The conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions. Economic motivations, at the individual and group level, are key to understanding the wars in these countries, yet have tended to be overlooked in the context of the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. Such motivations can offer an alternative or complementary explanation for armed group membership and armed group behaviour.
While some groups will fight to promote or defend a particular identity, others fight for economic survival or enrichment. For many more actors, these motivations are tied together, and separating out ‘greed’ and ‘grievance’ is a difficult, if not impossible, task. Even if economic motivations did not spark the wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen initially, it is clear that such factors now play a critical role in the persistence of open fighting, localized violence and coercion.
In developing policy responses to these challenges in the MENA region, Western policymakers must first accept that any aspiration to ‘do no harm’ is illusory. In conflict sub-economies, taking calculated risks with the aim of doing ‘less harm’ is the best option open to policymakers. In Syria, for example, the conundrum for donors is that humanitarian aid is instrumentalized by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as a means of countering its economic failure, but is also critical to the coping ability of local populations.
Thus, donors must here accept that any intervention is likely to have unforeseen and/or negative consequences. These risks are best managed through developing a deep understanding of the operating environment in order to honestly assess whether there are opportunities to change conflict sub-economy dynamics, such as through partnerships, incentives or leverage. Such an approach also requires pragmatic acceptance of those elements of the conflict economy that policymakers cannot change.
In designing interventions, policymakers should develop incentives for peaceful cooperation rather than relying solely on enforcement mechanisms, which have demonstrated little success to date. Cracking down on illicit economic practices without offering viable alternative livelihood opportunities, for example, may have a displacement effect that can lead to something worse or simply encourage armed actors or their associates to take up alternative forms of profiteering.
When considering how to target specific illicit activities through enforcement mechanisms, policymakers should acknowledge that ‘legality’ is a relative, not fixed, concept in conflict economies. Legal measures therefore often lack potency as a policy intervention tool. In the four countries covered in this report, it is notable that the legality of a given practice may be decided by a single conflict actor – as in Syria, with the Assad regime. Rather than focusing on compliance with the law per se, it is more pragmatic to assess how political and economic gains and losses from conflict economy activities are distributed horizontally across groups and vertically within groups.
In choosing which illicit activities to target, policymakers should focus on those with shorter supply chains, where financial gains are not redistributed within or across groups, and where local coping economies are less likely to be affected. Financial and property crimes are good examples of this. In contrast, certain forms of smuggling – such as of subsidized goods and fuel – involve longer supply chains and wider networks of direct and indirect beneficiaries. For the greatest impact at the lowest cost to those in need, Western policymakers should therefore target bottlenecks where rent-seeking is most concentrated. In doing so, they must adopt clear, transparent, consistent and enforceable criteria in order to be taken seriously.
‚Conflict Economies in the Middle East and North Africa‘ – Report by Tim Eaton, Christine Cheng, Renad Mansour, Peter Salisbury, Jihad Yazigi and Lina Khatib – Chatham House / The Royal Institute of International Affairs.
The Report can be downloaded here