The last 70 years have been arguably the most peaceful in human history. Still, conflict and violence pose critical development challenges to low- and middle-income countries and businesses, as well as to international organizations and our efforts to combat poverty and the spread of disease.1 Further, population displacement has become a world crisis. And while it’s true that major powers aren’t engaging in the kind of devastating large-scale wars that rocked the first half of the 20th century, the number of smaller regional conflicts is on the rise.
Zones that feature violence, economic underdevelopment, injustice, and poor governance, are expanding, adding up to a new normal.2 The economic impact can’t be overstated: In 2018, violence cost the global economy $14.1 trillion in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) — equivalent to 11.2% of global GDP.2 Conflict participants have seen GDP growth stunted by two percentage points per year, on average.
Of course, there’s also the human cost. Acts of violence — including war, crime, and self-inflicted violence — account for about two percent of total global mortality,3 and conflict drives about 80% of all humanitarian needs.1 And as of the end of 2018, conflicts had created about 70.8 million refugees and internally displaced people, 95% of whom live in developing countries. More than half of these people have been displaced longer than four years.1
In this article we’ll look at the most recent data from international organizations and research institutions globally and analyze how and why historical trends in global violence have evolved, the overall price society pays for conflict, and what might be keys to stability and peace.
Are We Really Living in the Most Peaceful Times?
Pinker found that the percentage of people killed by violence ranges from about 60% to less than 5% of all deaths in both prehistoric and nonstate societies. However, the U.S. and Europe from 1900–1960 — including two world wars — saw less than one percent of their population die in armed conflict. And over the last two decades (2000-2018), international violence accounted for only 0.2% of all deaths globally.5
Pinker’s study, however, suffers from a lack of reliable data. Anthropologists depend on archaeological evidence to determine causes of death in prehistoric and non-state societies, and can therefore only approximate rates of violence.
More dependable statistics on population and conflict deaths doesn’t show any tendency to more peaceful societies starting from the 15th century. And if we look at conflict deaths in terms of absolute numbers, the 20th century was the most violent in human history.
Still, it’s true that over the last two decades the fatality rate has been the lowest since 1400, and we’ve gone 66 years without a conflict between major powers, the longest such lull in that time. However, the 20-year moving average of conflict fatality rates starting from 1600 reveals similar war-peace cycles, in which periods between major wars range from 50 to 80 years. This suggests a high probability of another global conflict in the near future.
Transformation of War: From Conflicts Between States to Civil Conflicts and Interventions
Of course, we’re not saying the next global war — whatever form it might take — is inevitable. After World War II, new deterrents to war have emerged, notably atomic weapons and robust international institutions. We’ve also seen increased interdependence between countries, economically, culturally, and otherwise. Potential losses have outweighed potential gains.
Since the end of World War II, the number of fatalities and the rate of battle deaths have decreased, with the most noticeable decline in conflicts between states. Today, battle deaths mostly occur in civil conflicts, such as ongoing interventions and civil wars in the Middle East and Asia.5
This spotlights another interesting data point: Though the number of deaths has decreased, the total number of conflicts is rising. The constraints mentioned above have deterred major states from direct battles, so they have increasingly used civil conflicts as proxies — often accompanied by foreign intervention — to promote national interests.
According to ACLED, in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, about 10,000-15,000 people die every month from civil violence, foreign interventions, and terrorism. Starting from 1997 (the first year of ACLED data) most intensive conflicts take place in countries rich with fossil fuels (such as Nigeria, Angola, Sudan, Syria, Iran, and Libya) and other critical resources (Democratic Republic of Congo). Other causes include drug trafficking and ethnic and religious strife.
The Economic and Human Cost
As mentioned at the top of this article, the Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that in 2018 violence cost the global economy about 11.2% of worldwide GDP, or $1,853 per person.2 Military spending and internal security accounted for 71% of that $14 trillion cost. Crime and interpersonal violence ($3.4 trillion) and armed conflicts themselves ($0.7 trillion) made up the rest.
The ten countries most affected by violence saw impacts of between 22% and 67% of GDP. These countries have high levels of armed conflict, large numbers of internally displaced persons, high levels of interpersonal violence, and/or large militaries. North Korea is an exception because of its outsized military spending relative to national GDP.2
Not only are the frequency and economic cost of conflicts rising, but so is the human cost.
In the last decade the global population of forcibly displaced people grew from 43.3 million in 2009 to 70.8 million in 2018, a record high. Most of this increase came between 2012 and 2015, driven mainly by the conflict in Syria. But violent conflicts in other areas have also contributed, as well as the massive flow of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh at the end of 2017.
In 2018 alone, more than 41 million people were internally displaced. Of these, almost 26 million were categorized as refugees, and another 3.5 million were asylum seekers.
The ongoing war in Syria has had the most damaging effect, with 6.1 million people displaced within the country. Such is the severity of the civil war that a further 6.7 million have become refugees — the highest number of any nation. By the end of 2018, Turkey had taken in 3.7 million refugees, many of them fleeing from Syria. Aside from Syria, the other countries producing the most refugees at the end of 2018 were Afghanistan (2.5 million), South Sudan (1.4 million), Somalia (1.0 million), and Sudan (0.65 million).
Other nations that host a large proportion of refugees include Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.2 million), and Sudan and Germany (both 1.1 million). It’s worth noting most of these countries are comparatively underdeveloped and experiencing conflicts of their own.
Twin Threats: Poverty and Global Warming
The available statistics on global conflicts are contradictory. The last 70 years have been the most peaceful in history. States don’t fight each other. The ratio of fatalities to population and the absolute number of fatalities from armed conflicts are also lowest in history.
However, thousands die in armed conflicts every month. The number of conflicts is growing. Violence now accounts for more than ten percent of world GDP. Tens of millions of people have been forced to flee their homes. And global military spending today is close to Cold War levels.7
In other words, war didn’t disappear; it evolved. Because potential losses of open war exceed potential gains, major powers have used smaller, regional conflicts to protect their interests and fight for resources and influence. In traditional wars, up to 90% of fatalities came from the armed forces fighting those wars, but in today’s conflicts the civilian population suffers 80% of fatalities and injuries. This explains the massive increase of displaced persons around the world.
To that end, we want to note it’s been empirically confirmed that poverty increases the likelihood of civil war.8 Countries with low, stagnant, and unequally distributed incomes — many of which also depend on primary commodities for their exports — face dangerously high risks of prolonged conflict. In the absence of economic development, neither a country’s political institutions, ethnic and religious homogeneity, nor military spending will prevent large-scale violence. Once such a country stumbles into a conflict, these economic forces — the “conflict trap” — tend to promote a cycle of further conflict.8
Those conditions will probably get worse. Numerous studies on climate change indicate it’s highly likely the expected rise in global temperature will increase global poverty, which could disrupt peace in the coming decade.
Climate change acts as a threat multiplier. Obviously, the meteorological effects themselves don’t create violence, but they will adversely impact water and food availability, change population dynamics, and strain societal institutions, all of which affect stability and substantially increase the risk of conflict.2
The Fork in the Road
Because global warming is all but inevitable, our hopes for peace lie in reducing poverty. Leading powers should pursue responsible policies that support the world economy and international trade, equitably distribute technological advancements, and ensure stable supplies of food and energy. Economic sanctions and trade wars, however, will push the global economy towards recession and exacerbate poverty, increasing both the frequency and severity of internal conflicts. And if current trends continue, civilians will pay the price.
- Fragility, Conflict and Violence. April 02, 2019. The World Bank. Link
- Global Peace Index 2019. Institute for Economics and Peace. Link
- Peter Maurer, April 08, 2016. What are the triggers for global conflicts, and what can we do about them? International Committee of The Red Cross. Link
- Pinker, 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Viking.
- Will Koehrsen, January 6, 2019. Has Global Violence Declined? A Look at the Data. Towards Data Science. Link
- Global Trends. Forced Displacement in 2018. The UN Refugee Agency. June 20, 2019. Link
- Dr Nan Tian, Dr Aude Fleurant, Alexandra Kuimova, Pieter D. Wezeman and Siemon T. Wezeman, April 2019. Trends in world military expenditure, 2018. SIPRI. Link
- Collier, Paul; Elliott, V. L.; Hegre, Havard; Hoeffler, Anke; Reynal-Querol, Marta; Sambanis, Nicholas; Collier, Paul*Elliott, V. L.*Hegre, Havard*Hoeffler, Anke*Reynal-Querol, Marta*Sambanis, Nicholas. 2003. Breaking the conflict trap : civil war and development policy (English). A World Bank policy research report. Washington, D.C. : The World Bank. Link