Beyond Intractability
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Costs of Intractable Conflict
 
By
Eric Brahm


August 2004
 

It goes without saying that conflict has many costs. The loss of human life is the most obvious one. After all, the twentieth century was the deadliest in all of human history. With some 8 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust and nearly a million Rwandans in a 100-day period in 1994, it truly earned the moniker "the age of genocide." This is to say nothing of two world wars and the decolonization struggles and civil wars that have marred the latter half of the century in particular. The new century has already witnessed some of the most horrific acts of terrorism in history.

Not to diminish the loss of life, but casualty figures merely scratch the surface of the true cost of conflict. Survivors bear the physical and emotional scars of terror, torture, and rape. Conflict also often has dire consequences for economic and human development, as well as the environment. Within organizations, too, conflict can inhibit the effective functioning of the organization. This essay will attempt to provide a general sense of the true scope of the costs intractable conflicts have for humanity.

Human Costs

Loss of life is perhaps the most obvious cost of violent intractable conflict. Throughout history, technological advancements have made it easier and cheaper to kill more people, whether in domestic conflict or interstate war. The two world wars killed more than 60 million people.[1] In World War II alone, 1 in 22 Soviet citizens were killed, 1 in 25 Germans, 1 in 46 Japanese, 1 in 150 Britons, and 1 in 500 Americans.[2] Over 21 million have been killed since World War II.[3] Particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century, civil war has ravaged much of the world. In the three decades from 1960, civil conflict killed an estimated 700,000 Chinese; 500,000 Indonesians; 2,000,000 Nigerians; 600,000 Ugandans; 500,000 Ethiopians; 415,000 Mozambiqueans; 105,000 Iraqis; and 138,000 Guatemalans.[4] In the Philippines, more than 100,000 lives have been lost since 1970.[5] In the four years of the Khmer Rogue rule in Cambodia, 2 million people died due to execution, starvation, and disease, some 20% of the population.[6] Amnesty International and Americas Watch estimated that as of the early 1990s some 210,000 East Timorese had died under Indonesian occupation (out of a 1975 population of 650,000.)[7] This includes not only government forces and rebels, but also civilians, which points to a broader issue. The costs of large-scale conflict involve not only dead and wounded soldiers, but also innocents. Conflict often produces refugee flows, both within the country and across borders. In the Sudan, where conflict has been ongoing since 1983, over 2 million people have died and more than 4 million displaced, 75% of which are women and children.[8] Refugees are often vulnerable to natural disaster and manipulation by combatants. What is more, refugees produce significant costs for neighboring countries and the international community in general, as they seek to avert a humanitarian disaster.

Costs often go far beyond the conflict. Long-term injuries victims suffer from combat, rape, and torture effect individuals' ability to earn a living. They also often must deal with lasting psychological effects from the trauma suffered. Deep fear, distrust, depression, and sense of hopelessness can last long after the conflict is supposedly "resolved." Landmines and unexploded munitions have proven an insidious problem long after a conflict's end as well. In Mozambique's civil war, for example, 10,000-15,000 people were killed by landmines, and one out of every 1862 is an amputee.[9] Approximately 20 million landmines litter Angola.[10] Mine removal operations do not find every one, so the risk from unexploded munitions even decades after a conflict is over is very real.

Human costs are also often more subtle and widespread than merely the direct victims of violence. Conflict is detrimental for health in a number of ways. Aside from psychological effects, violence often leads to the destruction of medical facilities and the disruption of drugs and medical supplies. What is more, it makes agricultural production difficult both through loss of manpower and destruction of land. This inhibits food supplies, thereby leading to malnutrition. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, some 17 million people face significant food shortages due to the ongoing civil war there.[11] Afghanistan has faced endemic hunger for decades and recent estimates are that only 13% of the population has access to safe drinking water.[12] The consequences of these developments are particularly important for fast-developing children. Kids also often see their education suffer, which has long-term costs for their future ability to earn a living. Over 80% of schools and clinics were destroyed in Sierra Leone's civil war.[13] 45% of Burundian children under the age of 5 are underweight due to food shortages from war and lawlessness.[14]

The plight of women in Afghanistan offers a snapshot of the fact that the costs of conflict often fall disproportionately on women.[15] Under the Taliban, women were stripped of rights. Under these oppressive conditions, Physicians for Human Rights conducted a survey in 1999 and found 97% of Afghan women suffered from depression and 42% had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Two years later, the same organization found that in Taliban-controlled areas, 65% of women had considered committing suicide and 16% had actually attempted it. Some 16% have been victims of rape. Economic conditions are also extremely poor. The literacy rate for women was only 13% in urban areas and less than 4% in rural areas as of early 2001. Poverty has led girls to be married or betrothed in their early teens. Some 50,000 widows live in Kabul alone as a result of the civil war. Combined with the constraints on their freedom, these conditions have made it nearly impossible for women to make a living on their own under the Taliban. Despite the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, many observers continue to report that conditions for most women have not changed substantially.


The plight of women in Afghanistan offers a snapshot of the fact that the costs of conflict often fall disproportionately on women. Under the Taliban, women were stripped of rights. Under these oppressive conditions, Physicians for Human Rights conducted a survey in 1999 and found 97 percent of Afghan women suffered from depression and 42 percent had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Two years later, the same organization found that in Taliban-controlled areas, 65% of women had considered committing suicide and 16% had actually attempted it. Some sixteen percent have been victims of rape. Economic conditions are also extremely poor. The literacy rate for women were only thirteen percent in urban areas and less than four percent in rural areas as of early 2001. Poverty has led girls to be married or betrothed in their early teens. Some 50,000 widows live in Kabul alone as a result of the civil war. Combined with the constraints on their freedom, these conditions have made it nearly impossible for women to make a living on their own under the Taliban. Despite the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, many observers continue to report that conditions for most women has not changed substantially.*

 

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*This discussion is based on WomenWarPeace.Org's Afghanistan country profile posted here. (accessed June 28, 2004). See http://www.womenwarpeace.org/ for a range of other case studies of how women have been effected by conflict.

Economic Costs

Conflict has a variety of economic costs both as direct consequence of violence and as foregone choices in order to fund the conflict. To provide one extreme example, World War II is estimated to have cost over $1.3 trillion.[16] In most instances, conflict is accompanied by a drop in GNP as resources and manpower are redirected away from productive endeavors. The workforce is scattered, either enlisted in the conflict or otherwise displaced as refugees. War and sabotage often leave infrastructure in ruins. Resources are diverted from productive endeavors to purchase arms and pay troops. What is more, there are indirect costs in the form of what is foregone, as funds are diverted from other causes to fight the war. Lost investment is often the result as investors seek safer havens.

The world spends an enormous amount of money on military expenditures every year: in 2003 it approached US$900 billion (in constant 2000 US$).[17] After leveling off in the late 1990s, the figure began to climb steadily again in 2000. The top military spenders in 2003 were primarily developed countries,[18] but a few developing countries are on the list such as Iran and Pakistan, money that could clearly have been spent on development activities. Looking at military expenditures as a share of GDP makes it even more clear what has been foregone to support armed forces around the world.[19] "Cutting edge" military weapons are staggeringly expensive: From the 1960s to 1990s, the cost of America's frontline fighter plane grew from approximately $3 million per plane to anywhere between $18 and $31 million depending on configuration. The Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack planes run $43 million each.[20] The development of the Trident II missile cost about $40 billion.[21] Each B-2 bomber tops $2.3 billion.[22]

The costs of long-running conflicts are even more stark. According to the World Bank, the two-decade long conflict in Afghanistan has cost US$240 billion in military supplies, humanitarian assistance and lost economic growth.[23] Estimates of the direct impact of Colombia's long-running civil war amount to 11.4% of the gross national product (GNP), or almost US$10 billion per year.[24] The indirect costs to the Colombian economy (encompassing crime, lost investment, productivity gains, and employment opportunities) equal roughly the same amount.[25] Even regional conflicts can have nationwide effects. The persistent conflict in northern Uganda has constrained economic and social development to the tune of at least US$1.33 billion over the last 16 years -- representing about 3% of Uganda's GDP over the period.[26] The Philippine civil war has eaten up an average of 40% of the Philippine military's yearly budget.[27] As of the early 1990s, Indonesia's occupation of East Timor was costing US$1 million per day.[28]

One wonders where their economies would be if peace had been realized. Describing the Cold War period, Sivard notes that "[i]n the 1980s, two governments in three spent more to defend their citizens against military attack than against the everyday hazards of disease, accidents, and ill health; one in three has spent more on military power than on education and health care combined." [29]

Conflict also often produces significant environmental degradation. It is difficult to justify environmental protection when other more immediate concerns exist as a result of the conflict. Therefore, environmental damage from accelerated resource extraction may be severe. Munitions and chemical or biological weapons do long-term damage to the land and well. Conflict also reduces tourism, some of which may have supported eco-tourism efforts.

Organizational Costs

Conflict is also costly within organizations.[30] One can conceive of these costs in a number of ways.[31] First are the direct costs, including such things as fees paid to lawyers and other professionals for their intervention in the conflict. Second, conflict often has significant productivity costs in terms of the value of lost time to the organization. It diverts worker attention from normal duties. Absenteeism often increases due to conflict. What is more, conflict often reduces motivation and increases turnover. Third, conflict can have continuity costs -- namely, it can cause damage to ongoing relationships that wrecks the feeling of community in organizations. Fourth, conflict has emotional costs for those involved.

Despite this, businesses often do not highly value the time necessary to resolve conflict because, at best, it indirectly shows up in the financials. The costs, however, are very real. It is estimated that senior human resource people in Fortune 500 companies spend 20% of their time on litigation and managers spend upwards of 30% of their time dealing with workplace conflict.[32] A more recent study found that managers spend upwards of 42% of their time negotiating agreements to end conflict.[33]

So Why Not Quit?

Given that the costs of conflict are so high, why do people engage in conflict? Why don't they say, "enough is enough," and resolve the conflict as best they can? There are many reasons, which are covered in many of the other essays in this knowledge base. Fundamentally, however, most can be attributed to three reasons:

People underestimate the costs of continuing the conflict, and overestimate their chances of winning.

People know that the conflict is doing great harm, but they see no way out.

People know that the conflict is doing great harm, but they fear that the costs of resolving the conflict will be even higher. The costs of resolving conflict are myriad -- to give one example, as of the end of 1997, approximately 22.3 million people worked in regular armed forces around the world (actually a reduction from 28.7 million at the end of the 1980s.[34]

These problems are all ones that need to be addressed if intractable conflicts are to be successfully resolved and the costs of those conflicts controlled.


[1] Neal Riemer, Douglas W. Simon, and Joseph Romance, The Challenge of Politics (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2003), p. 351.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 352.

[4] Francis A. Beer, Peace Against War: The Ecology of International Violence (San Francisco: Freeman, 1981) p. 36.; Ruth Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures, 1989 (Washington DC: World Priorities, 1989) p. 14.; Kevin Merida, "Wreckage in Forgotten Lands," Dallas Morning News, Aug. 6, 1989, 3M-4M.

[5] Carolyn O. Arguilals. "The Cost of War Part 1: Economic Cost of 'Never Ending Conflict': Is P30-M Daily Money for Development or War?" MindaNews. 12 March 2003. http://www.mindanews.com/2003/03/12pep-cost.html (accessed June 17, 2004).

[6] Don Brandt with Matthew J.O. Scott, "An Ounce of Prevention: The Failure of G8 Policy on Armed Conflict - World Vision Policy Briefing Third Quarter 2004, Click here for complete URL

[7] Ian Robinson, "The East Timor Conflict (1975-)," in Michael Cranna, Editor, The True Cost of Conflict: Seven Recent Wars and Their Effects on Society, (New York: The New Press, 1994), p. 2.

[8] Brandt with Scott.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Shaun Vincent, "The Mozambique Conflict (1980-1992)," in Michael Cranna, Editor, The True Cost of Conflict: Seven Recent Wars and Their Effects on Society, (New York: The New Press, 1994), p. 87.

[15] This discussion is based on WomenWarPeace.Org's Afghanistan country profile at http://www.womenwarpeace.org/afghanistan/afghanistan.htm (accessed June 28, 2004). See http://www.womenwarpeace.org/ for a range of other case studies of how women have been affected by conflict.

[16] Beer, War Against Peace, p. 122.

[17] See Stockholm International Peace Research Institute at http://archives.sipri.org/contents/milap/milex/mex_world_graph.html.

[18] See Stockholm International Peace Research Institute at http://archives.sipri.org/contents/milap/milex/mex_major_spenders.pdf.

[19] See Stockholm International Peace Research Institute at http://archives.sipri.org/contents/milap/milex/mex_burden.html and http://archives.sipri.org/contents/milap/milex/mex_share_gdp.html.

[20] Jane's All the World's Aircraft, 195-96 (Surrey, UK: Jane's Information Group, 1995).

[21] Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures, 1991 (Washington DC: World Priorities, 1991) p. 54.

[22] Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures, 1993 (Washington DC: World Priorities, 1993) p. 56.

[23] World Bank. 2004. "Two Decades Of Conflict Cost US$240 Billion: Now Afghanistan Will Need US$27.5 Billion To Recover." News Release No:2004/294/SAR.

[24] Paula Andrea Rossiasco. 2001. "How Much Does the Conflict Cost Colombia?" Colombia Journal Online. http://www.colombiajournal.org/colombia54.htm (accessed June 16, 2004)

[25] For four very personal descriptions of the impacts of this civil war, see the interviews with four Columbian peasants, available at: http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/humanization-extremists#columbian-interviews

[26] CARE. "Economic cost of the conflict in Northern Uganda." Nov. 13, 2002. http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/0/2c56515522f67abbc1256c75004b7123?OpenDocument (accessed June 17, 2004).

[27] Carolyn O. Arguilals. "The Cost of War Part 1: economic cost of "never ending conflict" is P30-M daily Money for development or war?" MindaNews. 12 March 2003. http://www.mindanews.com/2003/03/12pep-cost.html (accessed June 17, 2004).

[28] Ian Robinson, "The East Timor Conflict (1975-)," in Michael Cranna, Editor, The True Cost of Conflict: Seven Recent Wars and Their Effects on Society, (New York: The New Press, 1994), p. 2.

[29] Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures, 1989, p. 7.

[30] See http://www.resolutionworks.org/Public/CostofConflict/index.cfm#Let's%20Calculate for an example of calculating the cost of conflict (at least in the American context).

[31] Stewart Levine, "The Many Costs of Conflict," http://www.mediate.com/articles/levine1.cfm (accessed June 21, 2004).

[32] Cynthia Barnes-Slater and John Ford. 2004. "Measuring Conflict: Both The Hidden Costs and the Benefits of Conflict Management Interventions" http://www.lawmemo.com/emp/articles/measuring.htm (accessed June 16, 2004).; Stewart Levine, "The Many Costs of Conflict," http://www.mediate.com/articles/levine1.cfm (accessed June 21, 2004); Kenneth W. Thomas and W. H. Schmidt, "A Survey of Managerial Interests with Respect to Conflict," Academy of Management Journal, June 1976.

[33] Carol Watson and Richard Hoffman, "Managers as Negotiators," Leadership Quarterly, 7(1), 1996.

[34] US Department of State, World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 1998 (Washington DC: WS Government Printing Office, 2000) p. 19.


Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Costs of Intractable Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/costs>.

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