Technology & Trade

Tackling Extreme Poverty in the Shadow of Violence

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Last month, the board of governors of the World Bank gathered for their annual meeting in Lima, Peru. To much fanfare, they released new data demonstrating that for the first time, the percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty—that is, on less than $1.25 a day—has dropped below 10 percent. The international community has much to celebrate with this achievement, but the work is not done. In fact, the remaining zones of abject poverty around the world are the toughest cases yet. They are often located in zones of habitual conflict where, repeatedly, the World Bank, the United Nations and other international institutions and global powers have struggled to implement durable solutions that balance security imperatives with development objectives.

In 1999, extreme poverty levels globally were upwards of 30 percent. The next year, the international community committed, through the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015. Critical investments were made in education, health and social safety nets, which worked together to lift the extreme poor out of poverty around the world, while building a sustainable foundation upon which to keep them there. Far and away these efforts were the shining stars of the Millennium Development Goals, cutting extreme poverty down to an estimated 9.6 percent of the global population today. 

But despite that progress, extreme poverty is still a daily reality for a large proportion of certain countries’ citizens, especially in Africa. Take Niger, which is facing increased security concerns on its borders from various external threats, including insecurity in Libya, spillover from the unrest in Mali and violent extremism in northeastern Nigeria. Niger’s government is forced to divert already limited resources for economic development to combat these security concerns, with clear economic consequences. Even in 2011, 41 percent of Niger’s population still lived in extreme poverty.

The government of the Central African Republic (CAR), meanwhile, still lacks full control over swaths of the country, where pockets of lawlessness persist. The militant group Lord’s Resistance Army continues to destabilize southeastern CAR, and several rebel groups joined together in early December 2012 to launch a series of attacks that gave them control of numerous towns in the northern and central parts of the country. Recent and ongoing violence in Bangui, CAR’s capital, has driven more than 27,000 people from their homes, helping to reverse economic gains painstakingly made over the past decade.

Following the violent rule and deposition of former President Charles Taylor in Liberia, democratic elections in late 2005 brought President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power, to much acclaim. Yet Sirleaf’s efforts to rebuild Liberia’s economy, particularly following the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic, and to reconcile a nation still recovering from 14 years of fighting have been shaken. In September 2012 the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2066, which calls for halving the number of U.N. troops in Liberia by 2015—reducing the troop level to fewer than 4,000—and forcing Liberia’s security sector to fill in the gaps.

The common theme in each of these cases is underdevelopment catalyzed in large measure by insecurity. Poverty is all too often synonymous with insecurity, which helps to create a vicious cycle of violence and horror. Unfortunately, as the recent meetings in Peru showed, the World Bank is ill-equipped to single-handedly address the transnational security challenges that undercut its global development efforts. The World Bank and like-minded institutions can help promote access to good schools, health care, electricity, safe water and other critical services, but without innovative partnerships with the security sector, they are unable to protect against the near immediate erosion of these services by armed gangs, organized criminals, terrorists or insurgents. More than ever, the World Bank must build a bridge across the development-security divide to meet its goal of eliminating global poverty.

The United Nations has found religion on this issue. Meetings on the U.N.’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were just recently passed at the end of September, included key security objectives to mutually reinforce a revised set of development targets. One of these goals, for example, focuses on establishing safe cities and settlements, and includes a target of providing safe transportation systems. Another SDG aims to significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere, while another targets reducing illicit arms and financial flows while countering organized crime. If the Sustainable Development Goals are to continue in the path of the Millennium Development Goals and eliminate extreme poverty, the U.N. and its partners will need to develop the tools and bring in the relevant experts to help combat the insecurity sustaining it.

Goal setting is not enough. It is time for the international security and development communities to break down the stovepipes that have plagued more effective coordination in the past. This does not mean that global development institutions should become global security players, but at the same time, they do need to think more broadly and act less insularly in their engagements with the security sector. 

The new SDGs are a logical starting point. The U.N. and the World Bank should immediately launch a new global initiative designed to better coordinate global development and security assistance targeted at the remaining 9 percent of the world’s population living in grinding poverty. This initiative should set common priorities in key countries and identify tangible efforts where security assistance could promote an environment suitable for sustainable development. As importantly, the effort should be designed to force an attitudinal shift across both communities—namely, the recognition that both are seeking common objectives and yield better solutions when we work together. Economic growth, after all, comes slow when it’s under the shadow of violence.

This piece originally ran in World Politics Review, November 3rd, 2015


Photo credit: United Nations Information Centres via flickr

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