Is peace the only way out of poverty?

The poorest countries on earth have more needs and deficiencies than many of us can comprehend, from fallow fields to failing schools to raging epidemics. One cannot help but ask: Where should donor countries even begin to help out?

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There are many common — and valid — answers to this question. Health, many argue, is fundamental, because a population stricken with disease cannot work productively, learn effectively, or care for their children or their communities. Others assert that no progress can be made without a stable agricultural base, which both nourishes people and provides them with a simple sustainable route out of poverty.

But what about peace? This week, the World Bank argued in its annual World Development Report (WDR) that countries suffering chronic violence and corruption, where people have no security over their possessions, their lives or their land, cannot even begin to address broader development issues. Their evidence is as startling as it is compelling: no fragile or conflict-ridden country has achieved a single Millennium Development Goal, while poverty rates are an average of 20 percent higher in these violent societies.

So why don’t donor countries start by looking at peace, rather than health, agriculture or any other issue?

Part of the answer is that it is difficult to know when and how the involvement of the international donor community is helpful; programs that appear to be meddling in the politics of other countries risk doing more harm than good. The WDR has some suggestions for appropriate programs, including technical assistance in ensuring that governments are well adapted to the fragile situation, investing in job creation in areas such as electricity and transport and helping these countries crack down on illicit trafficking.

Some donor countries have already taken this advice to heart. The UK recently pledged to direct 30 percent of its aid to unstable states and to support peace and security through programs that organize political debates in remote areas and help women run for office and access legal help.

The WDR also describes steps that fragile and post conflict states themselves can take to build a safer, more peaceful society. These include integrating local communities more into policing and conflict resolution systems, involving women in design of security and justice programs and launching high profile anti-corruption efforts to clean up government and win back public trust.

Some reports have argued that these findings mean that security should be elevated above health, agriculture, and other issues in the minds of donors. In reality, however, the WDR is arguing more that programs in other areas must be sensitive to the fragile situation in certain countries, and that complimentary programs aimed at reducing violence and rebuilding broken societies can make all programs more effective.