This column suggests that in Africa an income drop of 5%—a large but altogether common deterioration in economic conditions—increases the risk of civil conflict in the following year to nearly 30%. This suggests that aid agencies could help prevent war by targeting short-term emergency aid towards countries hard-hit by adverse commodity price movements or weather shocks.
If we believe that a direct link connects poverty and violence, then when failing rains create economic hardship, war should follow. In this case, we can actually figure out whether poverty caused violence by isolating rainfall’s effects. Drought and the resulting economic hardship turn out to matter a lot for understanding conflict in Africa. In work with co-authors Shanker Satyanath and Ernest Sergenti of NYU, we find that a 1% decline in national GDP increases the likelihood of civil conflict by about 2 percentage points. So an income drop of 5%—a large but altogether common deterioration in economic conditions, especially when the rains fail—increases the risk of civil conflict in the following year to nearly 30%, up from an already-high average probability of conflict in Africa of around 20% in normal rainfall years. So we find that short-term shocks to income – exactly the type that Djankov and Reynal-Querol purport to study – do trigger violent conflict on the world’s war-prone continent.
This is an interesting observation. It also begs the next question how aid organisations, governments and society as a whole can effectively react to such shocks. Apart from preventing those few that can be controlled, it is more a matter of keeping "the fingers on the pulse" and to have sensitive systems in place that can "hear the baby cry". That means a lot of flexibility and adaptability.