From Supply and Demand to Power and Data: The Case for a More Restrained Handling of Job Creation Programs in Conflict-Affected Situations
When implemented in countries affected by conflict, livelihood programs often face a dual imperative: support people’s livelihoods and economic activity and contribute to peacebuilding. In particular, job creation programs have recently been championed by various segments of the international community as a pathway towards stability and prosperity in conflict-affected countries, with two World Development Reports in the last two years promoting the need for more jobs in countries emerging from war, and newly inaugurated World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, recently arguing that the ‘creation of many new jobs’ can help a ‘fragile state lose its fragility.’ Great expectations, indeed.
There may be some logic to this thinking. As noted by Yannick du Pont in a recent contribution to this very blog site, youth unemployment can be closely linked with the existence and growth of insurgency movements:
‘When asked by researchers for the World Development Report 2011, 39.5% of young militia members said they joined such formations to escape unemployment, whilst only 13% claimed to have joined for ideological reasons. With youth unemployment rates often over 50-60% in such states, this is not ‘merely’ a human tragedy; it’s a threat to state stability. Creating jobs, especially for former combatants is a key component to a sustainable solution.’
The argument that what conflict-affected countries need is an increase in good jobs – for stronger growth and safer societies – is, therefore, a compelling one.
But it may also be a slightly reductive one. Here are two important reasons why. First, the relationships between (un)employment, stability and peacebuilding are actually quite poorly understood. Chris Cramer from the School of Oriental and African Studies produced an illuminating background paper on unemployment and violence for the 2011 World Development Report. Two central messages jump out of his paper. The first is that, generally speaking, empirical data on the subject simply do not exist:
‘There is no remotely convincing evidence at the cross-country, large-N level, at the quantitative case study level, or at the ethnographic, ‘qualitative’ level, for any bold claims that unemployment is a mechanistic causal factor in violent conflicts in developing countries.’
The second message is that it is often the experience of employment – rather than unemployment – that drives people to participate in political violence: poor and exploitative working conditions, extremely low pay and a lack of formal mechanisms through which to express dissatisfaction all help create the conditions for violence. This speaks to the complex dynamics of labor markets, which can both produce conflict – as has been noted in Sri Lanka – and be (violently) reconfigured as a result. For example, through qualitative research in Butembo, eastern DRC, Timothy Raeymaekers shows how access to decent jobs is controlled by a closed group of oligopolistic gatekeepers, some of whom have a vested interest in sustaining conflict economies, resulting in a governance of local economic activity that is at once highly exclusionary as well as deeply political.
Labor markets, therefore, are as much about dynamics of power as they are about equations of supply and demand, and it needs to be recognized that if labor market policies are to be part of efforts to reduce violence, then they ‘cannot be reduced to policies designed simply to maximize the number of work opportunities available’. Neither can they be based on tired, lazy assumptions about ‘what women do’ once conflict ends and ‘normality’ returns. The nature and extent of men’s and women’s labor market participation is often profoundly reshaped by conflict and displacement, yet reconstruction programs are sometimes guilty of essentializing women’s roles and positions in society (and within the household too). Connected to this is a broader argument for more and better research into (conflicted-affected) labor markets and their relationship with processes and patterns of violence.
Second, and perhaps even more fundamentally, very little is known about the empirical impacts of job creation programs in conflict-affected situations. Oliver Walton, for example, has conducted a rapid mapping study of donor approaches to addressing armed violence through youth job creation programs. He finds that, although such approaches have become more nuanced and sophisticated in recent years, the empirical case for using youth employment programs as a stand-alone tool for reducing violent conflict is extremely weak: ‘Donor interventions have been poorly evaluated and evidence of success is usually limited to demonstrating increases in employment levels, with little effort made to assess the impact on conflict.’ In addition, a recent systematic review conducted by researchers at the Overseas Development Institute identifies just seven relevant studies, the majority of which either present anecdotal evidence or are based on secondary literature reviews.
The case of job creation is symptomatic of a broader issue: that, perhaps because of the absence of high quality impact data, largely unjustified assumptions about the effectiveness of livelihood interventions often shape policy and programing choices in conflict-affected situations (and further afield too). These assumptions need testing – or, at the very least, handling with extreme care – and it is the responsibility of the donor community to ensure that its programing decisions are creating better off, more peaceful societies rather than (re)producing the conditions for violence and conflict.
*You can follow the author, Rich Mallett on Twitter: @rich_mallett