Beyond Emergency Pandemic Response: The Case for Prioritizing Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention

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The Issue

  • Armed conflicts were on the rise before 2020, and Covid-19 did little to change that; however, the pandemic has led to other forms of violence and indirectly affected the health, humanitarian, economic, and governance issues often at the root of violent conflict.

  • Policymakers and donors should prioritize peacebuilding and conflict prevention programming, integrating them into humanitarian assistance efforts and moving beyond emergency pandemic response.

Since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns emerged about its impacts on armed conflict, violence, and peace. Some have argued that the pandemic could accelerate the rising numbers of civil conflicts around the world, a trend already underway. Others have warned that absent new efforts to reinvigorate lagging peace processes, Covid-19 could exacerbate the conditions that foment internal conflicts, leading to an uptick in violence. Still, others have wondered whether there might be opportunities for peace in unifying behind a common enemy (in this case, a virus).

While it is still too early to tell what the pandemic’s ultimate political and security ramifications will be, given that Covid-19 is far from contained, evidence suggests that it has had few direct impacts on violent conflict so far. However, by historical standards, the global prevalence of conflict was already extremely high before the pandemic emerged, and these elevated levels show no signs of abating. Other forms of violence—crime, terrorism, and violence against women and children—are rising sharply. The pandemic is also intensifying the deeper causes of conflict and violence at an alarming rate and putting places that were already vulnerable to violence at greater risk of instability.

Despite these trends—as well as the increased risk that hotspots around the world will draw in regional and international powers—some donors are pivoting away from their commitments to peacebuilding, stabilization, and conflict prevention. They should instead recommit to elevating this agenda and investing the necessary resources through mechanisms such as those available via the Global Fragility Act.

Based on expert interviews, a comprehensive review of existing literature, and the findings of a CSIS private virtual roundtable in June 2021, this brief summarizes what is known about conflict trends during the pandemic and highlights four points:

  1. Armed conflicts were already on the rise before 2020; the pandemic did little to change that.

  2. But the pandemic has contributed to a rise in other forms of violence.

  3. Longer-term indirect (health and humanitarian, economic, and governance) impacts are of greatest concern.

  4. Climate change will make everything more difficult.

The brief concludes with recommendations for policymakers on better targeting their efforts to prioritize peace and conflict prevention:

  • Do not leave anyone behind in the global push to get everyone vaccinated; promote ceasefires and the protection of humanitarian space to get this done.

  • Integrate conflict prevention and resilience programming into pandemic-related humanitarian assistance and assess how such assistance can impact conflict.

  • Conduct deeper and more integrated analysis on the far-reaching impacts of the pandemic in the developing world.

  • Prioritize support to local civil society groups.

  • Promote donor coordination and efforts to address fragility as part of Covid-19 responses.

1. Armed conflicts were already on the rise before 2020; the pandemic did little to change that.

Multiple, proliferating armed conflicts were raging across the globe when much of the world went into lockdown over one year ago. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program reported a slight increase in the number of conflicts worldwide in 2020, in line with recent upward trends. Data clearly shows that the longer a civil war goes on, the more likely it will embroil other countries. To date, however, countries such as Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and Afghanistan saw a continuation of conventional conflict during the pandemic.

At the outset of the pandemic, there was renewed international attention to ongoing conflicts. The United Nations led a call for a global ceasefire, a goal that has mostly not been met. Furthermore, evidence suggests that while donor priorities have shifted to addressing the spread of the disease and its immediate humanitarian impacts, many donors who pledged to incorporate conflict sensitivity into their response efforts have failed to do so. Peacebuilding has become logistically challenging and remains underfunded.

2. But the pandemic has contributed to a rise in other forms of violence.

Women are disproportionately negatively affected by pandemic-related increases in other forms of violence. Gender-based, intimate partner, child, and conflict-related sexual violence have all increased on account of greater exposure to exploitative relationships, government crackdowns, economic stress, and reduced options for healthcare and other forms of support. Online harassment and abuse of women have also increased. Additionally, evidence suggests the pandemic is tied to an increase in violent extremism across the globe, with heightened levels of Islamist and far-right extremism posing the greatest threat. Extremist groups are using widespread dissatisfaction with government responses to Covid-19 and the increased time people are spending on the internet for recruitment, organizational, and planning purposes. Lastly, while the total levels of political violence in 2020 decreased by around 22 percent when compared to 2019, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), 49 percent of countries nonetheless saw an increase in political violence over the same period, mostly in places that had been experiencing fragility before Covid-19.

3. Longer-term indirect impacts are of greatest concern.

Both the pandemic and the lockdowns put in place to contain it have exacerbated the underlying conditions—global poverty and inequality, authoritarianism, and weakened global norms and institutions—that make countries more susceptible to armed conflict. Not only could these conditions lead to a rise in violent conflict over the longer term, but they could also spark international conflagrations. In addition to being a direct threat to regional stability, internal conflicts also threaten international peace and security, given that civil conflicts increase the risk of interstate ones. These impacts can take time to metastasize into violent conflict, as some observers noted was the case in the aftermath of the 2008–09 financial crisis, which contributed to the Arab Spring. After 18 months of loss of life, lockdowns, and economic downturns, people everywhere are taking to the streets in what are often violent protests. Some challenges predated the pandemic; most were exacerbated by it.

Health and humanitarian impacts. The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened humanitarian outcomes for people in fragile contexts. This year, the United Nations aims to provide emergency aid to 160 million people around the world, the highest number ever, in what the organization is calling a “hurricane of humanitarian crises.” As many as 811 million people suffer from hunger and malnourishment, a significant increase from 2019. While Covid-19 cases and deaths are largely underreported in places experiencing fragility, the pandemic has had a significant impact on food security and lagging healthcare infrastructure. For example, non–Covid-19 vaccination campaigns were disrupted in 45 countries, putting more than 80 million babies at risk of preventable disease.

After 18 months of loss of life, lockdowns, and economic downturns, people everywhere are taking to the streets in what are often violent protests. Some challenges predated the pandemic; most were exacerbated by it.

Conflict has compounded Covid-19–related challenges as people are displaced from their homes, forced into crowded camps, and left without access to jobs and healthcare, as was the case for over 1 million people displaced by violence in northwestern Syria in the months leading up to the pandemic. In Myanmar, a brutal coup has complicated efforts to contain the more virulent delta variant, which is sweeping through the country and much of the world. Making matters worse, 50 percent of Lebanese, 75 percent of Syrians, and 63 percent of Palestinians living in Lebanon worried they would not have enough food to eat, according to a World Food Program report from June 2020. Rates of child starvation have also increased in Yemen as the pandemic drives up food prices. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 3.3 million children will face acute malnutrition in 2021. In areas where access to healthcare was already scarce, the provision of humanitarian assistance has been affected by travel lockdowns and the disruption of global supply chains.

Economic impacts. Covid-19 is responsible for a 1.2 percentage point increase in poverty rates across the developing world in 2020 and the worst global recession since the 1930s. The development gains of the last 20 years have largely been erased, and existing inequalities within and among countries have widened. The International Monetary Fund estimates that while the global economy is projected to grow 6.0 percent in 2021 (the same as in 2020), the composition of the growth will change; advanced economies will grow more quickly, and emerging economies will grow more slowly. The pandemic resulted in historically unprecedented unemployment rates and an additional 97 million people falling into poverty globally in 2020 alone—of whom an estimated 26 million live in fragile contexts. Up to two-thirds of extreme poverty worldwide will be concentrated in fragile contexts by 2030. The pandemic is thus disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable, who are the least prepared to handle the economic shocks primarily brought on by efforts to contain the virus. Lockdowns, while justifiable in some cases for public health reasons, have caused lasting economic damage.

Governance impacts. The pandemic has been a test of legitimacy for governments everywhere. When governments and institutions lack legitimacy and are unable to provide basic services, fragility ensues. More stable countries have institutions strong enough to recover from serious shocks such as a sudden drop in exports. In fragile contexts, the pandemic has had a compounding negative effect, exacerbating and complicating many underlying drivers of conflict. Without the ability to provide safety nets, healthcare, access to education, or Covid-19 vaccines, conflict-affected states run the risk of further delegitimization. They also present opportunities for non-state actors to gain legitimacy, thus increasing the longer-term risk of violent conflict.

Source: Erol Yayboke/CSIS

Non-state actors are filling governance voids, enforcing lockdowns, and providing various services. In some fragile contexts, as in northwestern Syria, local civil society groups have filled critical gaps in governance and service provision. In Latin America, transnational criminal groups such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)—which were already deeply entrenched in illicit economies—have taken advantage of increased community needs. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has used its provision of health services to consolidate power and suppress dissent. Hybrid armed groups, such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel in Mexico and myriad anti-Houthi armed groups in Yemen, have also been handing out food in their communities and stepping in when the government fails to do so. This is significant because the weakness of a country’s civil society is as much a predictor of violent conflict as anything else. The pandemic has had diverse effects on civil society groups; demands on them have increased, and some have struggled in countries that are targeting them with excessive restrictions, including banning gatherings and monitoring their social media accounts. The ability of civil society groups to survive and ultimately thrive will thus be a key predictor of future conflict and present an opportunity for the United States and like-minded donor nations to prevent violence, especially in places where formal governance structures are weak.

For democracies, the ability of governments to balance virus-controlling lockdowns with their economic downturns has been the difference between either increasing legitimacy or raising fundamental questions about whether democracy can deliver in times of crisis. But Covid-19 has not limited its governance impact to democracies. Though more authoritarian-minded governments have faced similar legitimacy tests, these regimes have responded differently. They took advantage of lockdown restrictions to crack down on opposition and to centralize power. They have increased state surveillance over citizens and placed restrictions on civil liberties, individual rights, and even movement. For example, Hungary’s Enabling Act, which declared a state of emergency in response to Covid-19, was passed without a sunset clause. Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen pushed through a similar bill. From Nigeria to Uzbekistan, Iran to the Dominican Republic, similar use of emergency powers and excessive force to enforce lockdowns often targeted civil society. Colombians saw the government implement more than 210 new regulations between March and July 2020, in part prompting nationwide protests.

Implications for long-term peace and stability? Frustration over governments’ mishandling of the pandemic has resulted in political unrest, with non-state actors already capitalizing on it to advance their own goals. Protests against the economic crisis and government responses to Covid-19 have spread around the world, including in conflict-affected countries like Myanmar, where crackdowns, lockdowns, and violence against healthcare workers continue with no end in sight. In some of these places, particularly countries dealing with sharp commodity price fluctuations, new armed conflicts may be just over the horizon.

Frustration over governments’ mishandling of the pandemic has resulted in political unrest.

4. Climate change will make everything more difficult.

When paired with the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change has the potential to compound instability in fragile contexts. Climate-related events increase human mobility and the likelihood of violence. In 2019 alone, 24.9 million people were displaced within their own countries due to climate-related disasters, and over 143 million people could face climate-related displacement in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America by 2050. Like Covid-19, climate change could also increase poverty, food insecurity, and governance challenges in many fragile contexts. For example, by 2030, an additional 132 million people could be forced into poverty by natural disasters related to climate change. In 2019, 34 million people faced acute food insecurity due to climate-related incidents; crop failures and food insecurity will become only more common due to climate change, which has the potential to fuel violent conflict in the future. Although the impacts of climate change may not directly cause conflict, ultimately sea-level rise, rising temperatures, or sudden catastrophes could intensify existing conflicts, particularly in fragile contexts where tensions between communities or resentment toward the government already exist. When these impacts are coupled with Covid-19–related challenges, governments will undoubtedly struggle to keep up.

Beyond Emergency Pandemic Response: Recommendations for Policy Action

Distracted by a global health and climate emergency, as well as rising geopolitical tensions, some donors have shifted their attention away from preventing or mitigating conflicts. This is a mistake. Given the global security implications of rising levels of instability, even in distant regions, policy action must move beyond strictly providing emergency health and humanitarian aid. In particular, policymakers should:

  • Vaccinate everyone, which will require ceasefires and the protection of humanitarian space. This is not only a global health imperative but has also been recognized as a global economic and security imperative. The international community should continue to insist on humanitarian ceasefires and protecting humanitarian space so vaccination campaigns can proceed in conflict-affected countries such as Yemen and Myanmar. The sooner the Covid-19 pandemic can be controlled in fragile contexts the less the pandemic will exacerbate drivers of conflict. Additionally, successful vaccination campaigns will increase the legitimacy of local governance actors.
  • Limit harm by assessing how humanitarian assistance can impact conflict (especially if not done in a conflict-sensitive manner) and integrate conflict prevention and resilience programming alongside humanitarian assistance. As a recent Mercy Corps report recommends, policymakers should take special care to incorporate prevention efforts into Covid-19 responses, adopting a “holistic approach to pandemic recovery.” Peacebuilding and capacity-building efforts, which often do not show immediate results, can “reduce risk, vulnerability and overall levels of need.” Though no single template for peacebuilding exists, efforts typically address the very drivers of conflict that Covid-19 is exacerbating. In the United States, the Stabilization Assistance Review and Global Fragility Act provide useful frameworks for integrating conflict awareness and violent conflict prevention into pandemic response efforts.
  • Conduct deeper and more integrated analysis using a broad array of metrics to capture the far-reaching effects of the pandemic in the developing world. More analysis is needed on the impacts in fragile contexts, especially on how health, economic, governance, and environmental challenges interact with one another. Policy action should be guided not just by metrics on the resilience of health systems and vaccination efforts but also those relating to poverty, governance and civil society, climate change, and levels of fragility and political instability. Looking exclusively at casualty figures obscures underlying factors that contribute to conflict.

  • Prioritize support to local civil society groups. There is an opportunity to put into practice long-overdue desires to increase partnership with local actors, given that civil society groups are filling critical pandemic-related governance functions and gaining legitimacy in the process. Further analysis is needed on how the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of State, and other U.S. government donors can execute more grassroots support to civil society, but conflict-sensitive Covid-19 response efforts present one set of opportunities to do so.

  • Promote donor coordination and efforts to address fragility as part of Covid-19 responses. Effective international coordination, especially through new tools offered by the Global Fragility Act, will be essential. These efforts should include collecting evidence to ensure joint accountability, organizing for collective action, and designing country coordination structures.

Ultimately, where people in fragile contexts look to find solutions could mean the difference between more political violence, protests, and poverty and the more peaceful, better governed, and more economically vibrant world we strive to build back post-pandemic.

Erol Yayboke is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Corinne Graff is a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace. Janina Staguhn is a research assistant for the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

This brief is made possible by the generous support of Chemonics International, Inc.

CSIS Briefs are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Erol Yayboke
Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program
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Janina Staguhn
Research Associate and Program Manager, Project on Prosperity and Development

Corinne Graff

Senior Advisor, United States Institute of Peace