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The Political Economy of War: What Relief Agencies Need to Know

Working papers

This paper suggests that a ‘political economy’ approach to war – one which focuses on how the distribution of wealth and power is affected during conflict – has far reaching implications for relief work.  

In war there are both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. These two simple arguments arise from a focus on the political economy of war. The vulnerability of losers needs to be understood as a consequence of their powerlessness.

A political economy approach also stresses that the perpetuation of war can become an end in itself. A state of war provides and justifies the use of violent means to create or sustain economic profits and political power. A war may have clear ‘winners’ in the sense that they profit from the war without the war itself being ‘won’ in the traditional sense. For the losers, such a war is the never-ending accumulation of abuses, fear and frustration. Complex global political and economic processes and motivations are at work behind the distribution of the profits and burdens of war.

The paper proposes that by understanding the political economy of war, relief agencies can better assess the forms of economic violence which threaten livelihoods during wars.

Second, analysing the context and implications of relief work is crucial so as to minimise its negative impact – given that belligerents and foreign states may seek to manipulate a humanitarian presence and misdirect the resources provided by relief.

Finally, understanding the course of a conflict in terms of political economy can help to identify political and economic interests which impede a transition to peace, and so help avoid the reconstruction of a pre-war economy that may have had much to do with the origin of the conflict.

Improving the distribution of power and providing more effective economic protection during war are challenges that require a broad range of initiatives. Relief can only play a limited role in line with the individual mandate and capabilities of each agency.

However, there is room for manoeuvre. The design of relief programmes can be adapted to respond to local strategies for distributing wealth and destitution thereby reducing the extent to which armed groups can manipulate relief, as well as informing and encouraging collective rights-based political action.

Philippe le Billon (with Joanna Macrae, Nick Leader and Roger East)