The theory is clear. If someone has something to lose—like a solid career—then they may think twice before engaging in violence and destruction. If people from different religious sects and ethnic groups can come together in the workplace and pursue collective goals, then they’re less like to take up arms against each other.
But the evidence that well-intentioned programs to increase employment in so-called fragile states help to produce peace, unfortunately, is a little murkier.
While studies don’t outright discount theories that link economic opportunities with peace, they do suggest other important factors should be considered.
“This is a topic we’ve been looking into for years,” says Jon Kurtz, senior director of research and learning at the Mercy Corps, a nongovernmental humanitarian organization based in the United States. “We do rigorous research to try and answer these questions.”
The answer, he says, is that while a lack of jobs almost never causes war, that’s not to say economic investment doesn’t have a role to play when the guns fall silent. “Economic conditions are not a primary explainer or driver of conflict,” he says. “Poverty doesn’t make people violent, but violence does make people poor.”
The Type of Jobs Matters
That nuance is echoed by others.
“Under certain circumstances jobs can help,” says Mark van Dorp, an independent consultant who works on responsible business practices in areas affected by conflict. “But it depends on the type of jobs,” he adds. “That’s important to consider. Are they sustainable and well-paid jobs or are they just jobs from companies who are there for a short period of time? I’ve seen examples of both.”
In fact, the employers that parachute in and then rapidly leave can end up doing more harm than good. “They disrupt the local economy,” explains van Dorp. “For example, if an NGO comes into a conflict zone they often absorb up all the young and qualified people and then they leave, but in the meantime the companies they used to work for have collapsed.”
“Under certain circumstances jobs can help, but it depends on the type of jobs.”Mark van Dorp
A consultant who works on responsible business practices in areas affected by conflict
A 2018 review of evidence and academic literature by Oxfam and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, based in Amsterdam, concluded that support for the proposition that job creation initiatives lead to peace in conflict-plagued regions is “not very strong.”
This message isn’t resonating with governments, says Kurtz. “Policy makers are, by and large, still convinced by the argument that jobs will create peace, but that’s not really a true statement on its own.”
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Another analysis, which brought together the results of 56 different studies published between 2005 and 2014, found that fewer than half of interventions are successful. However, some of that relatively high failure rate can be attributed to poor planning, rather than any systemic problem with jobs programs. For example, the effectiveness of a quarter of all the projects included in this analysis were difficult to assess because the outcomes were poorly defined and measured by those carrying out the projects.
Jobs as Part of Recovery
But those working on the ground in conflict-prone areas say that none of this means organizations should give up on their attempts to improve the economies of countries and regions emerging from armed struggles.
Employment and economic opportunities are clearly an important part of the recovery process and they are sometimes the only way to bring previously warring groups back together, says Ayad Abass, a consultant based in Baghdad who collaborates with van Dorp.
“Revenge is an endless cycle,” says Abass. “If a company is hiring from different ethnic groups then it may be the only place that they’re coming together where they have to be professional and courteous.”
“The idea that a shared workplace is enough to create social cohesion is just too simple.”Marcel Smits
A program director at the Institute for Economics and Peace, in The Hague
Van Dorp agrees. “It can really make a difference if a company has a conflict-sensitive hiring policy,” he says. “If they’re hiring across ethnic or religious lines, then people who start working at the company will meet and reconcile. That could play a key role in the larger peace process.”
Other Parts of the Puzzle
Of course, this hinges on the assumption that relations between different groups are sufficiently harmonious that they’ll even consider working together. That’s not always the case, warns Abass.
For example, Abass was recently coordinating a project in a rural district north of Baghdad in which participants were being paid to clean agricultural irrigation channels that pass between villages. “One of the sons in the first village used to belong to ISIS, but in the end he was killed by government forces,” he explains. “The sheikh of the other village refused categorically to allow the people of his village to work with the other village.”
As intuitive as all this sounds, the evidence shows that it’s a more complicated story. Jobs can help, but other factors also have to be in place, says Marcel Smits, a program director at the Institute for Economics and Peace, in The Hague.
“Some people just say, Oh, let’s give the youth jobs, but that doesn’t work if you’re not considering the underlying fault lines in society,” he says. “The idea that a shared workplace is enough to create social cohesion is just too simple.” Education, trust in politics and good governance are all needed, he says.
Throwing short-term jobs at the situation without these other elements in place is pointless, says Kurtz.
“Peace, or a lack of it,” he says, “is more about abuse of power by security forces or just poor governance in general, which results in grievances pushing people to support armed opposition groups. An economic solution alone is not going to change things unless it changes their opinion on governance.”