According to Xavier Lhote, wars between States have given way to violence of social origin. Short-term humanitarian, political and military responses are no longer sufficient in resolving these crises: development stakeholders have an important long-term role to play.


Civilians fleeing the advance of government forces in the Idlib and Aleppo regions (in Syria) towards the Turkish border, on February 14, 2020. Photo by Rami al SAYED / AFP
Civilians fleeing the advance of government forces in the Idlib and Aleppo regions (in Syria) towards the Turkish border, on February 14, 2020. Photo by Rami al SAYED / AFP

The breakdown of social ties

Wars between States have given way to violence of social origin that reflects acute crises in the societies in question: “Arab Spring”, the Sahel crisis, and conflicts in Central African Republic, Iraq and Syria are all examples of breakdowns caused by internal societal dysfunction. The Westphalian model of war, which opposes countries with the aim of acquiring new territories and their resources, has given way to violence caused by social issues, enabled by the weakness of the States.

These modern-day wars profoundly affect the social entity and invade the private lives of all citizens. All members of society are caught up in this violence, whether as perpetrators or victims, and all relations break down within the mechanisms of war.

Identity markers are manipulated (based on religion, clan, clientelist ties) in order to emphasize enmity between communities. This divisive mechanism plays a powerful role in social mobilization: no one can isolate themselves from their group for long without being suspected of sympathizing or even colluding with the opposing party. This perpetuates a “lasting method of consecrating the irreconcilable” within society.

In the Sahel, for example, armed groups affiliated with Al Qaeda “have a true strategy for destroying the social fabric” that aims to pit the communities against each other by exploiting ethnic conflicts: the Fula against the Dogon and Tuareg in Mali, the Fula against the Mossi in Burkina Faso.


Ongoing crises

Civilian populations are the first victims of these conflicts. In 2016, there were nearly 300,000 child soldiers and nearly 60 million forced displacements (internally displaced persons and refugees), of whom 80% were women and children. Widespread sexual violence destroys family units and leads to the lasting damage of psychosocial disorders.

The social nature of these new wars makes them more complicated to resolve since they are less affected by intervention from outside actors and less led by rational considerations, unlike conflicts between States, in which the fighting can cease once the objective is achieved.

Furthermore, a war economy begins to develop that profits various stakeholders who are unwilling to support a peace process that would undermine their situation of profitability. This is the case, for example, among Afghan warlords and trafficking networks in West Africa who have succeeded in buying support, even from within central administrations.

Finally, the outbreak of fighting among multiple armed groups makes the peace processes fragile, since they are dependent on the political agendas of a wide range of stakeholders. Therefore, modern-day crises tend to be ongoing, subjecting populations and institutions to recurring clashes.


The humanitarian approach reaches limits

These chronic crises, which are more frequent, complex and acute, create a permanent state of emergency that confines humanitarian workers in their areas of intervention, as witnessed in missions in eastern Congo, Somalia and Haiti. 90% of countries who received humanitarian aid in a theater of crisis also benefited from this aid during the three previous years (and 60% of recipient countries have been receiving it for over eight years). This situation highlights several limitations of the humanitarian model.

  • The need to simultaneously cover old and new theaters of operations has caused humanitarian financial needs to increase significantly in recent decades. In 2016, the demand for funding raising surpassed $20 billion for a target population of nearly 90 million people: amounts four times higher than the previous decade, for a target population that has doubled in size.


  • The long-term interventions of emergency workers come with negative impacts: the populations’ dependency on international aid, a lack of accountability among local leaders, a disincentive to revive the productive sector, all of which ultimately weaken the socio-economic fabric in the territories of intervention.

Along with these dynamics, for the past thirty years humanitarian stakeholders have complained of a growing inability to provide relief to victims of armed conflicts, due to insecurity in particular. This is explained in part by the “militarization” and the “politicization” of humanitarian action, especially following the American experience in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Civil-military action and the subjection of humanitarian action to military objectives has blurred the boundaries between the various professional communities and tarnishes the principles of neutrality and impartiality of non-governmental organizations.


A military tool ill-adapted to social conflicts

The military still approaches these “new wars” as they did former wars, in other words, only power is used, through military force, as a tool for containing the violence, as was the case in Mali in 2012 and in the Central African Republic in 2013.

While military intervention can be effective initially, liberation armies can quickly come to be seen as occupying armies. Furthermore, the intervention of a powerful outside military complicates the nature of the crisis by embedding international dynamics in local developments (as in Iraq and Syria).

When faced with social tensions, the distinction between civil security (police) and military forces becomes blurred, and armies no longer operate within traditional battlefields. The use of force becomes the standard response to managing violence and prolongs military intervention ad vitam aeternam, as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali. The intervention turns into interventions by militarized police, taking the form of raids against armed groups (Somalia, Mali, Afghanistan).


The mediator’s weakened position

Since the 1990s, there have been more attempts at mediation than during the 1945-1989 period. This trend has come with the multiplication of mediation stakeholders directly involved in conflict resolution (States, NGOs, foundations, regional and sub-regional organizations).

This phenomenon, as highlighted in the book “Les nouvelles guerres” by political scientist Milena Dieckhoff, raises questions on methods for “reaching a consensus, not only among conflicting parties, but also among the various peacemakers have the considerable duty of ensuring mediation, even beyond the generic term “peace”. The various regional and international stakeholders often support competing peace agreements that interfere with the actions of the warring parties.

Furthermore, the mediator’s position is weakened to the extent that the civilian populations, the first victims of these conflicts, are exposed to the risk of being blackmailed by armed groups who do not hesitate to attack civilians if their conditions are not met. It is not uncommon to see these groups become more active during diplomatic negotiations in order to demonstrate their ability to cause harm and demand “payment” for an at least temporary end of their activities. This is also a way for minority armed groups to become involved in the negotiation process and gain political recognition.

This phenomenon makes peace negotiations difficult: they require the conciliation of many conflicting agendas. The agreements are more like truces that acknowledge changes in power relationships on the ground.  In Syria and in the Central African Republic, the initiatives abound, but no political solution can be clearly identified to resolve the crisis and put an end to the fighting.


The emergence of development stakeholders

The humanitarian, political and military means used to resolve wars of a deeply social nature are ineffective in situations requiring the restoration of institutional capacities, a rebuilding of the social contract and social integration. Through their programs, development stakeholders can create bridges to carry on short-term responses, to address the economic, social, institutional and political aspects of the crises. The action of donors directly addresses the countries’ socio-economic challenges in order to reduce economic and territorial inequalities, promote the inclusion of communities and improve the governance of local and national authorities.

Development stakeholders have traditionally restricted their interventions to areas of relative stability in order to ensure the sustainability of their operations. This situation has led to a two-tier form of development in which territories imprisoned in “conflict traps” surviving through humanitarian action and occupied by foreign armies, exist alongside territories where poverty has been significantly reduced (take for example the divergences between the situations in Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The World Bank estimates that by 2030, extreme poverty will be mainly limited to areas subject to a high level of violence.

In light of this, development stakeholders must adjust their strategies to focus on crisis areas in order to contribute to strengthening States and societies.



The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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