War: Not so bad after all – Report
“Human Security Report Project: The Shrinking Costs of War”
A new study by the Canadian ‘Human Security Report’, from the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University, claims that death rates in modern armed conflicts is actually falling. Their new paper, ‘The Shrinking Costs of War’, highlights that wartime mortality from disease and malnutrition, as well as war-inflicted injuries, has been drastically reduced by a number of factors.
Human Security Report argues that in poor countries affected by war, violent deaths are only a small percentage of the total number of conflict-related fatalities, with most deaths caused by war-exacerbated disease and malnutrition. Over the last four decades global health interventions during peacetime have been highly effective at reducing the factors that sustain disease; and dramatic increases have occurred in the level and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance during conflicts. ‘Indirect deaths’ in conflicts have attracted much more attention in recent years, and in areas like Darfur and the Congo NGOs have estimated massive death tolls from war-created conditions. Part of the ‘Shrinking Costs’ report is a challenge to these estimates, with claims that their methodology results in death tolls up to 3 times too large (though in the case of the Congo their revised death toll is still almost 2 million people).
The most counterintuitive finding of the report is that mortality rates actually go down during war! The Human Security Report researchers examined under-five mortality rates in 18 sub-Saharan African nations between 1970 and 2007, finding that statistically, child mortality declined during warfare in 80 percent of the countries studied. These results are mirrored by a 2008 World Bank study claiming that both adult and infant mortality rates decline during wartime.
How can this be the case? Unfortunately, this has to do with the often ‘fire-fighting’- style emergency focus of health interventions. Much of the improvement in global child mortality has resulted from programmes like immunisation against disease, and immunisations by international agencies often increase dramatically once a war has broken out. In the Congo, immunisation for diseases like measles, diphtheria and tetanus stood at around 20 percent at the beginning of the war in 1998, and had increased to almost 80 percent by 2007. Human Security Report Project Director, Professor Andrew Mack, says that “There has been a more than three-fold increase in the level of humanitarian assistance per displaced person since the end of the Cold War. It has become more effective and saved countless lives”. Immunisation in peacetime also leads to dramatically reduced risks of death during conflict.
But, The Shrinking Costs of War report argues that the most important factor in declining wartime mortality has been the changing nature of warfare, from wars fought with mass armies to the more ‘low-intensity insurgencies’ fought by lightly-armed rebel groups. While these rebels are often known for savage attacks against civilians, the conflicts kill relatively few people. This conflict is also more localised, with a recent study finding that on average only about 10 percent of a country-at-war is affected by serious violence.
So, all-in-all, wars in the 21st Century cause 90 percent-fewer violent deaths than the average war in the 1950s, and indirect war deaths have declined even more due to better health interventions. “No one, of course, is suggesting that war is good for people’s health,” says Professor Mack, “But the reality is that the death toll in most of today’s wars is too small to reverse the steady decline in peacetime mortality that developing countries have been experiencing for more than thirty years”.
I have no personal insight into the methodology of this study, and so will look out with interest to see whether the results are challenged. Regardless of whether they are correct, the death tolls from modern conflicts still number in the many millions, including both combatants and civilians. Recent reports have also shown correlations between lack of development and warfare, and pressure on resources and warfare. Of course, for the most-developed countries, nuclear weapons and high-tech armies have catastrophically increased the costs (and thus lowered the frequency) of wars against each other; while technology and public opinion has turned wars like Afghanistan into a series of raids and targeted assassinations, rather than wars of occupation. This all allows the prediction that much of the developing world is still most vulnerable to internal and inter-state conflict, and that this conflict is likely to increase if environmental exhaustion (either due to climate change, or other processes such as deforestation and desertification, pollution of water sources, and over-fishing and hunting) continues. The glimmer of hope from this study is perhaps that if health standards are increasing, despite war, then the knock-on effects of health – more productive and better-educated populations – may help global progress towards more prosperous and stable societies.