Working Paper
The Political Economy of Complex Humanitarian Emergencies

Lessons from El Salvador

This paper develops and tests five hypotheses regarding the economic causes 
of complex humanitarian emergencies (CHEs). We argue that: (1) such 
emergencies, involving large-scale deaths and population displacements, are 
most likely to occur when growth is slow, negative, or falls far short of 
expectations; (2) the likelihood of emergency rises further when society 
cannot achieve a consensus over how to distribute the burden of adjustment 
to this growth failure; (3) the difficulties of burden-sharing are aggravated 
when there are sharp pre-existing class and/or ethnic inequalities, some of 
which may have actually helped trigger the crisis by creating conflict and 
thereby slowing growth; (4) problems are exacerbated when external actors 
intervene on one side in the ongoing distributional struggles; and (5) the 
resulting social upheaval deters investment and slows growth, setting in 
motion in a 'vicious circle' in which political and economic crises exacerbate 
each other. 
The civil wars of the 1980s in the Central American countries of El Salvador, 
Guatemala, and Nicaragua provide evidence in support of each of these 
hypotheses. Longstanding tensions arising from deep economic inequities, 
particularly in the distribution of land, provided the tinder for political 
violence, macroeconomic crises added a spark, external intervention fueled 
the wars, and armed conflict propelled a downward economic spiral. The 
paper develops these themes with a particular focus on the case of El 
An understanding of these causal chains is important not only to improve the 
international community's ability to anticipate complex humanitarian 
emergencies, but also to devise successful post-conflict economic policies 
for building peace. Peace accords can initiate a 'virtuous circle,' in which the 
consolidation of peace supports economic development and vice versa. For 
this positive process to be sustained, domestic and international actors must 
confront the fundamental factors behind conflict-driven emergencies. While 
a more active role by external assistance actors may appear to intrude on 
national sovereignty, CHEs are often human-made disasters that impose high 
costs on the international system; as such, the international community has a 
responsibility to act to address the root causes of civil conflict and the 
resulting emergencies.