Arguments on the relationship between war and poverty often get trapped in a chicken-or-egg cycle. Do communities or countries enter into conflict because they are poor, or are they poor as a result of conflict? There are no easy answers to this, and the debate normally settles on a stalemate: ‘a bit of both.’
However, one thing is clear: conflict impoverishes people. War is definitely not the single cause or consequence of poverty, but it often makes poverty worse. War disrupts trade, diverts labour, and reduces life expectancy - all things that damage a healthy society. Peace provides the conditions for stability that can lead to growth, so here are 5 countries that prove peace helps reduce poverty:
1/ Sri Lanka
Since Sri Lanka emerged from its 26 year civil war in 2009, it has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world, surpassing most of the Millennium Development Goals set for this year. In the last 10 years, the per capita income of the country has doubled whilst poverty rates have dropped from 15.2% - 7.6%. The World Bank points to the end of the conflict as a key factor is stimulating growth over the last 5 years, identifying a ‘peace dividend’ as a primary cause of Sri Lanka’s increasing prosperity - when a government spends less on its military, it can spend more on its people.
Hjalmar Gislason / Wikimedia Commons
In 1994 the Rwandan genocide lasted only 100 days but took 800,000 lives, leaving deep scars across the East African nation. The state-sponsored slaughter of the minority Tutsi population by the majority Hutu population resulted in widespread loss of life, weakened infrastructure, looting and poor harvests as the farming of vital crops was neglected, plunging the country into deeper poverty.
Although 8 million people still live below the poverty line in Rwanda, the drive to rebuild the country has lifted 1 million people out of poverty in the last decade. A focus on the export of tea and coffee combined with a growing tourism industry and consistent foreign aid has helped revive the economy so profoundly that the country was declared the world’s top reformer for business in 2010.
Seeking to dispel the stereotype of a nation crippled by drug wars, cartels and violence, in 2008 Visit Colombia ran a campaign with the slogan: ‘The only risk is wanting to stay.’
Throughout the 20th century, the political system in Colombia was dogged by the illegal drug trade. Four major drug cartels exercised large swathes of influence, acting as combatants in a low-intensity war against rival groups and the government struggling to suppress them. Since the early 2000s, these attempts to put an end to drug-related organised crime have met significant success, giving the Colombian economy room to breathe. The poverty rate fell from 50% to 34% between 2002-2011 as the country grew more stable. In the eyes of the outside world as well as its own leaders, peaceful conditions have put the nation back on track. "Ten or 20 years ago Colombia had many strengths – a well-educated labour force, a strong business class,” says Mauricio Cárdenas, Colombia's finance minister “but they were not visible, because of the veil of terrorism and violence."
4/ The UK
The end of the Second World War gave birth to the welfare state as we know it. The war highlighted the extent of deprivation and poverty in Britain, and after years of pre-war depression and wartime austerity, many Brits were desperate for change. The Labour Party’s dramatic victory in 1945 was therefore largely the result of the promise of a new order laid out by the economist William Beveridge to tackle the ‘five giants’ of Want (poverty), Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. The new system offered social insurance for every citizen ‘from the cradle to the grave,’ no matter how much or how little you earned, This victory changed the face of Britain as a National Health Service, free primary and secondary education, and the provision of adequate housing for all children in need became enshrined in law.
As all these examples show, the path to peace and the end of poverty is a work in progress. In all of these countries, there is unfinished business, but the pattern shows that as conflict disappears, so does poverty. This is the only world worth fighting for.