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An Upside to Conflict?

The conclusion that civil wars are destructive to development shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.  But what if the opposite were true—that is, what if there was something positive that comes out of war’s devastation?  The idea certainly isn’t obvious, but it is just what Philip Verwimp recently presented in a new working paper.

The gist is this: Being directly affected by violence changes an individual’s preferences.  That is, people affected by conflict don’t think in the same way as before.  This might not seem like breaking news.  In fact, it’s pretty obvious.  But for economists, who generally accept preferences as more or less given, it’s relatively grey territory.

Using games to test for social, risk, and time behavior, the researchers evaluated villages in Burundi.  Due to the somewhat random and indiscriminate progression of violence during Burundi’s civil war, they were able to compare the responses of those who had been affected by conflict with those who had not.

What’s the take away? Those affected by conflict tended to be more altruistic but also more impatient and risk-seeking.

What does this imply? That exposure to violence could foster stronger social networks but also increase the likelihood for individuals to want immediate returns over longer term ones.  These ideas link up with psychological studies and some recent research by Chris Blattman and others.  It’s all very muddy, but understanding more clearly how behavior changes as a result of external trauma like conflict is an extremely important dimension in the structure of development interventions.

And what about the limitations? Ignoring more technical points, the overall positive or negative effect here is ambiguous.  There is also a distinction between behavior and preferences—here they assume that behavior changes reflect preference shifts but this isn’t always so.  But, from common sense, behavior changes are no doubt more complex than the basic experiments shown here can gauge.

It’s a good start but only a start.

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