From Conflict to Recovery in Africa

by Tony Addison

The period 1990-2000 saw 19 major armed-conflicts in Africa, ranging from civil wars to the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Peace has been elusive, and the term 'post-conflict' is often a sad misnomer.

Achieving peace has received much attention. But 'post-conflict' recovery needs a hard look as well. Peace does not guarantee a better life for the poor. War may leave the poor too weak to share in recovery. And those who control the post-war state may be unable (or unwilling) to ensure that reconstruction benefits the majority. A narrow elite, including former warlords, may instead reap most of the gain. Recovery's  benefits will then be narrow rather than broad-based in their distribution.

Liberian refugees returning home. © The Finnish Refugee Council (FRC)/Tiina Kirkas
Liberian refugees returning home. © The Finnish Refugee Council (FRC)/Tiina Kirkas

A forthcoming UNU/WIDER book, From Conflict to Recovery in Africa (Oxford University Press 2003) looks at how to achieve a broad-based recovery from war using examples from Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique - all countries that have suffered terribly from conflict.

Communities, the Private Sector, and the State

Unless communities rebuild and strengthen their livelihoods, then neither reconstruction nor subsequent growth will be broad- based, and poverty will remain deep. But communities cannot prosper unless private investment recreates markets and employment. And neither communities nor the private sector can do their best without better state institutions and the public goods that they provide. Aid donors, NGOs, and international business can help (or hinder) but success ultimately depends on the three national actors: communities, the private sector, and the state.

Community needs must be a focus of attention. War fractures communities, destroying human and social capital. But unless the state disintegrates completely, it is still possible to manage the wartime economy to contain poverty. Helping poor communities during wartime improves their prospects once post-conflict reconstruction begins. However, the necessary political commitment may be missing. Angola's government has achieved less for the poor than Mozambique's wartime government despite Angola's far greater resources (from oil). 

Aid donors can do much to increase the resources available to meet the post-war needs of poor communities (through greater and faster debt relief for example). But even so, there will be many demands on domestic and external resources. Core priorities that give the most return to broad-based recovery must be identified using good-quality information on poor people and their needs.

'Community' is a useful shorthand for discussing common problems, nevertheless there is significant stratification (and conflict) within and between communities (the Rwandan genocide is the most tragic example). Wa r also accentuates inequalities. In Mozambique, households with access to the wartime black-market and connections to local-level elites gained and accumulated assets which facilitated their post-war recovery. In contrast, the poor often fell further behind (losing land and livestock, for instance), thereby weakening their ability to participate effectively in reconstruction projects and to adapt to economic reforms. And women can face special problems due to discrimination in access to land, education, and employment.

Recovery depends on Strong Private Investment

A rapid rebound from war requires strong and sustained private investment, both domestic and foreign. Macro-economic stability, legal reform to protect property rights (including the rights of the poor), and public investment in infrastructure are vital.

At the same time as encouraging private investment, the state must regulate the private sector to protect the public interest (for example, prudential supervision of the financial system). Unfortunately, favouritism may dominate policy resulting in narrow rather than broad- based reconstruction. For example, non-transparent privatization in Angola and Mozambique led to large asset transfers that sometimes favoured influential elites.

Despite its virtues, multi-party politics can degenerate into 'money politics'. Private contributions to political parties may buy measures that are anti-poor: for example, concessions of valuable natural capital - land, fisheries, and forests - to influential commercial interests, leading to loss of access and livelihoods for communities. Meanwhile, economic reform has sometimes weakened trade unions and other groups that can act as countervailing powers to big business. And the independent media may be underfunded and harassed.


In summary, strong private investment is critical to recovery but the relationship between the post-war private sector and the state must be set within a framework that protects the public interest and defends the poor. This capacity can be weak when democratic institutions are only just emerging (the case with parliamentary committees to oversee public-sector budgeting and accounting).

Reform is Critical to Broad-Based Recovery

Countries attempting to move from conflict to recovery face a daunting range of tasks - including conflict resolution, peace-enforcement, demobilization, and refugee resettlement (to cite just four priorities). Moreover, this reconstruction agenda interacts with the agenda of reform (both economic and political).

Post-conflict reconstruction is too often seen as a matter of simply rebuilding damaged infrastructure. But if recovery is to be broad-based then policies must change as well. For instance, rebuilding rural infrastructure has low returns if policy continues to discriminate against smallholders.​

Moreover, pre-war economic policy may have led to conflict, for example by discriminating against particular ethnic or religious groups (or regions) in the allocation of public spending. Thus public expenditure reform is especially important. All of this requires changes in institutions as well, for example investment in more effective and transparent mechanisms of budgetary management and taxation.

Economic reform should start soon after peace (or during war if possible). But urgency must be tempered by the need to get reform right: badly designed and implemented reforms add to the war-induced misery of the poor (the case in Angola). For instance, an excessively tight target for the fiscal deficit can endanger essential pro-poor development spending (a task made easier if aid flows are generous). Hence, the quality of state institutions is critical to making economic reform work for broad-based recovery.

To conclude, if resources are available, then rebuilding shattered infrastructure is a reasonably straightforward task. Reassembling pre-war institutions may not be too difficult either. But it is a lot harder to change institutions and policies, especially when these favour one social group over another. Unless this is done, recovery will be narrow rather than broad in its benefits, poverty will remain high, and conflict is likely to return.

Tony Addison is Deputy Director of UNUlWIDER. He is the editor of the forthcoming UNUlWIDER book From Conflict to Recovery in Africa,  published  in  the series UNUlWIDER Studies in Development Economics, by Oxford University Press, 2003.