Development and Conflict Theory

Olympio Barbanti, Jr.

August 2004

The concept of "development" cuts across many levels. It refers to macro issues (such as patterns of a nation's growth), as much as it refers to meso problems (such as river-basin plans), or to micro problems (such as local community development). All three levels — macro, meso, and micro, are interwoven. And at all levels, many different dimensions — economic, cultural, religious and gender — affect and are affected by development. This research addresses the links between the promotion of social change associated with development aid and conflict.

Development should be understood as a process, not a product. Societies are always changing. Some improve, while others fail. Development theory aims at explaining both processes. Development practice intends to provide tools that can be applied to entire societies or specific communities. Such interventions are intended to move communities or societies from a situation in which they are believed to be worse off to a situation in which they are assumed to be better off.

Current links between development and conflict theory stress the provision of aid in cases of violent conflict. Peacebuilding interventions after violent conflicts address the same concerns as development interventions. Clearly, development is at the core of post-conflict interventions, where the physical and social landscape has been damaged. In such cases, development assistance is provided.

Yet development aid goes beyond development assistance. Aid refers to general support for the improvement of Third World societies, which may or may not be, in violent conflict. Perhaps because development aid does not deal directly with violence, conflict and conflict resolution have not been topics of major concern to development theorists or workers. This, however, has started to change.

The Millennium Development Goals illustrate how development is an interdisciplinary field, which implements programs in various areas and deals with innumerable variables — such as economic, social, political, gender, cultural, religious and environmental issues. The field is further complicated because these variables are highly intertwined. Therefore, the analysis of gender issues must also consider the affects of and on linked economic, religious, and cultural issues. Similar links exist with many other development topics. Such links become clear in the findings of this research.

Development and Structural Change

Societal change most often requires structural change. While this may be true in any country, it is probably more often true in the developing world. Yet most development intervention is locally targeted and short-term. It does not try to implement structural change across the entire society.

This disconnect creates something of a "Catch-22" — a vicious cycle in which development leads to conflict, and the lack of conflict resolution practices interferes with further development.

Ignoring structural factors means not only overlooking dimensions that take place at the macro level, but also not paying enough attention to the micro-level effects of development and conflict in society. One shocking example was recently publicized by an opinion poll, according to which 67% of Brazilians are functionally illiterate. That means they have great difficulty in understanding very basic information. How can one promote rational processes of conflict resolution in this situation?

Such functional illiteracy is caused, in part, by the fragility of the educational system. Deteriorated schools mirror the economic crisis of developing countries as well as the lack of importance attributed to education by the society. This is largely a result of long-standing social inequities maintained by an elite that benefits from the resulting patron-client relationship. These relationships are so strong that the structural problems continue, even after some conflict resolution measures are taken, such as the empowerment of powerless groups.

Development and Conflict

The interconnection of development factors often causes further conflict escalation. For example, administrative chaos in under-financed governmental bodies often causes the transference of responsibilities from the central state to NGOs, local governments, and the private sector. The result is that such organizations assume duties that may go well beyond their capacities, which causes further conflict. For example, NGOs, local governments, and the private sector lack training in facilitation, mediation, and negotiation, as well as the theoretical knowledge of conflict resolution. So conflicts escalate, with no one knowing what to do about it.

There are few institutions in most developing societies that understand or engage in the practice of conflict resolution. But even when they do, they tend to work with inadequate win-win frameworks. In some cases, for example, negotiation through typical win-win processes is blocked because the powerful within poor communities are criminals. In Brazil, criminal elements are able to exert full control over large territories, mostly within metropolitan areas, from where they traffic in narcotics and weapons. This is one of many reasons why traditional interest-based, win-win negotiation does not work in many cases in developing countries.

In Brazil, the criminal sector has been able to recruit children as young as nine years old. The profile of the typical youth taken to reform schools is shocking. The majority are around 13 years old, yet they are fathers and breadwinners. Most often, they turned to crime because they do not have other employment options nor do they have an expectation of a better life. Due to the economic crisis of the last ten years, permanent and secure employment was largely replaced by "flexible," insecure contracts without the guarantees of the official social security system. This has particularly affected women and other vulnerable groups in society, who form the majority of those working in the informal sector.

This informality has brought further constraints to conflict resolution in developing countries. Many young people are already the second, or even the third generation of families who are mainly employed in "flexible," or "odd" jobs. They lack the culture of work, and the values attributed to it.

Social values are also often undermined by the official educational system, since information disseminated by books in public schools is embedded with prejudice and stereotypes that, for example, overvalue men in detriment of women.

Development aid tries to change such problems. These factors, among others, are the target of the Millennium Goals. However, in many instances, development interventions underestimate local politics, social realities, and belief systems. These are strong factors affecting the opportunities for conflict resolution, which nevertheless have remained overlooked by those working in the field of development theory and practice.

It is remarkable that conflict resolution theory and instruments are also not taken into account either by indigenous organizations, or by international development agencies. This is clearly evidenced by the Human Development Report 2003, published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The report reflects a deep concern with armed, violent and military conflicts such as interstate or civil wars. However, it does not consider other more subtle forms of conflict, or the notion that conflict processes can preclude the achievement of development goals. An understanding of the nature and effects of international development illustrates the reason for this.

Development History

Development practice is not new. It dates back to the European colonies, when colonizers enforced a "civilized," ordered, white, male, Christian ethic. Organized, ongoing development aid followed during the post-colonial period. Development theory, however, came along much later, emerging as a stable, academic field of inquiry only after World War II, when European countries were trying to keep their former colonies at arm's length. Throughout these years, development theory and practice was strongly characterized by the transmission of moral values from industrialized countries to less-industrialized, rural countries.

The development field has always been highly influenced by economic thought, as exemplified by the fact that development has been primarily measured by increases in gross national product (GNP). According to Dennis Rondinelli, during the 1950s and 60s, development intervention assumed that "successful methods, techniques, and ways of solving problems and delivering services in the U.S. or other economically advanced countries would prove equally successful in the developing nations." [1] Therefore, at the very start of development theory, there was a notion of direct transferability, or a "one size fits all" type of development assistance . However, delivering aid was not just a technical matter; it also involved political concerns. For example, during the Cold War, U.S. provision of aid was largely directed to those countries that were, or could come, under Soviet influence.

The 70s were marked by rapid growth of American and European multinational companies in the developing world. While these companies expanded markets and made new goods available, they also exerted predatory competition on indigenous industries. Two theoretical debates emerged in developing countries, especially in Latin America: the dependency theory and the center-periphery theory. For dependency theorists such as Paul Baran, Andre Gunther Frank, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, developing countries were trapped in a cycle of dependence on international capital in which there was little room to maneuver. The center-periphery (or metropolis-satellite) theory developed by Immanuel Wallerstein, argued that movement within and between the center and the periphery was possible.[2] This theory introduced the concept of a world economy, and said that movement within and between the strata of this economy was regulated by market forces.

Such movement became especially difficult, however, in the 1980s. Due to the financial crisis of this decade, many developing countries could not pay their external debts, and had to adopt economic adjustment measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in order to borrow money. Such measures included cuts in public expenditure, and the development of a more efficient, transparent and accountable state [3]. Though the World Bank recommendation was that "an effective state — not a minimal one — is central to economic and social development," in reality IMF and World Bank requirements have resulted in large cuts in states' size and functions, and little or no increase in accountability and transparency.[4]

During the 90s, the IMF maintained its structural adjustment plan, while the World Bank gained a deeper understanding of other factors that can affect economic performance. Academics such as Nobel laureates Robert Coase (1991), Gary Becker (1992), Douglas North and Robert Fogel (1993), John C. Harsanyi, Reinhard Selten, John F. Nash Jr. (1994), and Amartya Sen (1998) were amongst several authors who focused on transaction costs, property rights, institutions, non-market behavior and welfare economics in their development theories.

In the 90s, this renewed focus on institutions was combined with a series of world summits organized by the United Nations to discuss development. Environment and development was the theme of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro summit. In 1993, a human rights conference took place in Vienna. Cairo hosted a conference on population and development in 1994. Social development was discussed at the Copenhagen 1995 world summit. Gender issues, especially the role of women, were discussed in 1995 in Beijing. The last conference, Habitat-II, took place in Istanbul to discuss urban issues.

Current Development Theory

While much of development thinking and practice has changed, the moral and political dimensions still remain. Critics of current development theory such as Jonathan Crush [5] and Arturo Escobar [6], see development as a set of rational, managerial prescriptions through which industrialized nations have largely imposed their views and models onto the beneficiaries of their aid, forcing, to some extent, a change in the identities of those who have been "benefitted." It is still common for academics and practitioners in developing countries to believe that development is a direct transference of Western values onto non-Western cultures. Organizations such as the World Bank, and USAID are believed to impose expertise and authority, silence alternative voices, promote a dependent path to development, and keep their eyes closed to the power imbalances they create.

However, development is not the only influence on a nation; local political processes also have significant effects. Additionally, the development field helps to overcome human rights abuses, protect the environment and empower women. While the debate about the pros and cons of different approaches to development still rages, the constant critiques have inspired a quest for diversity among development theories.

As was noted earlier, development interventions are intended to move societies from a situation in which they are believed to be worse off, to situations in which they are assumed to be better off. Certainly, there is a great deal of contention on what determines who is "worse" and who is "better." The traditional paradigms of development theory have historically been similar to those of economics. Specifically, the field of Development Economics tries to explain differences in development conditions mostly through macroeconomic factors. A country's GDP has been, for most economists, the major parameter with which to measure development success.

Recently, the contributions of the Nobel laureates of the 1990s, who stressed the political and social dimensions of development, have come under more consideration. Research on development has become multi-disciplinary, embracing policy analysis and starting to focus on the major symptom of failed development, poverty.

Such a multi disciplinary view of development opens an avenue for fresh thinking on the human dimensions of development. The argument for such a view is that development is not an end in itself, but rather a means for achieving better and more equitable living conditions for human beings. Associated with this view, the focus on sustainable development aims at integrating economic, biological, social, cultural, and political dimensions.

Today, all approaches co-exist, and in many instances there is an attempt to reconcile all views of development. There are, certainly, nuances. The two tables below show the approaches to development topics from the World Bank and from the Eldis Gateway to Development, which presents a more academic view of development. The Eldis Gateway tends to emphasize anthropological and sociological approaches, while the World Bank's literature tends to stress the economics of development.

[1] Rondinelli, Dennis A. Development Administration and U.S. Foreign Aid Policy, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, p.23.

[2] Wallerstein, I.M. (1979) The Capitalist World-Economy: Essays by Immanuel Wallerstein, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Messkoub, M. (1992). "Deprivation and Structural Adjustment." In Development Policy and Public Action, eds. Wuyts, Mackintosh and Hewitt. (175-285), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] World Bank (1997). World Development Report: The state in a changing world, Washington: World Bank. <>.

[5] Crush, Jonathan (1995). Power of Development, London: Routledge. <>.

[6] Escobar, Arturo (1995). Encountering Development. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press. <>.

Use the following to cite this article:
Barbanti, Jr., Olympio . "Development and Conflict Theory." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2004 <>.

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