less relevant for others.

For example, lack of educational provision has been seen as an important factor of causing conflicts (Collier, 2000). On the other hand, in conflicts in Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka, a main driver of conflict consisted of the educated youth (Goodhand, 2003). Similarly, whereas environmental problems were a significant factor in the conflict in Rwanda, in the former Yugoslavia they did not constitute a conflictual factor (Stewart, 2004).

Other academics point out the significance of historical factors in today’s conflicts. In that respect, Goodhand (2003) refers to the case of Thailand emphasising among others on its history of rebellion. Likewise, Boyce (1995) points out the historical inequalities that resulted in conflict in El Salvador.

In terms of poverty, it is important to dichotomise between chronic and transient poor. In this case, transient poor are more likely to rebel because the chronically poor are less organised, have limited resources and are more passive (Goodhand, 2003). A characteristic example of that is Central Asia where middle classes are more likely to descent to violence due to their unrealised expectations (Goodhand, 2003).

Finally, social marginalisation and bad governance are considered direct or indirect causes of conflict in most complex emergencies. An example of the former is the marginalisation of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. In terms of the latter, bad governance is one the main factors that exacerbates development, uses poverty as a means of control and holds a critical role in the containment of violence (Goodhand, 2003).

All the above factors and their conflict examples illustrate how problematic and simplistic the three-way connection is. There is a difference between identifying a factor that predisposes conflicts and arguing that this factor is the cause of conflicts. As demonstrated, poverty and especially relative poverty can be a factors that may or may not lead to conflict. As Ballellestine and Sherman argue (2003:259-260) economic explanations have not been the only or the primary cause in many conflicts. The three-way development notion takes poverty and underdevelopment for granted assuming that it already exists in a country. This presents an opportune moment to ask: how are poverty and economic disparities created in the first place? The answer lies in the historical and political dynamics that have shaped African countries before any of the recent conflicts occur. Indeed, if there is one factor that encompasses all of the other factors is what the development sector calls ‘bad governance’. This way, poverty can be re-defined as a symptom rather than the cause of conflicts.

4. Political underdevelopment as the root cause to conflict

As illustrated, these factors are potential predispositions towards complex emergencies. Thus, what is seminal to examine is: what creates these predispositions towards conflicts? A common characteristic that encompasses and causes all the factors is what Moore (2000:386) calls “political underdevelopment”. So the question is reformulated as: how does political underdevelopment breed conflicts and what creates this underdevelopment in the first place? The answer to this question is significant to understand why complex emergencies are so common in Africa and Asia.

Political underdevelopment is a state-centred analysis which signifies states that fail to embody both liberal values (i.e. responsiveness, accountability and democracy) as well as statist values (i.e. authority, order and capability) (Moore, 2000). Thus, politically underdeveloped countries are those where government rule is characterised as exercising little authority on their citizens, arbitrary, ineffective, unaccountable, and usually authoritative (Moore, 2000). As a result, politically developed countries consist of those whose governments exercise legitimate authority, pursue collective interests in the benefit of their citizens and where citizens have active participation in them. As Moore (2000:386) notes, the first type of governance is quite prevalent in Africa and the Middle East.

Although the causes of this political underdevelopment are highly interrelated, they can be dichotomised into two strands namely, the historical and the political causes. While the first strand consists of the historical reasons like colonialism that shaped these countries, the latter encompasses the policies that governments followed after the countries became independent.

A. Historical

The first thing to consider when examining cases of politically underdeveloped countries is their past. Most countries that face poverty and conflicts in Africa have been created in the colonial era. They were ruled and shaped through coercion, brutal authoritarian rule, and exploitation by powerful European states. Even the tribal distinctions and the fragmentation of identities in African societies are a result of the colonial powers (Stewart, 2004). Furthermore, even after decolonisation the relation between African states and their pre-colonial rulers have been characterised by exploitation of their resources, interventions, external control, and material support for the post-colonial African rulers, thereby alienating the population from the state (Tilly, 1992). Finally, many newly-independent African countries were politically ‘immature’ as they were deprived of any political or administrative institution (Huntington, 1968). This is not to say that all post-colonial countries are homogeneous in their functioning, rather than in their organisational characteristics (Tilly, 1992).

B. Political

After their independence, a number of factors shaped the policies that politically underdeveloped countries followed. One factor is their resources, such as diamonds, oil, and timber, as well as illegal commodities, such as narcotics, that countries usually export to international markets. These commodities have greatly influenced the way African countries make revenues and their implications for their population. As Moore (2000) argues, it is because of these rich commodities that illegitimate African elites have managed control and exercise a great deal of power over the population. Moreover, trading valuable commodities for military equipment have resulted in the militarisation of politics and gave incentives to non-state groups to fight against the state in order to control them (Moore, 2000). These commodities, along with the authoritarian elites, shaped these countries and have resulted in an ineffective civil service, ‘autonomous’ states from citizens, non-transparency in public expenditures, absence of incentives and participation in civic politics, and vulnerabilities to subversion (Moore, 2000). In this turmoil, different aid donors and organisations have provided states with money pushing their own agendas, priorities, targets and procedures with little or no accountability at all (Moore, 2000). As Knack (2001) argues, countries that receive high levels of aid tend to have less quality institutions. Similarly, Moore et al. (1999) note that resourceful rich African countries tend to be less efficient in improving the health and educational sectors.

Indeed, through the political underdevelopment analysis it becomes apparent that all the factors, from social marginalisation, to economic stagnation, to poverty, are symptoms of ‘bad governance’ in politically underdeveloped countries (Moore, 2000; Goodhand, 2003). As Moore (2000) argues, effective political institutions are the only mediation between ‘greed’ and ‘grievance’.

It is true that international development agencies have identified ‘bad governance’ as a main obstacle to economic growth and the eradication of chronic poverty. Their criticism lies in their weak conceptual base, their little interest in investing in analysis of the political economy of the conflicts, and their failure to address the major causes of governance problems (Moore, 2000; Goodhand, 2003). Although aid donors try to reduce ‘bad governance’, their lack of understanding might have the opposite results. As Moore (2000) argues notes, political underdevelopment is made, not born, and the rich countries of the world have played an important role in its creation and maintenance.

5. The Depoliticisation of the complex emergencies

Thus far this paper has demonstrated that poverty is more likely to be a symptom of politically underdeveloped countries rather than the cause of complex emergencies. However, this is not a theoretical debate that takes place beyond complex emergencies in the Third World. It is exactly this well-established developmentalist notion that has shaped donors’ and NGOs’ policies towards these complex emergencies.

The projection of poverty and underdevelopment in general as the root cause of conflicts transforms these complex emergencies into a problem of resources where more development assistance becomes the solution. This falls under the wider developmentalist notion that internal conflicts are a temporary interruption in normality and development (UNDP, 1994). However, this underplays the new forms of political economy in the post-Cold War that characterises many of these complex emergencies (Duffield, 1998). As a result, complex emergencies are ‘stripped’ of their political significance and dynamics. They are depoliticised and presented as technical issues awaiting developmental projects to solve them (Duffield, 1996; Stern & Ojendal, 2010; Uvin, 2002). This ‘functional ignorance’ as Mark Duffield calls it (1996), is becoming apparent by the incapability of understanding the complexities in which development agencies operate.

More importantly, this depoliticisation and lack of understanding of complex emergencies is the reason why, according to many academics (Duffield, 2007; Stern & Orenjal, 2010; Uvin, 2002; Sylvester, 2006), developmental projects have limited positive outcomes and experienced many detrimental implications. A characteristic example of this lack of understanding is the Rwandan genocide where there are allegations that what developmentalism would call ‘civil society’ has contributed to the genocide (African Rights, 1995).

Furthermore, the developmentalist notion that underdevelopment induces conflicts while development is conflict-free is contested as the transitions of many democratic and market economies have been characterised by conflicts (Uvin, 2002). Similarly, as Philip Roessler has argued (2005), the pressure that development agencies have exercised in Kenya and Rwanda to install democracy has led to the rise of violent non-state groups like warlords and paramilitaries, thereby triggering conflicts.

Likewise, other academics have criticised development as making progress impossible and disempowering people by disrupting local power structures that lead to conflicts (Escobar, 1995; Rahnema, 1997). Within this critical perspective, development is seen as exacerbating and reproducing the distance between the developed and underdeveloped (Duffield, 2007).

What is more striking though, is that much of the time, due to lack of resources and the antagonistic relations between various NGO’s, the outcomes of development projects in complex emergencies are small, scattered, short-term, and uncoordinated, making little difference (Uvin, 2002). On the one hand, this manifests the complexities of these situations which usually cover the whole political, economic, and social spectrum of a country. On the other, it questions the suitability of these practices to address the complex emergencies.

Nevertheless, the most significant implication of the depoliticisation of complex emergencies is the fact that it is the very system, that development agencies operate within, which creates poverty, injustice, and conflict (Manji, 1998). As Firoze Manji (1998) has argued, the problem with development agencies is that contrary to the anti-colonial period where their prime attention was solidarity by supporting African people and their struggle, they have now become part of the system. He further argues that instead of challenging the same structures that reproduce these inequalities in Africa, NGOs have remained silent and as a result have reinforced these social relations for years (Manji, 1998). These implications illustrate that the role of development agencies and development practices more generally in these complex emergencies is quite problematic and remains unaccountable for most of the tribulations caused (Duffield, 1996).

6. Conclusions

This essay consisted of a conceptual criticism of developmentalism notions. What has become apparent through the examination of the nexus of development and security is that poverty consists of a symptom of political underdevelopment rather than the cause of conflicts. As this paper illustrated, this notion depoliticises complex emergencies and reproduces many of the existing problems.

A couple of decades ago Rajni Kothari said “where colonialism left off, development took over” (1988:143). Although this might not be the case for developmentalism, it is fundamental to question and critically engage some development notions that are being taken for granted. This is even more pressing because after 60 years of development, complex emergencies and underdevelopment are still the same issues that torment Africa and other regions around the globe. Nevertheless, contrary to what many people believe, what we need is less absolute notions such as the security-development nexus and more critical evaluation of notions if we are to prevent these emergencies.


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