The Costs of Conflict

17/01/2012 10:07 GMT | Updated 17/03/2012 09:12 GMT

"Conflict costs the average developing country roughly 30 years of GDP growth and countries in protracted crisis can fall over 20 percentage points behind in overcoming poverty" - Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, 2011 World Development Report.

The economic cost is just part of the tragedy of war - the loss of human lives prematurely destroyed is the starkest of many profound outcomes. A loss of infrastructure is also a calamity, as people's life chances are put back by the destruction of even the most basic of services, such as access to clean water and adequate sanitation.

Rwanda, which suffered a brutal genocide in 1994, is the only Sub-Saharan African country on track with its Millennium Development Goal to halve the proportion of people lacking in water and sanitation services by 2015. In Liberia, plagued by civil wars, the Nobel Prize winning President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an international Water and Sanitation Ambassador used her first speech following her re-election last year to address the importance of improving these services.

Rwanda and Liberia are showing that providing water, improved hygiene and sanitation has the potential to transform lives, reduce illness and ill health, and help rebuild and drive forward economies. Support - both from foreign governments including the UK, and from WaterAid and other NGOs - to provide these essential services represents a common sense low risk investment that makes a huge difference to developing countries.

As we said in a recent report submitted to the International Development Committee, "WaterAid believes that ensuring the provision of basic services - health, education, water and sanitation - is self-evidently a public good but also underpins the legitimacy and stability of nation states."

In supporting the development of these services in developing communities, nation building occurs and supporters of this work will provide a truly enduring legacy.

In recognition of this, I'm pleased to see that the UK Department for International Development (DFID) is refocusing more of its resources on supporting fragile and post conflict states.

Countries with a history of violence are more likely to fall back into conflict and instability. DFID believes that if it supports and helps these countries to stay peaceful and stable, the costs both for the countries themselves and donors will be far smaller than having to deal with the consequences of a new conflict.

WaterAid provided evidence to the UK House of Commons International Development Committee (IDC) report, on this change in the UK's aid policy, entitled Working Effectively in Fragile and Conflict-Affected States: DRC and Rwanda. While broadly supportive and welcoming of the new DFID policy it raised the issue of ensuring that UK money is not lost to fraud and corruption, something that in particular the Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell MP, is rightly focused on.

WaterAid's written evidence to the IDC enquiry, called on our experience of working in Rwanda as well as other fragile and post-conflict states such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. In particular we noted four strategies that we felt are important :

  • build on the strengths of fragile states--which are not necessarily fragile in all areas;
  • provide leadership with examples of the transition to development in other previously fragile states;
  • bring together the ministries responsible for water and sanitation services and those managing finance, planning and local government; and
  • promote better links between the water and sanitation services sector and other country infrastructure systems to develop capacity.

Rwanda and Liberia - which UK aid has helped to stabilise and transform following emergence from conflict - are leading the field in bringing basic services like water and sanitation to their people and are virtually unrecognisable from their recent bitter pasts. Both countries have made an important start can serve as important examples to other countries about how development can foster both peace and progress.

Barbara Frost is the Chief Executive of WaterAid, read more blogs from her here.