The cost of conflict

Oxford research puts economics at the heart of fragile state development.

We know that war happens, that countries try and fail to keep the peace, that conflict spills out into streets and fields and that people’s lives are destroyed.  Billions of dollars are spent trying to reconstruct war-torn countries, to rebuild lives, but what if we understood the causes of conflict better?  Professor Sir Paul Collier at Oxford University has dedicated years addressing this question, and startling findings are changing the way we think of fragile states. Fragile states conjure up images of ethnic or religious violence in the Middle East, Afghanistan, or central Africa: generation-long struggles that rip states apart.  However, Collier’s research suggests that economics plays a much larger part than previously thought. 

Collier and his colleagues at the Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE) applied quantitative models to the risks of conflict. This new approach revealed insightful answers. CSAE work suggests that poverty, not ethnic or religious tension can be the driving force behind a state’s collapse into conflict.  A country is particularly at risk if it is dependent on primary commodity exports, and suddenly experiences a collapse in economic growth. For many countries, the impact of an economic downturn – often driven by a sudden drop in the price of resources on the international market – can be catastrophic.  This shock to the system can overload already strained government provision and swing opposition into open rebellion. These discoveries have influenced the British government’s aid programme, and changed the international donor community’s approach to the problem of fragile or failing states. 

CSAE suggests that international aid should be used to strengthen economic systems and enhance economic performance.  Aid should fix the root cause rather than the symptoms:  a country with solid economic foundations and a growing economy will be better placed to weather market shocks.  Citizens buy into systems where they stand to gain, and economic growth is often, but not always, felt by all. Effective aid schemes can save time, money and lives, not just in the recipient country but often in neighbouring states as well.

In recognition of his work in this and other areas, Prof Collier was awarded the President’s medal by the British Academy in 2014, which cited his “pioneering contribution in bringing ideas from research into policy within the field of African economics”.  His 2008 book The Bottom Billion won the Lionel Gelber prize, the Arthur Ross Book award and the Corinne Prize for Economics in the same year, and the Estoril Global Issues Distinguished Book prize in 2009.  It’s been translated into 20 languages and has 45m citations on Google.


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