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Access to Justice

Stopping the slide into war

By Justin Kilcullen, Director of Trócaire, 15 March 2012

At the last count, 79 million people around the world have watched the now-famous ‘Kony 2012’ video on You Tube. While raising awareness of the plight of the people of northern Uganda is very welcome, the ‘Kony 2012’ video presents a simplistic approach to what is an extremely complicated situation.

The video does not sufficiently recognise the role of Ugandans in their own peace process and in building a stable future.

The Uganda it portrays is not the Uganda of 2012. Joseph Kony has not been in Uganda for six years, and so claiming that his arrest will bring peace to the country is outdated. Today, the biggest threat to peace in Uganda is the dehumanizing poverty in which the ordinary people of that region live.

On a recent visit to Ireland, the Archbishop of Gulu in northern Uganda, John Baptist Odama, warned how fragile peace is in his country following the recent cessation of a 20 year civil war. Failure to invest in the people may well lead to a return to bloodshed, he warned.

Why is this? It is a sad fact that 50 per cent of countries which engage in civil war will fall back into conflict within ten years. Uganda’s 20 year civil war was brought to an end in 2006. Can it avoid slipping back into conflict? Let’s look at the facts.

Professor Paul Collier of Oxford University undertook extensive research to identify the causes of civil war. He found a direct link between poverty and conflict. Sadly, civil war is far more likely to break out in poor countries. In fact, as Collier stated, if you halve a country’s income, you double the chances of civil war. It is important to note that the causation runs from poverty to war, and not the other way around.

Collier found that countries with low income, low growth and a dependence on a primary commodity had a 14 per cent chance of falling into civil war in any five year period. Indeed, the poorer the country, the greater the risk of conflict. A one per cent drop in income leads to a one per cent rise in the chance of civil war. Sadly, the lower the income, the longer that conflict will last.

So, poverty causes war, but what causes poverty? Collier, again, identifies four conditions which combine to keep the poorest countries locked into poverty – poor governance, low growth, recent conflict, and having no access to the sea. All four criteria are relevant for Uganda.

We can do nothing to change Uganda’s status as a landlocked country, nor can we turn back the clock on their recent civil war, but we can do much to improve governance and stimulate economic growth.

There is no doubt that corruption remains a huge problem in Uganda. The government spends hundreds of millions on fighter jets while its people struggle to survive. President Yoweri Museveni appears intent on consolidating power and sidelining other arms of government.

Despite this, calls to halt development aid to the government in Uganda are misguided. Our desire to see Uganda develop is best served by engaging and challenging Ugandan political leaders. Trócaire works with partner organisations in Uganda who monitor government spending, demanding increased transparency and targeted spending on much-needed public infrastructure. Abandoning Uganda would lead to worsening levels of governance and lower economic growth, the combination of which could see the country slide back into conflict.

War destroys economies. An economy shrinks by an average of 2.5 per cent for each year of conflict. Civil conflict lasts, on average, almost ten times longer than inter-state war – five years as opposed to six months. Therefore, civil war damages economies more than inter-state war. For example, following decades of civil war, it is estimated that it will take the Democratic Republic of Congo until 2050 to reach the levels of prosperity it enjoyed in 1960.

The damage done to the economy increases poverty. This, in turn, increases hopelessness, which gives rise to opportunistic fighters – impoverished young men who will risk death for wealth rather than live with the certainty of poverty.

When you remove hope, you make despair inevitable. That despair will turn to conflict whether Joseph Kony becomes a household name in America or not.

This Lent, Trócaire is highlighting the plight of rural communities in northern Uganda who are rebuilding their lives after the war.

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