Root of Conflict Podcast
Why are some places affected by violence and disorder while others enjoy peace and stability? Root of Conflict analyzes violent conflict around the world, and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. Harris Public Policy students meet with leading experts and key stakeholders to discuss what can be done to create more peaceful societies.
This series is produced by University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts, (UC3P) in partnership with The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts.
Root of Conflict
How Corruption Fuels Violence and Disorder
Eduardo Ortiz: Hi, my name is Eduardo Ortiz, and you are listening to University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast.
Root of Conflict Introducers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can conduct research, implement programs and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research Institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
Aishwarya Raje: The relationship between illegal financial flows and state level of violence is present in conflicts around the world and is especially pronounced in Afghanistan. In particular, the country's thriving drug market based on the opium trade has proven to be a major economic factor that has been fueling the ongoing conflict. My name is Aishwarya Raje, and in this episode of Root of Conflict, Mwangi Thuita and I speak with Gretchen Peters, Executive Director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime. Drawing on her role at CINTOC as well as her decades-long career as a writer and journalist, Gretchen talks through why the political economy of the war in Afghanistan is so poorly understood, as well as the connections between criminal networks, weakened institutions and breakdown into disorder.
Mwangi Thuita: Gretchen, thank you so much for joining us today.
Gretchen Peters: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Mwangi Thuita: So, to start, can you tell us about the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime, and what your role as Executive Director of the organization looks like?
Gretchen Peters: Sure. I had worked for several years as had my colleague and co-founder Kathleen
Miles. We had both worked as consultants to the Defense Department and to U.S. law enforcement.
And what we realized was that a lot of efforts to fight organized crime and violence around the world were perhaps well-intentioned, but were having the opposite effect than wasn't what was intended, and we felt that it was important to establish a center that would be focused on fighting the systems that support crime and corruption. The corruption had to be taken into account in any program to counter organized crime. My 20 years or so working as a journalist before I became a consultant to the U.S. government, I worked as a journalist for many different parts of the world.
And what I found was that what was often the dominant narrative of why people were fighting
each other in conflicts that never ended, whether it was Sunni's fighting with Shia, or Muslims fighting Christians, or some other thing that was going on, was really just a smokescreen for powerful forces that were often funded by elicit activity, that had in many cases, corrupted powerful institutions of the state or had in some places that I've worked, replaced the state or certain aspects of it, either as insurgents or warlords or just major power brokers that sort of operated from the shadows. These shadow economies prevented the violence and the conflict from going away because the shadow economies depended on the lawlessness for their business to go well. A good example of that would be the opium trade in Afghanistan.
I'm convinced that one of the reasons that peace process after peace process collapses is because there are so many constituencies that benefit from the horrific continuation of violence there – they don't want the war to end. There's almost always a spoiler that takes out the peace process, just when it's starting to reach progress. More recently, Kathleen and I have done a lot of work in Africa
and what we're seeing there, it's distinct from Afghanistan, but we're seeing these often foreign
criminalized forces coming in and really hollowing out institutions of states, in multiple countries.
It's been sort of most famously documented in South Africa with a state capture by a number of groups. But the most famous was an Indian family that became very close to the former ruler. But we're seeing similar things, and in some cases, it involves East Asian and generally Chinese groups. In some cases, there's been Russian groups. We've tracked the involvement of Iranian and Lebanese criminal groups in other parts of central Africa, and they almost seem to operate from the same playbook. It's fascinating to study but the impact it has on societies is devastating. It implicates education systems, the economy, healthcare, all sorts of stuff get negatively impacted by it.
Mwangi Thuita: And on the topic of Afghanistan, in your book, Seeds of Terror, you illustrated a really vivid picture of a thriving drug market built by the Taliban, where they make millions of dollars every year from the opium trade. Can you talk us through the political economy of this conflict and why you think it's so poorly understood or poorly represented, when we talk about the war in Afghanistan?
Gretchen Peters: One issue that I think is most poorly understood, and this is not unique to
Afghanistan, we've seen the same thing in places like Mexico and Columbia and other parts of the world, is that human beings have the intuitive response of fighting crime and fighting problems where they see them, where they're most visible. And the most visible aspect of the drug trade – well, there's two aspects that are visible. One is the farm areas where the crops are grown, and another area is if at the other end of the drug supply chain, if there are people dying and there's street markets and corners, where drug dealers sell drugs, those are the visible things that law enforcement tends to go after. But often, the real power brokers that control the supply chain, they're certainly not the farmers in any drug, and they're certainly not the guys selling dime bags on street corners. They're the traffickers who are in the middle, and in particular, they're the folks that finance this trade and those people almost virtually never go to jail. Occasionally, you might see law enforcement arrest a drug kingpin, and certainly, there've been a number of drug kingpins in Afghanistan, like Haji Juma Khan, Haji Bashir Noorzai, Haji Bas Mohammad that were arrested and have been in those three cases brought to the United States to face jail time. But the money around the Afghan drug trade has virtually never been investigated.
I've done consultations with U.S. intelligence. I've met with the Brits about this. It's quite clear that the money related to the opium trade, which is billions and billions of dollars annually, is not under a mattress in Kandahar. Some of it is in Pakistan and Iran, some of it is in the UAE and banks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But quite a lot of it is in Europe, it's in the United States. I, at one point, when I was working for the DOJ and the Defense Department, I mapped out a money laundering operation that the Taliban were running that extended as far from Afghanistan as Northern California. And nobody had ever looked into the financing of the Taliban beyond Afghanistan. And that's a ridiculously myopic view of how that insurgency is financing itself.
If we’re looking beyond what's going on in Afghanistan, we're not understanding the full scale of how the Taliban as an organization - and the Taliban has many different factions so I’m simplifying a bit – but no one's getting a full picture of how the insurgency finances itself without looking at the full supply chain that is funding the insurgency through drugs and other criminal activities. Some factions and within those factions, some commanders within the Taliban are making the enormous amount of money from supporting and facilitating the drug trade, or in some cases running drugs themselves. And other parts of Afghanistan where there's not as much or no narcotics grown, we see insurgent commanders funding themselves through kidnapping regimes, through controlling illegal mining operations, through all sorts of extortion rackets. And again, this is common to insurgencies around the world. This is not something that is unique to Afghanistan, and it's also important to acknowledge in Afghanistan that there are a lot of warlords and local commanders that are on the government’s side that are engaging in the same criminal activities. And so, the people stuck in the middle are the Afghans, ordinary Afghans that are just really between Iraq and a hard place. And it's a tragedy.
Mwangi Thuita: Can you walk us through the process of tracking and mapping these networks and maybe
some of the political hurdles that come into play when you're trying to disrupt the flow of money and undermine these criminal operations?
Gretchen Peters: Yes, that's quite a big question. So, in terms of how we map these organizations, we first start out usually by reading as much as we can that's available in the public record or depending we're working with the government, they might have government reports that aren't available to the public that we're able to read or to look over. So, we first try to learn as much as we can. We then try to figure out from those documents and public records, who seems to know about what's going on and who we can speak to. And then we will go out and conduct typically dozens of interviews, usually structured interviews to try and figure out. We have about a 12-page set of interview questions that go through the different phases of a criminal supply chain, or really any supply chain, to understand how goods move in one direction, how money moves, and how financing of transactions occurs.
We will then, to what extent possible…[…] it depends on the commodity, for example, we've done a lot of work trying to understand the illegal ivory trade between Africa and Asia. And so, we've looked at drug seizures and mapped out down to who owns the trucks that delivered shipments that later turned out to have ivory in them, tracing back the license plates, and then, the ownership of who owns the home where the truck was registered, to see if we can start to piece it together. And some of it will be deadends, but sometimes, eventually, I should say, we're almost always able to put together a picture of who we believe the criminal network is. And then that also provides us with more leads of people we can speak to.
So, this can often in and of itself be a six-to-nine-month process. To map something like that out can take an enormous amount of time. And when I was writing Seeds of Terror, and I was trying to map out the Taliban, or my understanding of the Taliban, that was about a five-year process. And over the course of that process, it became less and less possible to function and to operate in some of the areas where I needed to be. And so, I fortunately had worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for a long time. So, I was able to do things that many foreigners wouldn't be able to because I had local friends and they would take me in. So there reached a point when the guys I was working with said, well, we can't drive you down there unless you sit in the backseat and wear a burka.
And then they started saying, well, you can't come down. We're not going to be able to take you in there. We can't take you in there, but we can bring people out or we can't take you in there at all, or it's just not going to happen. And in those cases, I would then send one of my local research assistants to conduct an interview. but we did have to be very careful, and it created significant barriers to the project. But one thing that I have found really in most places that we've worked, I mean, as long as we have trusted local researchers and partners that we're working with…people are so frustrated by this, in any place we've been, nobody likes to live in a place that is infested by crime and corruption.
People often ask me if we're scared to do this work. And the answer is of course. Sometimes it's scary and we're very nervous about going into a place or meeting with a certain person. But I'm more scared about not doing anything about this and not trying to figure it out and not trying to figure out solutions. I'm more afraid of what's going to happen to our planet and our communities if we don't. And so, we have been very, very lucky, but I think part of it is that we are in there earnestly, trying to figure out how the system works, and people seem very grateful to talk to us. And we haven't ever exposed anybody that didn't want to come out, so I suppose that helps us too. But over time, we then are able to build a map to say, these are the roles and functions in the supply chain that move commodities.
And then we created a separate map, usually going the other way. When I say map, I mean like a
diagram. It’s often laid out in a combination of like Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, just because those are programs that lots of people have. We've used network analysis programs as well, but I mean, I can do it with post-its and string on a wall…it’s just to sort of show the progression and to explain how stuff moves from one place to another, and how money oils that system. What we found in a number of places…I did a project a few years ago in Gabon, in Central Africa, which was really interesting looking at the ivory trade. And I was working with the Gabonese government and their national parks and the anti-poaching unit within their national park system.
And we spent months mapping out the poaching gangs, I guess you'd call them the criminal groups that were poaching elephants. And then on top of that, we mapped out the networks that were
exporting ivory, and they were also in many cases, exporting rosewood and other endangered
timber. And what we realized, the Gabonese commander and I, what we realized was that he and his guys were going out into kind of remote jungle areas that were dangerous, if nothing else,
because there's yellow fever and Ebola and etc. but also armed poachers. And within days, they would be arrested. And so, then we set off in a project to map the corrupt networks that existed on top of the criminal supply chain.
Because what was happening, was that every time they'd go out and launch an operation to arrest
Somebody, within three or four days, they'd be released on some technicality. And so, we were later able to map out all the judges and more senior officials that were on the take and the country. It was a really fascinating project. And I spoke to him, I think it was about six months ago and asked him how it was going. And he said, “It’s still very difficult,” and I said, “Well, what’s your biggest problem? Is it crime or corruption?” And he said, “Without a doubt, it’s the corruption.”
So that's become in many ways for me, more of a focus than the criminals themselves. If you have a government that's clean, that's functioning effectively, criminals don't really have much room to operate. Corruption really is the grease that keeps the machine going.
Aishwarya Raje: So you talked about the importance of having local friends and working with
local researchers. And I think often times in academic circles, when they talk about conflict resolution, it's told from a very kind of high-level analytical perspective, and often misses out on the perspective of local voices and local communities. So, can you share some experiences that you've had with local communities that you've worked in, whether in Afghanistan or anywhere else you've conducted field work that perhaps challenged what you thought you knew about the conflict, or made you think about the conflict differently?
Gretchen Peters: Yeah, totally. I mean, first of all, I'm alive and in one piece today because of my local colleagues in multiple different countries. The number of times I have been physically rescued or pulled out of a situation when it started to turn, I could maybe count on two hands the number of times that's happened. But I certainly would not be alive today if it weren't for my local friends and colleagues who in many cases were taking far greater risks than I was to, to go out in these communities and ask these questions. I think one of the things that was hardest for me to understand at first was the extent to which you can have battlefield enemies in a place like Afghanistan. But we also saw this in the Balkans that were literally killing each other by day and yet at night would be collaborating to traffic drugs.
And so, that was something that took me a long time to get my head around, and yet I've learned that it's incredibly common in conflict that enemies will still get along when they need to. When there's opportunity for money to be made, they will find a way to reach a solution. And I think it's an important lesson for us in terms of peacebuilding approaches, that you have to understand the political economy of conflict, and if you can help opposing sides reach a solution that is economically acceptable to them, where both sides are going to make money or both sides are going to see themselves getting some kind of financial slice of the pie at the end, where their communities and their backers will be supported financially and will be able to survive. It can provide you a pathway towards some sort of conflict resolution.
Mwangi Thuita: That’s a great segway into my next question, which is about how to deal with the conflict elite. So, in Afghanistan and with respect to the Afghanistan war right now, there are peace talks going on in Doha that are attempting to resolve this dispute and pave the way for a U S withdrawal. Now, I mean, the chances of that actually happening, many people would say are low. But from your perspective, in terms of incorporating what we know about the political economy of conflict, why is it important to think about a peace dividend for the conflict elite, when sometimes it seems like there's more pressing, more important issues?
Gretchen Peters: Well, it's a really good question. And I’m also impressed when anybody else uses terms like conflict elite because it's something that I obsess over, and that I think that a lot of people think about or even identify, but it's certainly a case in Afghanistan, that that was a country that many of the power brokers, many of the conflict elite are precisely that. They became powerful as a result of the conflict and their families or their tribes were not powerful before. And so, they will potentially see themselves as losing influence, losing income at the end of the conflict. So, I think one of the most important things to do, whether you're trying to investigate, say, our messed up
healthcare system in this country, or why a conflict is continuing in a place like Mozambique or
Afghanistan, nothing seems to solve it.
For me, the first order of business is to figure out who's benefiting from it continuing to happen, Who’s making money off of the conflict and the perpetuation of the conflict. And if you can get those people who are benefiting from it to agree for it to end, then I think you're on the road to recovery. Even if you can just figure out who they are that’s benefiting from it, you're halfway to a solution, but in Afghanistan, I think we're seeing now with the explosion of violence that's happening, and in particular in Helmand province, which is the number one province for producing poppy in Afghanistan, that there's forces at work that don't want this peace deal to go through. They're not complying with the ceasefire.
So, I don't have a lot of optimism about where this is going. There’s going to have to be some kind of settlement with the Taliban, but I don't think a settlement that involves bringing the Taliban into the government is a good idea. So, I think that the international community should be negotiating with Afghanistan's moderates, of which there are many, instead of their violent drug trafficking extremists of which there are few. So, I think it's unfortunate the decisions that have been made around the Doha Accord.
Mwangi Thuita: In closing, I want to ask a broader question about how you see the causal relationship between the kinds of illegal financial flows that we're talking about and violence and disorder. That is, after all, the theme of this podcast. So, do you think it's more the case that the criminal networks are simply exploiting weakened institutions that have brought about civil conflict and violence, or do their activities actually precipitate a breakdown into violence and disorder?
Gretchen Peters: I think the issue you're talking about goes in both directions. I think that the illicit financial flows can both be part of the asymmetric warfare campaign for insurgent and violent groups.They can help to finance attacks. They can help to finance corruption. They can have a very corrosive impact. Plus, the strength of insurgent or criminal gangs perpetuates or pushes the belief among the community that the government is weak and ineffectual. I think that the illicit flows can have a very damaging impact on a variety of levels. The other issue is that, and there's a group here in D.C. called Global Financial Integrity that does a lot of really good work tracking this issue, but it lists that financial outflows from a lot of countries in the developing world, in particular, they've done some really great work in Africa, are often 7 to 10 times higher than aid and development inflows and foreign direct investment. And so, at the same time that there are efforts to try and stabilize unstable countries, the outflow of cash is really just sucking the place dry, sucking its bone marrow out.
Aishwarya Raje: Well Gretchen, you’ve been very generous with your time. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Gretchen Peters: Thank you. Aishwarya. Thank you Mwangi.
Aishwarya Raje: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Gretchen Peters. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of the series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit the Pearson institute.org and follow them on Twitter.
Root of Conflict
Is There Hope for the Afghan Peace Process?
Nadia: This is Nadia and you're listening to University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast.
Root of Conflict Interviewers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can conduct research, implement programs and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research Institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
Aishwarya Raje: The war in Afghanistan has ravaged on for decades and peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban officials during that period have often broken down, time and time again, with a number of foreign actors involved in the conflict and in the negotiations, the most prominent being the United States, reaching a comprehensive peace agreement has proven to be exceedingly complex. But now, with a new set of negotiations taking place in Doha, we may be seeing a window of opportunity to make progress towards peace. My name is Aishwarya Raje, and in this episode of Root of Conflict, Mwangi Thuita and I speak with Laurel Miller, the Asia Program Director at International Crisis Group. Laurel discusses the intricacies of the war in Afghanistan and how they've evolved over the years, and the best-case scenario for what a peace agreement can look like. Laurel, thank you so much for joining us today.
Laurel Miller: My pleasure to be with you.
Aishwarya Raje: Your topic during the Pearson Global Forum was, of course, a case study on Afghanistan, which is undoubtedly a very complex conflict. We could probably do an entire podcast series just to talk about it, but can you give us, or lay out for us who the main players have been in this conflict? And from a U.S. perspective, how have our goals in Afghanistan changed over the last 20 years?
Laurel Miller: Sure. And, and I should say I came to this position at International Crisis Group already having focused quite a bit in recent years on policy issues related to Afghanistan. It's one of our priority areas within my current job, which I've been doing not even for two years now, but, had done some analytical work of my own when I was at the RAND Corporation related to Afghanistan.
And I also served in the U.S. State Department from 2013 through the middle of 2017 as the deputy, and then the Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and was working on issues related to War and Peace in Afghanistan at that time. So that’s what I drew on in my presentation at the Pearson Forum, and in other work that I do. So, the conflict there, it's multi-sided and complex, and it has both internal and external dimensions. Often, from an American political and popular perspective, we think of the war in Afghanistan as the war that has been there since after 9/11, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and toppling of the Taliban regime there. And that is one dimension of the war, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan at the end of 2001, because the Taliban regime had harbored Osama bin Laden and had refused to hand him over.
The U.S. took the position at that time that it needed to not only endeavor to capture or kill bin Laden and his associates, but also make an example of the Taliban regime in order to say that, state sponsorship, state harboring of terrorists will not be tolerated. So, one dimension of the conflict in Afghanistan is that the United States invaded and gradually built up the number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan over several years. After having wiped away the Taliban regime, it was one of the key actors in installing a new government there, putting in place a new constitution, elections, et cetera. But then the Taliban regrouped, from safe havens in Pakistan. Across the border from Afghanistan, the Taliban regrouped as an insurgency and the United States then became embroiled in a counterinsurgency war against the Taliban.
So that's one dimension. Rolling a little bit back further in time, Afghanistan was not a fully peaceful place before 9/11. There had been a civil war in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union withdrew from the country and the U.S., which had been heavily engaged in supporting the anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan, including bin Laden, decided to exit the region and the country descended into a civil war in the early 1990s, which then created the opening for the Taliban to sweep to power and hold power in the later part of the 1990s. The Taliban had by and large consolidated control of the country, but not complete control of the country, and there were dimensions of warfare that were still going on related to that fight even before the U.S. invaded after 9/11.
And so, there's a war still going on in Afghanistan that has a lot to do with what was happening in the 1990s, even before the U.S. invaded. That's another dimension and layers to the conflict in Afghanistan. And then, Afghanistan also is surrounded by some meddlesome neighbors, it's in a very difficult neighborhood. The key players in this regard are both Pakistan and Iran, but others too have over many decades sponsored, favored, proxies and clients in the country, and have, have helped to perpetuate warfare there through these relationships. And as I mentioned, Pakistan, in particular, is consequential in that it gave safe haven to the retreating Taliban figures who then regrouped as an insurgency. And so, there's another dimension to the conflict and the set of actors in Afghanistan that has to do with the external players within the neighborhood, not to mention the United States and NATO as external players further afield, and Russia and China too have interests and involvement in Afghanistan. So, it's a particularly complex conflict because of these both internal and external dimensions that overlap, but also represent distinct sets of interests on the part of all of these players.
Mwangi Thuita: So, what has changed in the last few years, so that there's now more of an emphasis on a negotiated settlement as opposed to achieving a military victory, as a precursor to U.S. withdrawal, even though there's still, like you mentioned, during your panel, a low likelihood that, a peace agreement will be agreed upon and implemented properly.
Laurel Miller: So, I think you have to look a little bit back in time to see how the U.S. came to this point of being focused on negotiating a settlement and negotiating directly with the Taliban. Initially in Afghanistan, the U.S. saw itself as being initially after the invasion as outright victorious, militarily. It didn't capture bin Laden. He famously escaped and later was caught and killed in Pakistan. But the U.S. did very quickly topple the Taliban regime over time and was able to pretty much decimate the Al Qaeda presence in the region and saw itself in those first few years after the invasion as having really utterly defeated the Taliban. From the time when the Taliban began to reconstitute as an insurgency, gradually, certainly by 2005, 2006, it was clear that there was an insurgency.
I think it's fair to say from that point on the war from a U.S. perspective has never gone well. The U.S. from that point began to increase the number of forces steadily. Even before Obama came into office, there were already a series of surges. And then there was what was literally called a surge in the beginning of the Obama administration, to at the peak, there were 100,000 American forces deployed in Afghanistan. In 2002 it was like tiny numbers, a few thousand at most, and then to a 100,000 American forces in Afghanistan at the peak, plus NATO forces for a total of between 140 and 150,000, plus in any military deployment like this, you then have to multiply several times more contractors, including doing military-like tasks in addition to this number of troops on the ground.
The reason why the numbers kept going up is because the war wasn't going well, and the U.S. saw the U.S. military advocated for the application of more resources to try to turn it around, to change the trajectory. From the peak period, already by 2013, 2014, the number of U.S. forces was diminishing because the idea was that the surge of forces in the Obama administration was supposed to be temporary, and so there was a plan to surge up and then come down. And at the same time, there was an emphasis placed on building up the capabilities of Afghan security forces to take the lead in the fight against the Taliban, but still with the U.S. engaging in counter-terrorism efforts. But even with this sort of peak, and then initial decline of U.S. forces there, it was never really turning around.
The Taliban was steadily gaining ground and even with the enormous devotion of American resources to building up the Afghan security forces, they still hadn't and still haven't today proven capable of entirely on their own handling the counterinsurgency without American backing. From around 2015, when the number of U.S. forces really began to dip, it became even harder for the Afghan security forces, and there were even more gains by the Taliban. And even today, with the numbers of U.S. forces almost down – by next week, it's supposed to be down to 4,500 – obviously the Afghan forces are carrying much more of the burden of the fighting, much, much more, but still, in really the most exigent circumstances, they need American military support, particularly air support, meaning they need the bombing of Taliban positions in order to not be overrun by the Taliban.
And the Taliban has continued to improve its position. So that's the trajectory of the war fighting. And I mentioned that in answer to your question about the peacemaking, because it's the explanation. If the U.S. had been militarily successful in partnership with the Afghan government, and eliminating the Taliban insurgency, then I don't think anyone would be talking about a political settlement, or they'd be talking about one that's really just negotiating the terms of the Taliban surrender. But that's not the case. There are many people who think if the U.S. started being serious about a negotiation much earlier, it could have negotiated on much more favorable terms, but as the Taliban has gained strength, we are nowhere there in negotiating the terms of the Taliban surrender. It was more than a decade ago now that some American policymakers recognized that the war was not winnable and that there had to be an effort to begin trying to negotiate a political settlement of the conflict.
But for many years, that effort was in fits and starts. It was, “We're going to keep going with the war effort, and this is something we'll do on the side.” And it doesn't usually work out very well if you don't put something that hard at the center of your efforts. And so, it was very ebb and flow of attention to this, changing more affirmatively, more concertedly in the direction of trying to negotiate a political settlement only around the end of 2018. Even in the Trump administration, for the first year, there was a mini-surge, again, trying to turn around the war and negotiate from a position of strain. It didn't happen that way. There wasn't a positive change from an American perspective in the war, and so, efforts were redoubled in early 2018, not coincidentally, because you have a president who campaigned on and seems to still want the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan as a policy priority.
Aishwarya Raje: So, given that context, how consequential is the upcoming US presidential election going to be on the peace process? What are some differences we could expect from four more years of Donald Trump versus a new Biden administration?
Laurel Miller: Yeah, the short answer is very consequential, potentially, even though I'm not expecting a major change of direction if Biden wins. If Trump wins the second term, then based on the recent trajectory of the policy efforts, as well as the recent public statements by Trump himself and the tweets and his national security advisors’ comments, which suggest a plan to reduce U.S. forces even more by another half, down to just 2000, around there by January. I think that's a pretty safe bet that that would continue and that the ability of U.S. diplomats to try to negotiate a decent political settlement will be much reduced if Trump wins, because the policy will be a policy about troop deployments, not a policy about Afghanistan. I think Trump has pretty clearly shown that, because he said he really doesn't care about Afghanistan.
He doesn't see the risk or threat there, or issues of U.S. credibility, or what do allies think about, it's really just about troops, no troops. And so, I think that you would see a push to just make as fast and dirty a deal as you can, so that you least have a fig leaf for a complete withdrawal. If Trump loses, we have a question as to what happens in the period of time while he's still president after that loss. And there, I think we're all expecting if Trump loses, to have all of oxygen sucked out of the air by litigation of what the result of the election was. He's already relitigated it. So, people post litigate it too.
And so the question in my mind, then is, did he just lose interest in what he said about Afghanistan, and it's all really just about litigating the result of the election, literally and figuratively litigating, and is Afghanistan just off the radar and forgotten about, and nothing happens between that and the inauguration? Or, does he decide he's just going to burn it all down? And now, his legacy is “I said I was going to do it, and now I'm just going to do it.” That's possible to be too. I think the bureaucracy would have ways of slowing down anything serious that happens between the election and the inauguration, but not necessarily to a great degree. So, there's a lot of uncertainty about that period. If Trump loses and, we get through the November to January period without too much happening with the status quo being essentially preserved, then I think there's an opportunity for the Biden administration to do a bit of resetting, first of all, to kind of re-energize the peacemaking effort, which is right now, pretty much stalled because of the U.S. election – other factors too - but neither side of this negotiation is foolish enough to think they can count on what will happen after an American election.
So, they are being very careful. We're not going to take any risk by entering into any agreements that they're not sure about. So, things are stalled right now because of the election, and if they stay stalled, there'll be an opportunity for Biden administration to re-energize its peacemaking efforts, to maybe repair some of the gaps, to probably take a little more time and be a little more orderly about it. I think they will still be focused on peace process, but the issues themselves are not going to get any easier, and the prospects of ultimate success in a peace negotiation are not going to be orders of magnitude higher, even with a more orderly American foreign policy.
Mwangi Thuita: So, there've been some efforts to imagine alternative histories of the war in Afghanistan, how U.S. strategy could have been implemented a bit better. Last year, Harris professor, Ethan Bueno de Mesquito wrote in the Boston Review that we were always going to lose the war in Afghanistan because, and I want to quote him, here, “Counterinsurgencies are wars of attrition. Wars of attrition are won through resolve and the side facing an existential threat will always have the greater resolve.” He suggested that what could have been a successful, narrowly defined counter-terrorism operation became an unwinnable counter-insurgency moving forward. Do you think the U.S. has learned the right lessons about counterinsurgencies?
Laurel Miller: I largely agree with what you just described from that position, but with some caveats, because I'd want to know what that alternative looked like to getting embroiled in the counterinsurgency. To say we just go in, we talk with the government, and then we say, see you later, that doesn't work particularly well either in terms of stable outcomes. So, there there's a lot to unpack about what that alternative history really looks like. In terms of whether the U.S. has learned the lessons, I'm not sure at all. I don't think the lessons have even been drawn fully yet about Afghanistan, much less learned. And what I think we've seen happen in recent years within the U.S. military establishment is simply sticking your fingers in your ears about counterinsurgency. It's like, “Oh, we just don't talk about counterinsurgency, we don't do counter-insurgency anymore. We're not going to do it again. So why should we bother to think too much about what went right and what went wrong?” I’m exaggerating slightly. The military does have its procedures for doing lessons learned, but it's only a partial exaggeration. There's just been such a rapid swinging away from the notion that we're ever again be in a counterinsurgency, just like happened after Vietnam when it was “Well, we're not going to do that again.” And then lo and behold, we did do that again. That inhibits really learning the lessons. What I do agree with is the idea that the United States could be a successful counter insurgent in Afghanistan, without the Afghans themselves being successful counterinsurgents. That to me is highly problematic.
And if you look at the literature about counterinsurgency doctrine and the supposed success stories of counterinsurgency, that the doctrine is drawn from, the successful examples are not of external powers being the primary counterinsurgents. They are of the internal power being the successful counterinsurgent. And so, to me, that was the fundamental flaw of the U.S. strategic approach to the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, was the idea that without the Afghans, that we could be the primary determinant of success in the counterinsurgency. Now, I don't mean to suggest that no one paid attention to the Afghan forces – there was also an effort to build up their capability – but I think there was a lack of realistic appraisal of how quickly and successfully you are going to be able to build up the indigenous Afghan capability to fight the counterinsurgency.
Aishwarya Raje: So finally, in the context of the peace process, you've talked about how any peace deal being brokered in the immediate future is highly unlikely, but what would a successful peace deal look like for Afghanistan? Part of the answer might be depending who you ask just based on the number of actors that are involved in it. But, let's say for example, if we look at Afghanistan and the U.S., how do we align our best-case scenarios?
Laurel Miller: Yeah. So, first to be clear, I'm a proponent of the peace process in Afghanistan. And I think the chances of success are not zero, and the payoff is high enough that the efforts should be made. Even if you can't say that the likelihood of success is high, from an American perspective, I think the bottom line needs to be what the Afghans themselves can agree to. So, I don't think the U.S. should be that particular about what some of the details of a political settlement look like, even in terms of issues like hot-button issues, like women's rights in Afghanistan. Now, I feel comfortable saying that because there's enough diversity of voices and participants that I don't think that anything that the current Afghan government would agree to would be too compromising on issues like that. But I don't think that the U.S. should have red lines about what the exact nature of the state and governance looks like.
Let’s imagine for instance, that the state structure that emerged looked like Iran. Should we really have a negative view on that? It would be better than Saudi Arabia, if it did, just to be realistic, it would be better than any of the monarchies in the Gulf that we're perfectly friendly with. It would potentially even be not worse than Turkey. So, to my mind, the highest value is in ending the violence and enabling Afghans to live their lives in relative peace. And, from an American perspective, I think that in terms of the details, of what the structure of the state and governance looks like, there's a lot that should be sacrificed for that highest value.
Aishwarya Raje: Well, Laurel, you've been very generous with your time today. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Laurel Miller: Well, it was my pleasure to join you. Thanks for that.
Aishwarya Raje: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Laurel Miller. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit the Pearson institute.org and follow them on Twitter.
Root of Conflict
How Will Climate Change Impact Conflict Trends?
Taylor Griffin: Hi, my name is Taylor Griffin and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast.
Root of Conflict Introducers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can conduct research, implement programs and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research Institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
Mwangi Thuita: Climate change will affect rich and poor countries, but poorer countries are predicted to pay the greatest human and economic cost. In this episode, we interview Amir Jina, an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy researching how economic and social development is shaped by the environment. He uses economics, climate science and remote sensing to understand the impact of climate in both rich and poor countries. In our conversation with Professor Jina, we discuss how shocks to the water system could impact conflict patterns, and whether it's even possible to identify a causal relationship between conflict and climate change. We also discuss his work at the Climate Impact Lab using state-of-the-art empirical methods to study the effects of climate change.
Aishwarya Raje: Professor Jina, thank you so much for joining us today. So, to start out, can you just set the scene for us? Broadly speaking, why do we talk about environmental issues as a potential root cause of conflict, and looking at water, specifically, which was the topic of your Pearson Global Forum panel, what does water conflict mean and what kind of conflict are we talking about?
Amir Jina: So, I think fundamentally why we make this connection is that lots of conflicts, maybe all conflicts, arise as disagreements over resources and access to resources of various kinds. And while they don't have to be environmental resources, that's one of the main ways in which different societies will derive some kind of value or wellbeing. So, we have a situation where water, in particular, is fundamental to so much of what we do as a species, in terms of making our food, for example, that as that resource would start to get scarce, a conflict might inevitably arise or cooperation might arise for that matter, but there's potential in that, in the presence of that scarcity, for some kind of conflict to arise. I think that's why we make that link. One of the points that we had tried to make during the Pearson Forum was that there's a naive idea that this could be people standing around the lake because it's getting smaller and smaller and they're literally firing guns at each other over this dwindling resource, but it's never truly that simple. And one of the things which makes it both a fascinating intellectual problem, but then also a really difficult policy issue, is that the connections are sometimes really obscure. And some of those links are really hard to understand.
Mwangi Thuita: Yeah, I really enjoyed that part of the panel. We know that it's notoriously difficult to disentangle the effects of extreme weather, things like higher temperatures, longer droughts, more intense storms from the other political and economic factors that are making conflict more likely. I think one of the examples given was Syria, which took place against the backdrop of a drought across a large part of the Middle East which caused migration from rural to urban areas. You have an increasing number of unemployment in the context of rising political instability. Do you find terms used to describe the impact of extreme weather caused by climate change, such as catalyst, trigger, threat multiplier, do you find those helpful in understanding how and communicating how climate change affects conflict?
Amir Jina: People who are concerned with security, national security have really attached themselves to this phrase of a threat multiplier. And I think then it becomes from my point of view, a useful communication tool, partly because there is always going to be a debate about how fundamental issues of climate or the environment are in causing conflict. But I think it's a little bit more easy for people to understand that even if it's not the ultimate and direct cause, it almost certainly has the ability to be approximate cause of some kind of issues that we'd see. And so, the threat multiplier language is very useful from that point of view. It's not something that I would talk about. It's not a phrase that I would use so much within talking to colleagues about this, where we would probably try to drill down a bit more and understand specific mechanisms, or refer to something as being – and this is going to be very kind of wonky academic speech – but we'd refer to something as a reduced-form relationship, if we don't understand the mechanism, and we're pretty comfortable talking about those reduced form types of relationships. And then we would drill down into the mechanisms, but in an abstract sense, particularly outside of talking to those people who work on this issue in a research context, it's pretty useful to be able to say, is this something where threats might exist and you know where those threats would be, where you know what a whole other set of risks are?
And what we're talking about is something that might amplify risks. The other useful part of it is that it doesn't immediately dismiss. And in particular, I think it kind of respects the knowledge of people who actually deal with and are concerned with conflict on the ground, because it's saying, you know what these threats are. And this is one extra thing: it's not the academics coming in and saying, I'm going to tell you what's going to cause this conflict, when there's a whole set of political and social context that people working on conflict and in a day-to-day basis will know much better than most academics can ever try to know. So, I think it's super useful from that point of view and I think it shows a little bit of respect and deference to the people who actually are doing more to deal with the consequences of conflict in a real policy sense.
Aishwarya Raje: So, one question around understanding how water and conflict are related. It feels like it often comes back to the lack of comprehensive data around the issue. And I know that's something that came up during your panel during the Forum. And I'm wondering: Is there a push to produce more data as a means to eventually build more effective policies, and whose responsibility would it be to collect and produce this data? Is it local governments? Is it researchers such as yourself? Is it private sector partners? Is it a combination? How should we approach this problem?
Amir Jina: Yeah. So, I think where data becomes useful is in this sense, I guess, taking a step back: What is the actual link that we would see? So, I said, it's very stressed resources, so water supply decreases for some reason. There's a first step, which is just making that connection. So, between weather and conflict, there's an extra step there, which is saying, “How much worse was this in the present day because of climate change?” And that's a really hard thing to do. Something that's a little bit easier is to say, “Let’s take projections of climate change and see if this relationship stays the same, or how much worse, usually worse, but could also be better, but how much worse or better is that going to be in the future?” And so, making those steps and connections along the way to even establish those relationships, we do need data to start. We need data on the conflicts. We need data on people's wellbeing on their health, on socioeconomic status. We need data on what the drivers here would be, which is water access, weather, et cetera.
The really difficult issue with large-scale interpersonal conflict, is that they now are often happening in places without a lot of data on or a lot of environmental monitoring. So, one of the reasons why this research has exploded in the last few years is because there has been a big push towards measurement, broadly speaking, of the environment, of climate, of weather, and bypassing issues that are particularly tricky, like in across all of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, very few permanent weather stations. There’s a handful of airports, but there's nothing like the density of weather measurements that you would get in the United States. Rivers all across the United States have gauges, which tell us what the levels are, what the volume of water flow is, and you just don't get that in a lot of other parts of the world.
So, there's been innovations there on using satellites, on using models of physics of the climate of trying to work out what the weather is in each location. We've been filling a data gap slowly. It's being incidentally attached to understanding conflict, because the reason that those models are being made is because of people doing climate research or environmental research, and they develop some global data sets. And then the people who had this problem of saying, “Well, I wanted to understand the environment-conflict link in this location, where I had no measurements before,” suddenly they have some access to data. So, we're kind of riding on the coattails of a lot of other well-funded science to do this. And so, often those exact measurements aren't exactly what we would need to understand the issue. So, coming back to your point then, we're kind of getting lucky at the moment in terms of there being access to data on the environment side.
And then a few groups are also measuring conflict in a better and more consistent way. Now we can go online and scrape news reports for different conflicts and try and build up our databases in a more consistent way. But for this resource to a conflict link, I think that the level of data that's required to understand the mechanisms part, but also to think about using this information we know about this relationship for early warnings, that's not really there yet. And so, what do we need, coming back to your question? What do we actually need, and whose responsibility is it? In an abstract sense, hopefully it would be the responsibility of anybody who's negatively impacted by that conflict because there's some incentive there, that you should say, “Yes, we should learn about this.” Monitoring efforts are pretty expensive to set up, particularly in the old-style way that you would have in somewhere like the United States or parts of Europe.
And so, we're relying on more innovation to try and make cheaper sensors, cheaper river measurements, cheaper pollution measurements, so that we actually can fill in the map in terms of what's measured and what's not. And so ideally, this would be something that governments would be able to support, but then we enter the issue that comes up when you're thinking about conflict or economic development, which is “What's your priority in that location?” If you are a place which is prone to conflict in the first place. where it's hard to do data monitoring, where your population might be poor, is putting in a set of weather stations or river level gauges actually your highest priority? And the answer is probably no, there's more pressing things. And so, even if it is the government's responsibility, it might be very low on their list of priorities. And so, that's where private agencies, researchers, the international community, does need to step in. If we believe that this is a major issue, then somebody needs to step in and do it because the resources just don't necessarily exist to do it at the national level in a lot of places where we'd really want to monitor this.
Thanks for that. So, you're part of the Climate Impact Lab, which brings together social scientists and
climate scientists to try and figure out how much climate change is costing society and who's paying what. What are you able to achieve working collaboratively between social scientists and climate scientists together that you might not be able to do alone?
Amir Jina: So, yeah, my background was actually that I started off as a physicist, then a climate scientist, and then fell into economics almost accidentally. Someone told me about a paper by Esther Duflo, who was the second woman to win an Economics Nobel prize. And this was 10, 12 years ago. And prior to that, I had a very narrow and biased view of what economics was. I thought it was investment banking. So, seeing this paper about the welfare effects of a government pension refund in South Africa on granddaughters of women who got this transfer, that to me was kind of mind blowing. So I moved from climate science more into economics. And I've tried to keep those two things together, as much as I can.
The drawback of that or that the difficulty with that is it's pretty hard to try and be an expert in one thing, let alone an expert in multiple things. And so, early on, I had to give up the idea that I'm going to be an expert in these two things, but that there's very few people sitting at this intersection. And what that allowed me to do was have a language to be able to communicate with both of those fields and to try and bring together a larger group. The benefit of that is that we're in a situation where, for questions like this environment and conflict question, where insights from more than one discipline are actually important, for the issue of conflict and for a lot of issues dealing with fundamental questions of human wellbeing and how we interact with each other, the question becomes more important than the discipline that you are situated in when you ask that.
We should be focused on solving or understanding a certain problem. And that means trying to get ourselves out of the silo that we're in intellectually and seeing what are the tools that are needed to solve this problem. And so, I think the benefit that comes from working with the Climate Impact Lab, the reason why it's somewhat organically evolved into the thing that it is, with as you said, computer scientists and economists and climate scientists and others, is that it allows us to stay focused on a problem and bring together the resources we need. And sometimes it's true. We do need, if we want to understand, for example, uncertainty and what the future is going to be like, we need real climate science there to tell us, but we also need the economists to say, well, here's what we understand about the link to the economy. Here's what we understand about this aspect of the economic system. And currently, the climate science is not seeing this part and the economics is not seeing what the climate science can do.
So, we actually need to find some bridge in between these, and it's allowed us, in doing that to solve questions in a way which we think is more focused on the actual policy actions you could take. So, to do this in a way which is really hyper-local, we can get this all over information all over the world, right down to the equivalent of the county level in different countries. We can do a full quantification of uncertainty, which I think is useful for investments, or if you're thinking generally of your climate risks, broadly, it helps to know what your average change might be in the future, but it also helps to know what your 1 in 20 or 1 to 10, your risk of change might be, so, what the full distribution is. I think that's what this collaboration has allowed us to do.
Aishwarya Raje: So, as a follow-up to that, I feel like often times in the world of academia, which of course you have much more experience we do, it's easy to get caught up in looking at really highly consequential and urgent issues like climate change, public health, poverty, as intellectual exercises, or as things that are intellectually interesting rather than as issues that affect people's wellbeing and livelihood. So, given your role in the Climate Impact Lab, or just in general, how do we make sure that we're not just researching for researching and actually taking into account the human factor with these issues?
Amir Jina: This is absolutely something that I wrestle with if not on a daily basis, than an almost daily basis. And I think I spent a lot of time early on in my research career doing long stints of field work. Sometimes particularly in development economics, that can be…the interactions there with the place that you're studying can actually be quite short, but I would try and go for as long as possible and spend a few months in a place and try to learn as much as possible about the people who were being affected by the thing I was trying to research. And partly, that did two things. One was to make sure that I understood well. And I think a lot of the really good development economists that I look up to, do have, even if they don't write about it in their papers, sometimes they have this really in-depth knowledge of the places that they're working in.
And they have people who they work with there, who are living there full-time from those locations that are able to provide context when needed. The other thing that it helps to do is when I sit down and see some data points or some data set on a different outcome, it helps me try and connect that. It's something that I have to consciously do, but helps me try and connect it back to some of the stories that I remember from sitting in a focus group in a small village in Bangladesh or somewhere, and try to remember there's enormous consequences to getting these answers right in this information. So, that's the one aspect of this. I think the other part is recognizing that there's kind of an ecosystem right in this. So, I'm a researcher because I derive some kind of enjoyment from finding out new things.
And I think that's true of most academics. There's some reward to just thinking deeply and understanding something. And that might be what motivates us to some extent. I think most of the people, particularly at a policy school, are also motivated by solving a real problem. One of the things which we've tried to do with Climate Impact Lab, and I think some of us tried to do generally is to make sure that we recognize there's a broader ecosystem around that knowledge system. There are people who will be able to use it. There are people who might rely on that information. There are people whose lives will be improved by finding out answers to different questions, and to make sure that we don't just sit in our offices on our computers, writing the papers, but actually get nudged towards what the important question is.
Mwangi Thuita: Speaking of visiting developing countries, I saw that you you've been to Kenya. I saw some photos on
Amir Jina: Yes, I have. My father was from Tanzania actually.
Mwangi Thuita: Okay, I’m from Kenya!
Amir Jina: The thing which I didn't realize for years was my father grew up in Tanzania and they had actually moved to Kenya originally from India in the 1800s. But my name, my last name, means name in Swahili. And so, when I landed in Kenya for the first time, on my immigration form, I wrote down and said, Jina, and then I wrote Jina after it. And the immigration officials found this so funny, and one guy cracked up and he called over the guy next to him and said, “This guy doesn’t know what he's doing.” I was like, no, that's really my name. They looked at my passport, everything. But yeah, so I have a connection to there. The work in Kenya was actually part of working with the United Nations, with UNICEF and the United Nations environment program. There was a small network of people at African universities trying to think about climate adaptation, particularly this youth initiative that was starting.
So, part of it was, “I'm trying to support this,” and then, a few people went there and, and kind of helped with the knowledge sharing that was related to that. So, I think it’s another one of those things, actually that even though I don't have research from there at that time, the connections that I made and some of the things I got to experience in different community conservation projects, for example, have actually stuck with me a lot. And those are some of the things which provide the motivation or at least some context for why I continue to try and sit behind my computer and sometimes boring work of doing the papers.
Mwangi Thuita: So, you earlier said that although we know that there's an effect of shocks to a water supply and conflict behavior, that we don't know much about the mechanisms. Specifically, I think during the panel, you said that shocks to water systems are increasing the risk of conflict by about 5% to 10%. First of all, can you just explain it in simple terms? What do those numbers mean? What does that mean?
Amir Jina: That was coming from a paper of a coauthor of mine who had done this broad meta-analysis of about 6 different research projects at all different scales, and looking at what the climate conflict link was. Standardizing those making sure they controlled for all the unobservable differences that might lead to problems in that interpretation, so that you could interpret those causally, and then looked at the average effect of those. And what they found was this one standard deviation change in precipitation. So not really in the lake access or something like that, but just a precipitation shock led to this, this 5% difference. So, that was a very specific thing. It's hard. So, I'm fairly confident that we can interpret those things causally because of the way we set up the observational data.
But we set up the experiment with our panel data and our fixed effects and all the things that become important for turning this interpretation into a causal one, rather than just correlational. I think what we would need to understand exactly what those mechanisms are, is in some cases, just a lot more data, a lot more research, but also in particular, a lot more understanding of the effect of certain policies, either directly related to conflict or not. So, there's this fascinating paper about the monsoon in India and looking at crime rates due to changes in the amount of rainfall that happened during the monsoon in India, and it found that there was a relationship between less rain and more crime, and then it looked at the rollout of this Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which was an act in the mid-2000s, which gave guaranteed labor for people or days of work for people who were unemployed.
So, for example, if there was an agricultural shock, their crop failed, they could go and get access to work for pay. And so, it was this work guarantee act. The way that that was rolled out across the country wasn't exactly random, but it was turned on in some states at certain times differently. And this research paper, by a guy named Thiemo Fetzer, found that the relationship between rainfall and conflict almost completely disappeared. And that tells us a lot about what might be happening behind this mechanism. This is something saying, well, if we know that this is related to employment. What's the main source of employment that's being targeted by this policy? It's agricultural employment, to make sure that people don't end up unemployed or losing money that comes from either being a landless labor who's employed on a farm or having your own crops fail if you own your land.
That allows us to say, well, we've identified a little bit more what the source of that link could be. It's down to the food supply, but more than just the food supply, it's down to people's ability to make money. The amount that people were getting for this for this extra day of work wasn't actually that much money. So, it shows potentially how desperate people had gotten that they would engage in this really risky crime conflict behavior in order to make up for that loss. And it tells us quite a lot about the actual household budgeting decision that goes into what might make somebody engage in a pretty desperate activity. And so, I think it's situations like that where we can understand the role that certain policies play, where we know the policy targets a certain specific mechanism where we start to learn a lot more, but that's a slow process of building up information. The ideal would be that we could then see this, learn something from it and say, “Okay, maybe the environmental conflict nexus, instead of focusing on ending the conflict once it happens, why don't we think of something like a social safety net as being that conflict reduction policy?”
Mwangi Thuita: Well, thank you. Thank you so much for your time and also for the important work you're doing. It's very interesting and of course important.
Amir Jina: Thank you both so much.
Root of Conflict Introducer: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Amir Jina, this episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Raje and Mwangi Thuita. Thank you to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support for this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's events and research, visit thepearsoninstitute.org and follow them on Twitter.
Root of Conflict
COVID-19 and Peacebuilding in Nigeria
Root of Conflict Introducers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can conduct research, implement programs and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research Institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
Daniella Choi: Hello, my name is Daniella Choi.
Daniel Vallejo: And I'm Daniel Vallejo and we are so excited to have Dr. Rebecca Wolfe and Maurice Amollo with us. Rebecca is a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy and she's a renowned expert on political violence, conflict and violent extremists. Maurice is the Chief of Party for Mercy Corps Nigeria’s country office. The two of them have worked together for a long-time developing programs and conducting evaluations on conflict mitigation.
Daniella Choi: On this episode, we highlight Mercy Corps program in Nigeria called the “Community Initiatives to Promote Peace. It's a multi-faceted program aimed at building bridges between pastoralists and farmers by engaging community and faith-based leaders, coordinating social assistance, and strengthening conflict mitigation networks to promote peaceful coexistence. We talk about the intergroup tension between the indigenous and non-indigenous populations as a root of conflict and how this identity-based conflict is widespread around the world. We also discussed the disruptive effects of COVID-19 and social distancing measures on implementing this program, which is based on building trust and social cohesion.
Daniel Vallejo: Dr. Wolfe and Maurice, thank you for joining us today. We understand you're focusing on mainly two groups, addressing the conflict between two groups, so if you could talk a little bit more about these two groups, the difference between them, or why this conflict arose.
Maurice Amollo: The Community Initiatives to Promote Peace program is trying to empower communities to prevent and respond to violence and violent extremism by strengthening key skills and relationships. We are trying to also foster an environment for peace through policy, advocacy, media outreach, and of course, linkages to development programs. The focus there is mostly to ensure that the various development programs and policies that are being implemented to improve people's lives in the middle belt are conflict sensitive. They’re being implemented based on do no harm principles. But now for our study, the focus is on two groups, the farmers and the herders, and that conflict has had a long history and it's complicated because of a myriad of issues and challenges that have come with it.
One of the things that is happening currently, particularly in what we call the Chad Basin is because of the effects of climate change. We are having an accelerated state of desertification. And with that, we have communities that are moving from as far as Chad southwards, and mostly herders from the Fulani community. And as they move, they are getting into conflicts with farmers because of the competition for the limited natural resources, most of the cases, the hoarders are accused of leaving the animals unattended and destroying farms. And so, because of that, it has brought really serious, violent conflicts between those two groups, but it is also complicated by the religious dynamics, because the Fulani are predominantly Muslim, and the majority of farmers in this middle belt are Christians, and religion is the strongest form of identity in Nigeria. This violence has become political, politicians use it to access resources, but also power, it has become religious. The underlying root causes are not in most cases appropriately addressed. There are also serious individuals who can appropriately respond to some of these disagreements on the marge and use nonviolent ways to deal with those particular conflicts. Our other partners are trying to build the capacity of these particular communities, but also foster an environment where these individuals can be able to resolve their conflicts in a non-violent manner.
Daniel Vallejo: An important root of this conflict is conflict with the natural resources and their scarcity. Is this scarcity due to human intervention, or is it more related to a natural cycle in order to understand what are the possible solutions on the scope?
Maurice Amollo: I would think it's both. One is that there are challenges with demographics. You know, the Nigerian population is very young, and it is expanding so fast to the country right now. The population of the countries in Europe are between 200 to 250 million people, and of that, I think over 70% is below 35 years. There are no jobs, there are no jobs. There are challenges with the governance system. Security is a big challenge. The government is unable to provide adequate security to these people, and there is not enough space where communities can co-create with the government officials to come up with solutions that are challenging them. And because of that, everybody is to himself or herself. But also, I think that the limitation is, these communities are heavily dependent on natural resources, particularly the herders, and if it is farmers, mostly depending on rain-fed agriculture, there is not enough space for everyone, and there is not enough capacity to rally the communities around common areas where they can be able to deal with some of these problems because of, again, as I said, weaknesses within the governance system.
Daniella Choi: In terms of what we're seeing in the scarcity mindset, it can go for the natural resources, and obviously the effects of climate change is making livelihood for subsistence farmers extremely difficult. And alongside of that, the scarcity mindset that it exists within the ingroup and outgroup population. So, sort of the social trust element and the social network element. And we're curious, particularly because the intervention you're designing, or you have designed and are evaluating, is a peace-building intervention that is really founded on building that social understanding and trust. So, how that selection process happened and deciding which dimension of this root causes to focus on.
Rebecca Wolfe: These peace-building interventions Mercy Corps has been working on actually started probably in about, I think, 2009, with a program funded by the UK government. And we've been able to do these follow on interventions, building off of that and the intersectionality of the farmers and herders and religion, and the religious dynamic that plays a role, but it worked with communities. They say particularly in the more rural areas, it’s largely about the resources. What’s been an added identity issue that's come up in recent years, is this question of local versus foreign, outside pastoralists, or Fulani, as Maurice is saying, because of climate change, people are migrating from further North down South. And so, they aren't familiar with the agreements that had been fostered with local Fulani. With Mercy Corps, they did a qualitative study of this kind of foreign pastoralist, and at one point, a discussion with USH, should we talk about it in terms of farmer-pastoralists conflict, or in a sense, local versus – I forget the term they were thinking of using, because local farmers and pastoralists weren't having that many issues with each other.
It was about this additional identity that came apart of it. And so, what we were seeing back then, in 2000, this was clearly the most important kind of issue and that was affecting this area of Nigeria more. So, we were doing assessments in the south of Nigeria as well, but this is where we also felt we could have the most impact because it was a locally based conflict, not driven by more political factors at a national level. What's been interesting is a lot of the funding for peacebuilding around 2012 and 2014 started to move to Northeastern Nigeria because of Boko Haram, and so, a different identity-based conflict. And all the good work that had happened in the middle belt, all the funding went towards the Northeast and now violence because of these resource factors has escalated again.
And so, the money's now moving back, and it shows the fact of having a short-term mindset on these issues, because they're identity-based and longstanding, has potentially perverse effects.
Daniella Choi: I lived in Gambia, and last summer, I worked in Ghana, and because my host family were Fulani people from Guinea, I always try to talk to folks if I see them. And it's really interesting because the conflict in Gambia was Fulani pastoralists from Niger. And the people always said, “Oh, they're from Niger, they're very different from us.” Whereas in Ghana too, I was in the Northern side and there were Fulani folks from Burkina Faso that came over with political hardships, like years ago or something like that. And people still have a very strong identity of, “Oh, they're the Fulanis from Burkina Faso, which was really fascinating how long that lasts.”
Daniel Vallejo: I was wondering, I was thinking, when you start working with nomadic communities, you have to change a lot, this scope of how you measure the impact or how you continue measuring the impact, because they will change, they will move. I mean, in your report, you make a lot of analysis like in this municipality this happened, or in this one, this happened, how do you do this? They will not be there tomorrow.
Rebecca Wolfe: I will say, I often joke how I didn't learn my lesson last time around, of doing a RC with a mobile population. I had done a research workshop with people when I was designing the first study and no one gave me feedback that this was a really bad idea. And it really, in some ways is a bad idea. And yet I'm doing it again. I mean, one thing that has worked really well, and has helped us is our local partner. They parry, in both the previous study and this study that we're currently running, they really understand where the pastoralist communities are moving. And again, local pastoralists, there's regular movements that they make yearly. And so, we could know where to follow up with them. It did make other aspects of the peacebuilding program difficult. So, how do you have a project that benefits the pastoralists to the same extent as the farmers? Cause you're putting it in a physical…
Daniel Vallejo: So, when you’re – talking specifically about pastorals – you’ve put in this community, in this geographic location, the numbers you find, that group is going to become part of another municipality?
Rebecca Wolfe: Because of the way the movements are, they still are kind of grouped within a community. So, even if they move far away, we were able to kind of separate it out. So, it's not the way we demarcate community, so that there wouldn't be that contamination that it sounds like you're getting at that. So, they moved from a treatment community, for example, to a control community in their migration. Is that what, in essence, what you're asking?
Daniel Vallejo: Exactly, yeah, perfect.
Rebecca Wolfe: So, we were able to make sure, again, working with the local partner, they would help us be able to map who the communities are, where the pastoralists went to, so that we didn't have kind of those strict boundaries between those. I will say there were times in the previous study where, to be able to address some of the conflict dynamics. We had controlled communities come into the study because we wouldn't be able to resolve the conflict dynamics without them. And that was more of a priority than the study. What we also realized, that by including control communities from time to time, it would minimize any results we had. It wouldn't have exacerbated the results. And so, we still could feel confident.
Daniel Vallejo: Part of what we have done, I think as Rebecca mentioned, is to try and understand the movement patterns of the pastoral. It’s so hard. We also take a very close look at the seasons. You know, the rainy seasons and the dry seasons are to determine how those movements will be influenced. We also have mapped out the corridors, even though those keep changing, we've mapped out the corridors to try and predict where they'll come from and how they move, what community they will come to. And in most cases over the years, that pattern has been fairly similar. It hasn't changed much, and that is why you have conflicts recurring in certain areas over and over again. That said, it's of course a challenge that we continuously have to take into consideration. We are trying to see if we can work with RN because they are doing this human tracking, where they can predict when the pastoralists or the herders will likely move from one area to another.
Daniella Choi: It seems that building trust and getting buy-in from both sides of the peacebuilding that you're working on is really important. And particularly with creating the intervention design or even understanding who are the leaders and what are the government resources that they would like to be linked to, and mitigation techniques, it seems like there's a lot that requires centering the communities’ voice and centering their experience, as well as co-creating the intervention. I was wondering if you could provide one example to how a better understanding of the needs of their community has allowed for this space to co-create their intervention.
Maurice Amollo: One of the things we've done, of course, it’s really critical to understand really the inner dynamics and operations of the community you're working with, to know who is, who, who are the influencers, who are the gate keepers, who do I want to keep close? Who do I want to keep even closer? Particularly the spoilers. We try to keep them as close as possible. And I think we do all that so continuously, we have a very important component in our programming, and that is conflict and stakeholder analysis or mapping where, before we start programming, we try to map as exhaustively as possible, who are the key actors in each community, who has the ability to move people away from, but also to violence. And once we know who these individuals are, then we develop strategies on how to reach out to them.
So, they are part and parcel of the problem. Conflict analysis enables us to understand the dynamics of the conflict factors and how they are changing at any one given time, as you know, conflicts can evolve very fast. It can start into something about your animals ate my corn, and then it moves very, very fast for a very different thing. If you ask why people are fighting, it would have changed, it would have acquired a very different image. So, continuously we do conflict analysis, but we are also conducting interviews, what we call daily context analysis, where we send questions to communities and they are able to respond. And we are able to see real-time in our dashboard, what, how people perceive the state of peace or conflicts in their particular community. And to be able to then come up with an appropriate response to what that is. It all revolves around trust building with all the key strategic quarters. And that includes government, it includes security officers, politicians, youth, women, who are a very, very important component of this program, and bringing all of them together, or what I think Rebecca normally says, creating a dense network of individuals who can be able to create where there is attention, but also respond with a necessary capacity to respond to that particular incident.
Root of Conflict Introducers: We will be right back. Hey, Root of Conflict listeners. This is David Ruban from UC3P, the main page. Obviously, if you're listening to this, you like Root of Conflict. We think there might be a good chance you'll like the main page too. Every Friday, podcasters from across UC3P do interviews and mini-series on a wide range of topics related to policy, politics, and current affairs. Check out UC3P, the main page, wherever you find podcasts. And now back to Root of Conflict.
Daniel Vallejo: We're going to move a little bit to another topic. Like we understand that COVID has become this global thing, this global pandemic, but when you start thinking about rural communities that are not so related to this global interexchange, we were wondering if COVID is really that important in these situations. Like for example, I'm from Colombia and comparing to the Colombian situation, in many rural regions, you have issues with malaria, with dengue, COVID is just like another one, it’s not the one. So, if you could talk a little bit more about this, how are they leaving this there.
Maurice Amollo: Just like you said in Colombia, it's almost the same here, that people think that yes, the government is telling us there is COVID-19 there, but the systems that the government has put in place to respond to the pandemic are in many ways in direct conflict with people's normal, daily ways of life. And it's even worse in these communities where we, if you are in urban or peri-urban areas, they depend on wage and employment. And so, to tell them to restrict movements, social distancing, to tell people that you have to continuously wash your hands in communities that are suffering serious water scarcity, it just makes sense. And then bring that together with the whole trust issue. These are communities in conflict, in standing conflicts here, there are serious challenges with the trust, because of flows and governance, communities don't trust what the government says. And of course, then we also have the other component, the elephant in the room in Nigeria, and that's Boko Haram with its propaganda. Whether this is something that is affecting the West, the enemy, or that has been brought by the enemy and we should resist, or this is just another strategy to put us down.
So, it has come with a lot of misinformation. Unfortunately, the government's approach has not really responded to some of these challenges because I see daily briefings of the state of COVID-19 and they're just called statistics. You know, now this number of people are infected in the last 24 hours. There are now so many 10,000 people infected. This number is dead. This number are discharged today. But they do not really explain to a random guy in the street language, what all this means. So, in a way, people have just ignored these guidelines and they are going on with their life. However, in response, the government has instructed security operators to take various stern action. Again, it's people who are not following those guidelines.
The military has been deployed. And with that, we have had an escalation of conflict particularly between youth and the police, because a lot of security have now been deployed to either enforce the curfew or enforce travel restrictions. individuals have taken advantage of standing conflicts, especially between the farmers and herders to commit things that we'll say are purely criminal, either cattle-wrestling, stealing from farmers or from herders. And this has seen a spike in violence between farmers and herders, since the COVID-19 started, with not much response from the government. Again, interestingly, even government officials are uncomfortable to move around because of COVID-19. And so, the response is not as robust as you'd think it. And then the other thing is that even those people that we had trained in conflict with the issue are unable actually to move in and deal with this, some of these conflicts.
And so, we are worried that COVID-19 is likely to wipe out some of the gains that we had achieved. We have tried to really adjust to the situation. We've moved a number of our programs to radio. We have expanded our social media outreach, particularly targeting young people. And we are remaining in contact with the key strategic community leaders, through telephone conversations to ensure that where we can intervene, we are intervening. The restriction in movement particularly, and social distancing has created a very new dynamic that I think as a peacebuilding community, we are not very prepared for. Our work is first and foremost to build relationships and you don't build relationships through telephone conversations. You build or rebuild relationships through bringing people together, sitting and confronting some of the challenges and the trust issues that they are going through. So yeah, we are using alternative means and we are right now in unchartered waters. but I'm sure something good will come out of this.
Daniella Choi: Maurice, as you were talking about how coronavirus has affected Nigeria and your particular work, it really mirrors the U.S.’s experiences, as it does for a lot of other places in terms of misinformation and sort of delayed or inaction on the part of the government, and just the daily lives as we know it being affected. And I wonder particularly in the context of the issue that you're working in, the spike in violence with the pastoralists and farmers community, and growing distrust, that the social distancing is obviously not aiding. In an ideal world, what would be an intervention you would like to see from the government?
Maurice Amollo: So, we have started organizing online meetings, virtual meetings with some strategic government officers, but also members from the civil society to begin to discuss some of these policies that the government have put in place. And we just remind them about the unintended outcome of some of those. For example, things around banning travel and what they define as essential services. And they have not seen, particularly among conflicted communities, that individuals who have the capacity to mediate this conflict should be considered as essential servants. So we are trying to really advocate for these individuals to be allowed, of course, taking care of all other things that you need to take care of during a pandemic, and they're allowed to make sure that they mediate this conflict to avoid escalation, so that they're not arrested, because we are stopping the spread of COVID-19, but people are losing lives and property. So, it doesn't make a lot of sense. So, how can we still implement these policies, but also ensure that conflicts are not worsening where they are? How do we balance between the two?
Daniel Vallejo: Given that the governments have been spending a lot of resources to overcome this COVID crisis, do you think this will affect in some sense, the available funds for international aid?
Rebecca Wolfe: Yes. And I think maybe Maurice can also add to that in terms of, has he been asked, or knows of how the Nigeria program has been asked to move interventions into a different area. Earlier in the conversation, I mentioned that just moving from the middle belt to Northeast Nigeria because of the change in crisis. And I saw that happen in Iraq as well after ISIS. So, we had been doing all this governance and civil society work in other areas and ISIS hid, and all the money and the work moved to humanitarian, not the development work and peace-building work that had been happening. And so, I think there is going to be a lot of shifting of funding into this area. And one of the things I've seen from other research I did in Afghanistan is in a sense what a potential backlash affects when aid goes away, especially when it's done, not in a considered and deliberate way, when it's just this kind of immediate thing. And so, there is, particularly in conflict zones, that significantly risk that not just all the gains will be lost, but actually could create more grievances.
Maurice: Currently. I think what is happening in Nigeria, we've seen some donors, some of the programs to begin to repurpose some of the funding. So far, I think the sector that has been affected is the USAID, humanitarian response programs. At least for me, I've had several calls with our donor USAID, but also with DFID and our message has been very, very clear and simple. I think just based on what Rebecca has said, we have told them that look, you have already invested heavily in dealing with some of these conflicts. If you look at the UN SDGs, particularly for a country like Nigeria, they're still in the red. They have not achieved that. There has been some progress, but they’re not quite there. In fact, they are still […].
If you look at the amount of investments that have already been put to deal with this conflict, I think for the UK government alone, if you look at the just the ODA, they invested around over 200, close to 300 million in 2018. If, right now, we decide that COVID is the fraction of the thin, unless we propose funding and put a break on conflicts, I think the effect will be really, really bad, because number one, these conflicts have not stopped. As I said earlier, they are continuing, even as COVID-19, is ongoing and we will most likely lose everything we've worked for in in the past few years. So, I would say COVID-19 as a threat multiplier, and let's double down in our efforts and say, “Yes, we will deal with this COVID-19, but we will also ensure that other efforts at managing conflicts are maintained.” Because diseases really do well in areas where there is silence, where people are not talking, and conflicts breed silence, because of trust issues. If you want people to tackle COVID-19 effectively, you will want effective communication. You want people to cooperate. You want people to come together. Conflict does not allow for the building of social capital, for those people to come together and do these things. So, if you take your foot off the gas now, it will be worse.
Daniella Choi: We are in the U.S., we are in the middle of another crisis with race relations and systemic racism, and just ongoing protests with everything that's been going on with police violence. And I could not help but think about the parallel of the conversation we're having here, with the dynamic that we're seeing in the U.S., and I wonder if you have been reflecting on that dynamic based on what you know of the mitigation work you've done in other places, and how you’re repping around this issue.
Rebecca Wolfe: As I reflected in class, on Monday, we started the humanitarian course with the uptick of COVID in that there was an essence, a humanitarian response in this country. And we closed class on Monday after a night of pretty bad looting that distracted from the important protests that were happening.
And I had walked around my neighborhood that morning and just saw all the damage that had been done. And it was an interesting kind of book casing of the course. And there has been talk of UN resolutions against the U.S. What would humanitarian intervention mean here, or if that UN resolution got passed, I mean, it won’t, at least at the Security Council. So, definitely at that high level I had been thinking about it. What I've been thinking actually at the intersection of COVID and this issue is just a complete lack of trust with communities and government and how what's happening now is even going to make that worse. And so, we likely will have another spike of COVID, and how much harder it will be to have those social distancing measures taken up. And so, seeing in my neighborhood how people are not all obeying the rules already, and we're one day out of lockdown. And so, that to me, is just the lack of trust in institutions here now. And so, much of the peace building work I've done with Maurice over the years has been about trying to connect communities to institutions.
Danielle Choi: Absolutely. We need interventions in the U.S. very badly as well. So, thank you for that.
Maurice Amollo: Yeah. And I mean, just to add, we've had similar challenges in my country back in Kenya. I've seen similar challenges in other countries as well and in Nigeria currently. And I think apart from building those strong institutional networks and connections and relationships that Rebecca has talked about, one thing that we continuously challenge people to think about, but which for some strange reason everybody's afraid of - and I mean we can also see it in the US now, is getting familiar with what our emotions teach us when we go through some of these challenges. When we hurt one another. Because when we don't feel acknowledged, or when grief goes underground and gets twisted, when we don't have avenues for response, whether it's embodied or not, but some kind of avenue for response, or when we think that it's for other people, over there, then things get strange and harmful.
And I think that particularly as humanity, we are not even very practiced at perceiving it as harm. It reminds me of those people who are commenting with such compassion for the dog in the video of Andy Cooper, if you've seen that. It's some kind of twisted shame and empathy. We continuously lose our capacity to respond to such things. It happens continuously and our response is not authentic. Yeah. And it's not authentic and it's not from a place of connectedness, and we continue hurting one another. I see it right now among the Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. I see it among ethnic communities in Kenya, whether it is Luos and Kikuyus, and now I see it in this situation in the U.S. It’s some kind of twisted sham that cuts off connection. So, you don't have to perceive it as such, but it's actually a […]. So, we need to really be able to be familiar with our emotions and confront them across lines. You should not be ashamed of talking about some of these things.
Daniel Vallejo: Briefly tell us, what are the next steps? How is this probably going to follow? Do you have already defined what's going to happen?
Maurice Amollo: Oh, so we already have the money. We have the funds –
Daniel Vallejo: Haha, great.
Maurice Amollo: We have the funds to conduct the study, and we have already started with the study. I think we've already trained a group of community mediators and deployed them. On some of them, I think in one state, while we managed to collect initial data, they've already, I think, resolved 125 disputes. We already have communities’ control and test the communities in place. So, the study is ongoing. I think going forward right now is to see to conduct a midterm test, to see where we are with things. We are actually interviewing community leaders in control areas so that we get to know also what their capacity levels is and how they see things, which will enable effective comparison. Then we'll do a midterm evaluation, and at the end of the year, we will now start adding more activities to what we are doing right now and to keep testing and see eventually what we get.
Rebecca Wolfe: We're in about the first year of a five-year program, now. And often you get results of studies like this after the program is over. And because we're doing it at the early part of the program, we'll be able to feed in the results of the study to be able to adapt it and learn from that. And then, as Maurice said, we're adding different components to be able to also look at the differential effects of these various components. One of the challenges of many development and peacebuilding programs today is that it has multiple components. And so, you don't know what's having the most impact on your results. And so, after the first year of implementation, we'll add in those dialogues, so kind of the more contact part of the program, and see what the added effect is, of the relationship building component in addition to mediation. And so, those results would come say two years out, but it’s nice to be able to do it as a more iterative process, versus just, you run a five-year study, and then about a year after the study, the program is over and then you find out what it did. And no one who was involved in the program is around anymore. So, it's very much more of a learning approach we've been able to take here.
Daniel Vallejo: Thank you very much.
Daniella Choi: This was a lovely chat. Thank you so much.
Root of Conflict Introducers: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Maurice Amollo and Rebecca Wolfe. Thanks to our interviewers, Daniella Choi and Danielle Vallejo and to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. To learn more about the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit the Pearson institute.org and follow them on Twitter.
Root of Conflict
COVID-19 in Conflict Afflicted States
Yi Ning Wong: Hi everyone. My name is Yi Ning Wong and Sonnet and I are going to be your host for today's episode. Today we have Frances Brown here with us. Frances Brown is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program. We're going to chat a little bit about how the pandemic has changed the political landscape of conflict regions locally and internationally. She recently co-authored Coronavirus and Conflict Zones: A Sobering Landscape, for instance.
Sonnet Frisbie: Thank you so much for joining us today. The report that you co-authored was really interesting. I really enjoyed reading it. Coronavirus and Conflict Zones: A Sobering Landscape. Could you maybe give us a quick rundown of the methodology you used in the reports, since we’re a wonky data and conflict podcast, and some of the key findings?
Frances Brown: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks Sonnet. And it's great to be here with you and Yi Ning. Last month, my co-editor Jarrett Blank, who’s a colleague at Carnegie Endowment, and I released this report and it's actually a compilation of twelve different essays looking twelve different conflicts in fragile states around the world. We asked us a variety of Carnegie experts to analyze their areas of expertise, their country of expertise, and look at how the coronavirus may affect these conflicts going forward. Then Jared and I, the co-editors put together a synthesis high-level report, which I believe you've read pointing out some high-level trends that we see that are shared among these various conflicts. It's worth noting that obviously, this is a really preliminary story. This report was drafted just as the coronavirus was really taking hold in many of these conflict areas and fragile states. So, some of it is speculative or some of it is trying to predict trends that we were just seeing the stirrings of at the start, but we still think it's important and informative because I think it can help us all collectively get our heads around how this virus might affect conflict dynamics in the coming months, and unfortunately, years. It's also worth saying, of course, there's a ton of local variation between these conflict areas and also among other conflict areas that we didn't cover in this report beyond these twelve.
Sonnet Frisbie: I'm going to put you on the spot. Can you list the twelve? And if not, that's totally okay, since you had a coauthor, but maybe the top four or five that you think about and worry about day to day.
Frances Brown: Absolutely. Yes. I think I can list the twelve, although not necessarily in alphabetical order. So, we profiled Afghanistan, the breakaway region of Eastern Ukraine, Iran, Libya, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. And Kashmir, and related India and Pakistan conflicts.
Yi Ning Wong: I would imagine the pandemic to really complicate the layer of local variation too, but broadly speaking, how have we seen ways in which violence or economic or health harm have increased in these countries?
Frances Brown: Yeah, it's important to know that, unfortunately, for many of these countries that we look at, the pandemic is coming on top of what were already a couple of crises underway. So, in many places we see the pandemic basically being on a collision course with preexisting violence or conflict crises and pre-existing economic strain. And now, unfortunately, the pandemic is exacerbating those trends in really harmful ways. So, a couple examples of this: we're definitely seeing these mutually reinforcing trends of conflict, health, and economics crisis in places that have a large number of conflict-displaced people or refugees. So, countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia. These are areas that already obviously had a huge displaced population, already had limitations on how they could work. Now, in many cases, they've been displaced yet again because of the virus, they fear the conflict, they fear violence in their areas, they fear working and they're unable to work from the virus. So, we're really seeing harms compound for some of the most vulnerable populations.
In a separate vein, we’re seeing this trend of compounding economic conflict and virus crises in countries that are heavily reliant on oil revenues. And those of you who've been watching the oil markets are probably aware of how this is affecting a lot of these countries. So, countries like Libya, Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, heavily dependent on the hydrocarbon sector, and now they've got a fiscal crunch on top of the ongoing conflicts or political instability in their countries. And unfortunately, here again, it's the most vulnerable parts of the population who really suffer. Another element of this is, less than conflict zones per se, but just across fragile states where informal urban economy employment is a big part of the economy.
A lot of these jobs obviously can't be done remotely. So, we're seeing really huge and scary projections of how many people might lose their work and their income because of the virus. In Africa – there’s just a couple citations on this that are actually beyond the compilation, but that I've encountered more recently – in Africa, an estimated 22 million people work in informal urban employment alone. And obviously, this can't be done remotely, so many millions of these could be pushed into poverty as a result. And then the final element of this to add is that because of the migration restrictions that are occurring now as a part of the coronavirus, many countries now are seeing a decline in imports that are really important for food security. So, one example of this is Afghanistan. It relies heavily on wheat from Kazakhstan. So, as border trade has been halted, as a result, and then it's now been put on a quota, that's had really damaging implications for food security. So, in short, it's a pretty bleak picture when you put together the virus, conflict areas, and economic harms.
Sonnet Frisbie: Right? And a lot of these regions have governments that don't have extremely high capacity, although I have heard some conversations about redefining how we talk about state capacity in light of government responses. But one part of my question is how do you see that compounding the response? And then the other part is, coronavirus has really brought into sharp relief, the importance of information and how information really is power in a crisis. And there have been a lot of debates, looking at data coming out of Africa, for example, is it true that they don't have a lot of cases? Is it just that they're unable to test and collect that data or is there a certain amount of even willful misreporting in some places?
Frances Brown: Yeah, it's such a good point Sonnet. So, on governance capacity to respond. Yeah. This is a huge, huge challenge. A lot of these conflict zones that we were talking about already had really limited either government capacity or legitimacy, and that was already a challenge for their service delivery. Now we've got the coronavirus on top of it. So, what we're seeing is, the pandemic is providing a test of effectiveness for a lot of these governments, a lot of these formal state authorities and also for non-state authorities. So, a couple of examples of that, our collection looks at Kashmir. As you may know, late last year, the Indian government revoked Kashmir's special status. And a key rationale for that was that this would be a way to better deliver effective governance, effective service delivery.
So now the pandemic is here. A lot of residents are viewing this as a test to see if Delhi can actually deliver or not. So, we'll see, the jury is out. It seems like Kashmiris in general are at least accepting lockdown guidance as it occurred. Another example of this that our collection hits upon it is the breakaway in Eastern Ukraine, and our analysts there, Tom DeWaal speculated that if either Russia or Ukraine – who are the so-called parent states who are disputing claims on this area – if either of them does provide an effective service delivery response, that'll win them support. So, governance is a way to win popular support. And so, I think the jury's still out on a lot of these areas. You're absolutely right that a lot of these areas have disadvantages when it comes to service delivery, because they are conflict areas where there were already fragmented governance arrangements.
Already there wasn't a clear monopoly of state authority. So, a couple of examples of this: in Libya, we talk about how there's essentially two competing administrations. There's the UN recognized administration and government, but there's also an insurgent state of Khalifa Heftar who's been trying to exert his authority. So, when you've got that kind of bifurcation, it obviously makes responding to the pandemic that much harder because you've got internal borders, you can't do service delivery across, all kinds of issues of information sharing. So that's a real challenge.
We're seeing a similar dynamic in Afghanistan. There's the government of Afghanistan under Asher Afghani. And it's been going through its own political crisis with Abdullah Abdullah after a disputed election. But then you've also got the Taliban who controls large amounts of the population and of the territory. So here again, when you think about getting response out monitoring coronavirus cases, it's a real challenge when you've got this fragmented governance. We won't really know the full scope of this challenge for probably months and years to come.
One thing that's worth noting is that a lot of governments are recognizing that this pandemic is basically an opportunity to either demonstrate that they're effective or they will be viewed as ineffective. So, as a result, unfortunately, we're seeing some government authorities use concealments or disinformation as a tactic to deal with the coronavirus. So, unfortunately this has huge implications for human suffering. When you think about it, you can hide a pandemic for a little time, but you can't negate its effects forever. And so, as a result of this, these authorities were insisting there was no virus, and so obviously it was much lost time in terms of actually putting together a response. So, it's a really pernicious dynamic. So
Yi Ning Wong: You talked about the real time consequences of how governments handle specific information during the coronavirus. How do these strategies change? How non-state actors respond to conflict?
Frances Brown: Yeah, this is another really interesting trends that our report brought out. What we're seeing across the world is that a lot of non-state actors, so terrorist groups, armed groups, militias, gangs, a lot of them are really seizing on the opportunities provided by the pandemic to instrumentalize them for their own objectives. So, for many non-state actors, they've already had a pre-existing agenda and it might be exerting control on a population, it might be expanding the territory they control, it might be for propaganda purposes. And now, the pandemic has provided them a new way to pursue those objectives. So, a few examples of that. One is the group ISIS, the global group ISIS. In mid-March, it published a newsletter that essentially was a call to arms for its fighters worldwide, to carry out attacks while governments across the world are under stress from dealing with the pandemic, while military counter-terrorism efforts are often either on a back foot or redeployed to barracks or otherwise stretched thin.
So, as a result of that, we've seen an uptake in ISIS-affiliated attacks in places ranging from Niger to Egypt, to Afghanistan, to Mozambique. We're particularly seeing this trend in Iraq, where ISIS in Iraq is taking advantage of the fact that some of the international counter-terrorism coalition has withdrawn, others have gone back to their bases. The Iraqi government is busy dealing with coronavirus. So, ISIS has seemingly expanded its operations, which is obviously really concerning. Other examples of this, we're seeing this in Colombia where there've been really troubling reports of armed groups and death squads taking advantage of the fact that the Colombian government is stretched thin, and they're murdering land rights activists with whom they've had a beef for a long time. Another kind of related trend to this is that we're seeing a lot of armed groups instrumentalize the crisis for propaganda purposes.
So, in Yemen, the Houthi movement has stated in their media that quote, “It is better to die a martyr and heroic battles than dying at home from the coronavirus.” So, they're using this as a recruitment push. Meanwhile, in Somalia, Al-Shabaab has blamed the virus on crusader forces and kept up their previous pace of attacks. So, for a lot of groups, it’s really an opportunity to expand recruitment, expand their propaganda. The second big point to make about what non-state actors are doing as a result of the pandemic has to do with service delivery and trying to get more legitimacy and more popular support. So, you remember before, I mentioned that a lot of governments are viewing the pandemic as kind of an opportunity to show their effectiveness. Non-state actors view that as well, and a lot of them are trying to bolster their own popular support in the light of the pandemic.
So, one example of this is in Afghanistan. The Taliban has launched its own public awareness campaign on sanitation. It has had its own very public PR campaign showing Taliban members managing the crisis, going door to door with temperature checks and distributing hand sanitizer. There are real questions about how genuine an effort this is and how much is just window dressing. But nonetheless, they're really trying to use this opportunity to make the point that the Afghan government isn't effective at governing and they, the Taliban are. Sort of parallel efforts in the Western hemisphere, in Brazil, there've been reports of drug trafficking gangs in Rio imposing a curfew to contain the virus. There are reports that in Mexico, many gangs, including the Sinaloa cartel, which is a major cartel, are handing out food and toilet paper packages to poor residents. And they're calling these packages, Chapo packages. So, in all these cases, this is a double-edged sword, because obviously, response and assistance are badly needed. Imposing social distancing is often an appropriate response, but these groups are obviously not totally or exclusively altruistic as well. They're really trying to demonstrate their own effectiveness, build support, especially in places where the state authorities may not have the most effective or capable response.
Sonnet Frisbie: And that’s Chapo packages like Chapo Guzman, the Sinaloa leaders. So non-state actors, but also state actors are trying to demonstrate their effectiveness. And one thing in your report that I thought was interesting is they're not only trying to demonstrate it to their own constituents, their own people, but on the global stage, in multilateral settings, et cetera. So, maybe you could talk a little bit about the U.S. strategy and goals and the instrumentalization of the coronavirus. For example, China has been touting their efforts and how they were able to control the virus and the outbreak at home, and then setting themselves up as this example of how to respond internationally. And I think that's really interesting as far as a model to follow.
Frances Brown: So, you're right. Many nation States are instrumentalizing either the pandemic or the response to the pandemic to start their own objectives. So, China and the United States have obviously been locked in a war of words and a war of narratives over, first, who's responsible for the virus, and then who's helpful in dealing with it. China has had some particularly high-level coverage assistance outreach to many African nations, bringing in assistance to those countries and elsewhere, trying to make the point that they're helping on a global scale. The United States for its part has insisted that the virus be called the Wu Han virus, trying to ascribe blame. I think the bottom line from my perspective is that, unfortunately, framing this as a competition between the United States and China misses the point entirely. The virus presents a competition on a global scale, but the competition is between the virus on one hand and humankind on the other.
So, every moment and every policy decision that’s spent trying to win this war of images is a moment that spent not trying to deal with the virus. We've obviously learned over the past few months that the virus doesn't respect borders. It doesn't respect immigration restrictions. It doesn't restrict respect, trade restrictions. So really the only effective response has to be a global and multilateral one, but unfortunately, we're seeing trends really in the opposite direction, especially from those two major players. But we're seeing a lot of hunkering down in general as looking inward and even among other countries as well as they try to deal with the pandemic at home. So, I think this is a trend that we will continue to see, many countries jockeying either to provide assistance and win prestige as a result, or to get other policy breakthroughs because of the way that the pandemic has really shuffled the deck on the global stage.
Sonnet Frisbie: And do you think that there should be policy changes as a result of the pandemic as far as U.S. foreign policy? So, you mentioned sanctions against places like Iran and Venezuela. Obviously, there are governments, as you said, who are looking at this as an opportunity rather than purely in the interests of their own populaces but, are some changes maybe merited?
Frances Brown: Yeah, I think on a case to case basis, that's entirely possible. I think the magnitude of humanitarian crisis that the pandemic is bringing up – combined with the fact that again, its ramifications are global, so they can't really be contained – I think it's worth rethinking, again on a case-by-case basis, and so, I don't want to prescribe for any blanket policy on, “Should the United States rethink particular sanctions regimes?” because I think there's a lot of considerations on them. And I think sometimes humanitarian exceptions are totally appropriate because often times, sanctions are meant to be punishing leadership or political decision-makers. If it turns out that they're causing suffering among the population, I think that's worth a serious rethink. So that's my general feeling. Overall, I think the biggest policy rethink that I would like to see the United States make is a move towards a more global, multilateral, cooperative response in many domains. And I think we're seeing the consequences of that in the pandemic. I think the framing of competition and great power competition is having really tangible, detrimental effects to our own U.S. interests in dealing with this pandemic as well as the rest of humankind.
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Sonnet Frisbie: You know, beyond great power and competition and all of these issues there are real people and real lives behind all of these issues as you’ve mentioned. Humanitarian workers are not able to get access to a lot of the places where they worked before. I think we'd be really interested to hear - you have been a practitioner, work a lot with practitioners on the ground – what are you seeing during this pandemic for the people who are actually onsite?
Frances Brown: Yeah, it's such an important point. We can get in these lofty conversations about the big trends, but the harsh reality is that people on the ground are being affected in really concrete ways. And unfortunately, the international community's efforts to provide humanitarian assistance, resolve conflicts on the ground is being undermined in really concrete ways as well. So, a couple of examples of this: as you may know, Afghanistan was on the brink of a dialogue among many parts of the Afghan polity on what's the future for Afghanistan.
There was a preliminary U.S. Taliban deal, but then the next step really had to be a broader inter-Afghan dialogue. Unfortunately, now with the pandemic, it’s stalled those talks. It's really hard to build trust remotely. It's really hard to conduct peace talks remotely. And the upshot that is that the incredible level of violence in Afghanistan, the incredible level of civilian casualties just continues on, continues on. So, without peace talks, this horrible, violent stalemate continues. Other examples of this kind of thing, of this impact on the people on the ground. We can look at Somalia. So, Somalia was on the brink of its own dialogue process between the federal government and regional states. It’s a very fragile governments there and it needed a lot of in-person international support to these efforts. And now the international community had to downsize in a really dramatic way. So, there's just going to be much less in-person support as a result.
We're also seeing this kind of consequence in peacekeeping efforts across, particularly across Africa. So, in a lot of African union countries, there's lockdowns and distancing measures. So, it has made it a lot harder for new peacekeeping staffers to be deployed. It obviously undermines peace-building work as well. And then the final, huge way that this is affecting people on the ground, systems on the ground is just the modalities of aid distribution. Gone are the days where you can put five people in a Jeep and go somewhere. It's really undermined the mechanics of aid distribution. We're also seeing a really troubling trend in some places about perceptions of the inequities and distribution of aid and how this might incite more violence. So, as the coronavirus is bringing its own shift in aid in some ways, a lot of citizens, and we're seeing this in Afghanistan, in particular, citizens feel like it's not being distributed in a fair, equal manner, and that's led to more violence.
So, you see this compounding series of challenges as the virus takes hold that unfortunately are making international assistance efforts, which were already really hard. And then the final point to make on this is obviously a lot of these challenges in terms of doing the international community's work are pretty parallel to what we in the United States are facing in our own jobs. We’ve moved to remote work, et cetera, but the problem is in a lot of these countries, you can't really do that. You can do some aid delivery remotely from the air, but not much. And you can't do a lot of remote technology in a lot of these areas that have much lesser communications technology capability. So, it's really hard to think about how some of these realms could be shifted online or to a remote setting.
Yi Ning Wing: So, kind of looking forward. I know you mentioned that a lot of the report is still preliminary. What are the recommendations that we can take away?
Sonnet Frisbie: I think as we’ve covered, unfortunately, it paints a pretty bleak picture. I think I and my co-editor Jarrett really agreed that in most ways the coronavirus is making a bad situation worse in many conflict areas. But we also wanted to stress that that doesn't need to be the full picture, and going forward, we hope it's not the full picture. So, we do know historically that natural disasters when they occur, can potentially provide a window of opportunity or some positive disruption. It can shuffle the decks in ways that might be positive. So, one example we hear about a lot is the 2004 tsunami that helped a pathway emerge towards peace in Aceh. That's one example. Unfortunately, the same 2004 tsunami did not lead to peace in Sri Lanka, which was also affected by it. So, you can see these things can go either way. But the point being, there are ways in which positive disruption could emerge from this, and what I'm going to be looking at, going forward in my own research, and many other colleagues are as well, is “What might be some of those positive ways, and how can we mobilize around them?” At this early stage and from the 30,000 feet view that I've discussed with you both today, it's really hard to predict what those opportunities might be and what chances might emerge in specific conflicts or specific fragile states. They will likely be very localized and specific to that area. You may have seen that the UN Secretary General issued a call for a global ceasefire a few weeks ago. Subsequent to that, we did see a number of arms groups or armed actors or claim that they were temporarily stopping fighting to facilitate humanitarian response. So, we saw this in places ranging from Cameroon to Central African Republic, to Colombia, to Libya, to Myanmar to the Philippines, to South Sudan, to Ukraine, to Yemen.
Many of these declarations of ceasefire have since been overturned or did not stick. This isn’t to actually say that this is a rosy picture, but it just gives you an opportunity to sense that there may be opportunities. So, what I would like to see going forward, and what I'm going to be looking at is “How can we on the international community be prepared to respond to these positive opportunities when they do come? How can we be ready to capitalize on them? Or at least how can we be ready to stave off the worst outcomes that can occur in these conflict areas?” Do we need to think of a different way to monitor developments on the ground, especially as many of us have gone more remote in our own presence on the ground in these areas, especially as many journalists in conflict-affected places are either under siege, still in war or have to be reporting remotely?
So, how do we even get our information? A related question is, do we need to change our assistance modalities somehow to respond to this universe? Do we need more expeditionary negotiation support? Are there other ways we can look at technology to help address these challenges? So these are all the questions that I'm going to be looking at in the coming months, as I, in my own research, try to pivot from laying out all the problems that I've discussed with you two today, to some of the potential, if not, solutions, at least recommended way forward.
Sonnet Frisbie: And it sounds like that would be making the best of a bad situation. If you could look at this shock and see ways in which peace could break out in the midst of a really bad situation.
Frances Brown: That’s the best we can hope for in this pretty bleak picture.
Sonnet Frisbie: Right. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. We really enjoyed the conversation.
Root of Conflict Introducers: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Frances Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks to our interviewers, Sonnet Frisbie, and Yi Ning Wong and to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. To learn more about the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit thepearsoninstitute.org and follow them on Twitter.