Where the Security-Development Debate Falls Short

The relationship between security and development has been a growing concern this decade at the UN, highlighted by current events in the Middle East and figuring in comments from Secretaries-General, a summit meeting of the full UN membership and, just this month, a thematic discussion at the Security Council under the presidency of Brazil.

As noted by the Brazilian ambassador, Maria Luiza Viotti, the Council was being urged to give more consideration to the fact that many conflicts have underlying causes related to underdevelopment, such as extreme poverty, social inequality, exploitation of natural resources, and youth unemployment.

All this attention, though welcome, has exposed two major shortcomings that hamper the ability of member states to collectively and effectively address the issue.

First, the discourse has been kept at an embarrassingly vague level, without any dissection of what is known about these supposed connections and what they actually mean in the countries that are targets of policy interventions. Second, the impassioned rhetoric has not been matched with similar enthusiasm to make the necessary institutional changes to improve the coherence between security and development actors and policies.

What do we know? A growing awareness during the 1990s of both the costs of armed conflict to development and the impact of economic and social development on security and stability gave rise to an explosion of research into the causes of internal conflict. Indeed, the correlation between low per capita incomes and greater propensities for conflict is one of the most robust empirical relationships in security/development research.

Yet, claims that poverty causes conflict should be viewed with caution. One reason is that this correlation can also be read in reverse. Conflict devastates economies, living standards, infrastructures, and human capital. Second, armed conflict is contagious. Refugees, movements of armies and rebels across borders, and illegal trade of arms and natural resources have generated “spillover” into neighboring countries. While poverty is strongly correlated to conflict, we have yet to prove empirically that it is a root cause.

Inequality—not only economic, but also political, social, and cultural—has also been singled out as a possible cause of conflict. Though statistical research has not found evidence for such a relationship, recent case studies do suggest that inequality between groups (vs. within a group)—so-called “horizontal inequality”—does play a role in the rise of armed conflict, and that conflict is more likely where both political and socioeconomic horizontal inequalities are great. This suggests that developmental interventions should pay particular attention to their redistributive effects so as not to exacerbate existing tensions.

Another security-development link is the positive association between economic growth and low levels of conflict. Thus, policies that promote growth in developing countries serve also as a means of conflict prevention.

Demographic trends can also impact security. Population growth is not a security problem per se, but research suggests that population distortions—for example, youth bulges or rapid urbanization rates—are associated with the likelihood of conflict. In response, policies fostering small, healthy, and better-educated families seem likely to encourage greater stability and to enhance global security in the future.

The structure of economies also has a relation to conflict. Economies that depend on primary commodities—in particular natural resources, such as oil and diamonds—are more likely to have internal wars though there are varying interpretations of the nature of this link.

World Bank studies suggest that natural resources lead to conflict because greedy groups take up arms to exploit them. Others suggest that, rather than triggering conflict, natural resources play a role in sustaining it by financing rebel groups. Research shows that many factors come into play: the degree of complexity in exploiting the resources, geographic location, market regulation and price fluctuations, and the institutional capacity of the government.

What should we do? The phrase “there will be no development without security and no security without development” has fed much discussion but generated little action. There are a few key institutional changes possible at the UN that would allow for better policymaking and implementation through stronger cross-sectoral exchange and coordination of security and development actors.

First, the UN Secretariat should strengthen its analytical capacity and make better use of available research and insights on the links among peace, security, and development. This can happen through hiring relevant academic experts, strengthening field capacity to collect and analyze data, and using external reviewers to evaluate policies.

Second, the Security Council should make better use of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). One of the PBC’s purposes is the creation of a “space” for security and development actors to discuss and coordinate their policies in the postconflict countries that are on the PBC agenda. The Security Council should rely more on this institutional support, especially in its country-specific configurations, which in return could facilitate a stronger relationship between the Council and the Economic and Social Council. The Security Council should also seek input from the World Bank, the UN Development Programme, and major donors in specific cases. The recent PBC review includes strong recommendations in these directions.

Third, the UN should get serious on coherence and coordination. Financial incentives need to be created to favor joint projects vs. solitary endeavors, and staff should be encouraged to move laterally between peace and development positions in order to improve institutional knowledge in both areas.

“Delivering as One”—the UN pilot initiative to provide development assistance in a more coordinated way—should become the new way of doing business at the UN, not only at the country level, but also at the headquarters level. To date, field-driven reform efforts have led the way.

Where broad generalizations have dominated the policy debate, more in-country and sub-country research is needed to understand connections between developmental issues and conflict at the level of armed groups, communities, and individuals. Only then could research better inform the conflict analysis provided to the UN membership, and improve the effectiveness of country-specific policies on security and development.