United States Institute of Peace

International Network for Economics and Conflict

Neighbors: A Blessing or a Curse?

*This blog is a part of a collaborative series in partnership with Economists for Peace & Security and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 

Neighbors can be a boon or a bane. Cooperative neighbors strengthen and assist each other. Non-cooperative neighbors can drain and impose burdens on each other. In the interests of long-term, sustainable peace, it is important for countries to pre-plan for the likelihood of a neighbor requiring assistance, and to help prevent conflict by committing resources to such a likelihood. 

Of the hundreds of academic research pieces on violence-afflicted states, relatively few explicitly consider the role of neighbors. An important exception was a paper by James C. Murdoch and Todd Sandler, published in 2002, which studied the spillover effects of civil war-afflicted countries on their neighbors and found substantial adverse income-growth effects, especially for near-neighbors.

Still, most studies and policy recommendations and actions remain focused on the afflicted state itself and far less on the region within which it is located. Examples abound. The set of wars in Central America in the 1980s left even peaceful Costa Rica in economic tatters. Its economy began to recover only once the regional peace agreements were struck after a decade of war. Negotiating the peace had been in Costa Rica’s own best interests.

In the 1990s, to take another example, while the refugee effect of the Rwandan genocide is largely discussed in terms of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Rwanda’s west, about a million people also fled east to Tanzania. In a matter of weeks, Tanzania’s second-largest ‘city’ was created in camps just across the Rwandan border. In the 2000s, millions of Afghans fled to Iran and Pakistan. Today, the turmoil in Syria adversely affects Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and others.

This is not a ‘poor world’ problem. Other examples include Australia, which for many years has sought unsuccessfully to come to grips with economic and political refugees washing up on its shores. Italy was in the news recently when refugee-filled vessels capsized off its southern islands. During the conflicts in Balkans in the 1990s, the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) strenuously tried to contain the conflict in situ so as to remain unaffected by people seeking refuge outside the war-zone.

Indeed, this appears to be a common knee-jerk reaction: if you can, fortify your own borders, keep your own purse intact, and the victims in the cauldron. However, this rarely works, and certainly not when borders are porous and humanitarian emergencies can occur within a matter of days, creating millions of destitute people.

In June 2013, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) reported that by the end of 2012 an estimated 45.2 million people worldwide lived ‘in situations of displacement’. Refugees thus are the 30th largest country in the world—larger than Argentina, Canada, Kenya, Malaysia, or Poland.

Yet the burden imposed is unevenly spread. Relative to its size and wealth, the United States is less than generous with offering refuge. Jordan, a much poorer and smaller country, hosts a far larger share of refugees. Some researchers have argued that hosting refugees itself can lead to war in the host state, emphasizing the need to provide virtually immediate assistance to war-affected neighbors.

Sadly, solutions must begin by assuming that future wars will occur and that massive refugee streams will be created. Syria will not be the last such emergency.

In Western countries, virtually all communities have an emergency readiness plan to deal with industrial or natural catastrophes. In the United States, communities regularly review these plans and community-wide ‘practice’ days are held every so often. In regard to war, each potentially affected neighboring state likewise should have a ready-made plan at hand. States should permit the unimpeded inflow of refugees and should disperse them far inside their territory to predetermined areas. Refugee corridors to neighbors’ neighbors should be preplanned and pre-approved, as concentrating refugees tends to aggravate the misery, and the food, shelter, health, sanitation and environmental burdens. Diffusion mitigates these problems.

States will agree to this more readily if communication lines with stronger, wealthier and more capable states are pre-established, pre-committed and regularly tested. To make commitments credible, supplies should be pre-positioned, and United Nations system-wide escrow emergency funds should be established and pre-funded in order to make it easier to draw on them when an emergency strikes. Refugee-affected countries, not donors, should have the drawing right—the right to draw funds—perhaps under oversight of an independent, non-state expert panel, obligated to arrive at funding decisions, and levels, within seven days. 

Follow-on drawing rights might automatically be linked to concessionary World Bank loans, obligating both the drawing state and the other states that make up the World Bank as a whole. As time is of the essence, one cannot haggle. Automatic responses should rule whenever pre-determined threshold levels are crossed. An effective system can only be one that is pre-committed. The non-governmental community can help simply by pressing, querying and auditing plans, or calling for their creation. 

I do not mean to give the impression that this is a simple topic, with simple solutions. Not at all. None of the above can address the plight of internally displaced people—for example, there are still over four million such people in Colombia—or deal effectively with diaspora-financed war in refugees’ home states. However, pre-commitment and automatic responses would help to reduce the number of follow-on wars in at least some refugee host states. 

Pre-determining and irrevocably pre-committing the distribution of the economic pain of providing aid to war-affected neighbors, and neighbors’ neighbors, will help ensure that all have an interest in preventing war in the first place.

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