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It's the politics, stupid

Posted by Helen Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Yesterday’s International Herald Tribune carried an article by Nils Petter Gleditsch and Henrik Urdal, both of whom are political scientists with the Centre for the Study of Civil War at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, than which few organizations could sound more politically correct.

There seems to be a problem with Scandinavian academics. They do not live up to the image that we conjure up of them. First, Björn Lomborg sets the entire climate change establishment by the ears, proving that Kyoto is a waste of money, concentrating on global warming is a waste of resources and not paying attention to other problems is a waste of time.

Now we get Messrs Gleditsch and Urdal arguing that it is not environmental problems that cause wars. Resource scarcity may create low-level conflicts (a.k.a. a bit of a fight) but no major ones. This flies in the face of received wisdom. In the year when the Nobel Peace Prize went to an environmental activist, it takes some intellectual courage to say:

“In fact, speculation about ‘water wars’ and other apocalypic scenarios lacks solid foundation. Some studies find a relationship between low-level conflict and scarcity of resources like arable land, forests and fresh water, but others do not. In any case, this link is trumped by poverty, political instability and a region’s history of conflict.”
The three cardinal evils are interconnected, as we know with the first largely caused by the second and third.

They destroy the myth of water wars and the need for supranational control comprehensively:
“Scarcity of fresh water is one of the world’s major health problems and constrains economic development in many parts of the world. But that is not a ‘water war’ unless we radically redefine our concepts of war and peace. Countries that share a river appear to have a slightly higher probability of low-level conflict over and beyond the simple fact of being neighbours. Such countries also seem to cooperate more. There are hundreds of international agreements regulating the use of shared water resources, but one is hard put to name a single case where a conflict over water led to large-scale violence.”
This will not stop numerous NGOs with highly paid staff continuing to produce apocalyptic scenarios and demanding action by the UN and its various organizations that bring further corruption to already unstable areas.

Nor is it right to blame the abundance of natural resources for constant wars. (Indeed not. After all, Canada and the USA do not keep fighting.) In Sierra Leone and Angola “blood diamonds” have played a part but in Botswana the diamonds “have created the economic basis for the closest thing we find in sub-Saharan Africa to a democratic welfare state”.

Not scarcity, not over-abundance, not even, as they do not say, since it is not part of their remit, nationalism as African states are not nation states in the usual sense of the word.

So what is it? Well, lack of proper political accountability, power-mad politicians who destabilize the area, and the long-term effect of their policy. But there is something else. Wars need money and not all these countries are rich. Where does the money come from? Could it be our old friend international foreign aid?

Is it not time to pumping money into countries where the people never see a penny of it, where it is stolen for private use or to buy arms? And is it not time to stop faffing around with the wretched Kyoto Protocol that will do nothing to help the Third World countries and will simply slow down economic growth in western Europe? How about a real economic partnership? Oh sorry, that would mean upsetting the basic economic structures and ideological assumptions of the European Union. Can’t have that.