Our project on the institutional legacies of violent conflict

One of the most critical challenges in international development today is to understand how best to support peace, security, economic recovery, and legitimate political authority in fragile and conflict-affected countries. One and a half billion people live in countries affected by political instability and violent conflict. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the number of those affected was predicted to grow.

The spread of the virus in areas with limited healthcare and social services, and where violence happens daily, was expected to increase fatalities and suffering in places like Yemen, Syria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and Libya, among others. Predicting an escalation in humanitarian disasters, the UN Secretary-General called for ‘an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world’ so we can ‘focus together on the true fight of our lives’.

This appeal worked in some places and the incidence of armed violence decreased across the world in 2020. According to the leading event dataset — the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) — political events and fatality rates were reduced worldwide, except in Africa, where 4,000 more violent events and 9,000 more fatalities were recorded in 2020 than in 2019.

Peace and stability are central to the prosperity and security of countries and their citizens, yet we have currently limited understanding of how and why violent conflicts persist in modern times and what can be done at the policy and practical levels to reduce the risk and impact of violence. ACLED predicts a rise in violent conflicts and other forms of political instability in 2021. They identify ten conflicts to watch over the next year: Ethiopia, India-Pakistan, Myanmar, Haiti, Belarus, Colombia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Yemen, Mozambique, and the Sahel.

Persistent risk of violence and conflict

Considerable resources are committed annually to state-building interventions in post-conflict countries. These interventions tend to have mixed results, with several post-conflict countries remaining at risk of violent conflict for long periods of time. In some cases — such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Colombia — peace seemed likely. But then, in Ethiopia fighting broke out in late 2020, a conflict in northern Mozambique displaced almost 670,000 people, killing over 1,600, and in Colombia, the peace agreement signed in 2016 has not prevented a rise in violence, including political assassinations, from split-off factions and criminal groups.

Why is peace so elusive? Why do some war-affected countries establish politically stable states, while others continue to endure cycles of violence and conflict? What explains this variation in the political trajectories of war-torn countries during the post-war period? 

New research will answer four key questions

A new project at UNU-WIDER seeks to fill some of these gaps in knowledge and policy. To do this, the project argues we need to better understand four critical characteristics of conflict-affected countries:

  • how local political authorities behave, compete, and make decisions in conflict areas
  • which institutions emerge in conflict zones to produce and/or limit the use of violence and what are their long-term legacies
  • how are territories and populations ruled and controlled by different political (armed) actors and what are the implications for the consolidation of authority and formation of political order
  • how alliances across intersecting identities of religion, ethnicity, class, and political orientation are forged or contested across time and space in conflict zones and how these persist into the post-conflict period.

All these factors are key to understanding the persistence of conflict, violence, political instability, and fragility because they shape the distribution of different power configurations. These power configurations impact the prospects of sustainable economic growth and development, as Kunal Sen argues in his blog this month on why fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS) seem so prone to boom-and-bust economic cycles.

Institutional legacies

Understanding all the factors at play is challenging, as it means acknowledging the messy reality of conflict zones as producers — rather than just consequences — of institutions. Anastasia Shesterinina writes this month on the impact of the Georgian-Abkhaz war — its legacy — on the culture, institutions, and perceptions of the people involved and living in the region. Her deep-dive into the conflict is a case study of the deep effects that civil war has on institutions, post-conflict.

Institutions emerge during conflict to provide war strategies and security against enemies, to control, protect, and rule territory, to regulate markets and communities, and to consolidate alliances, power, and resources. These institutions matter long after the end of wars because they shape important determinants of state and peace-building, such as the legitimacy of authorities, new social contracts, and how political groups transition from a military to a civilian organization.

One important consequence of the current pandemic has been to highlight what happens when states — from weak states affected by wars to fully established democracies — fail in their capacity to ensure the security, health, and wellbeing of their populations. In April, UNU-WIDER hosts a webinar with Bruno Martorano about our research linking COVID-19 and deep inequalities between counties to the sudden rise of protest and social mobilization in the United States last year, where Black Lives Matter protests have recorded the largest turnouts of any protest movement in US history. As Zachariah Mampilly makes clear in his blog, the current surge in protest is global and unprecedented — the Indian farmers’ movement may be the biggest protest movement in history.

If governments continue to fail supporting their populations, there is a probability of violence rising in many other parts of the world — either in the form of armed fighting or in the continued rise of protests, and sometimes riots, already underway. State capacity will be crucial for ensuring that the social contract does not break down during the COVID-19 crisis and in the years to come.

For this to happen, those most affected by the social and economic consequences of the crisis will need support to ensure dignity and basic standards of living in times of uncertainty, fear and, for many, despair.


Patricia Justino is a Senior Research Fellow at UNU-WIDER and is a leading expert on political violence and development. 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.