Conflicts such as the current ones in Syria, the unfinished ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, seemingly endless like Sudan and many more in Africa and worldwide, share the dramatic loss of lives and extensive destruction. We count the victims in thousands and we get astonished by the images of devastated cities.
There has been dramatic loss of lives and extensive destruction in many conflicts before, but the nature of conflicts has not always been the same. The motives, the tactics and technology, the duration, the beliefs and goals are always different. Without wanting to get into those differences, there is one key aspect that is essential for the prospects of recovery, sustained peace and development. That is the belief in the possibility of peace itself in the minds of those suffering the conflict, the belief of future prosperity, the belief that the awful pain and suffering is somehow worthwhile, or at least will be, if not forgotten, overcome by a better life in the future.
Thousands die in these conflicts, but millions get displaced from their homes, suffer the loss of their beloved ones, see their lives get destroyed. They are left behind suffering unbearably and still do not understand why their relatives are sacrificed, when or how they got involved in so much pain and when they will be released from it. A whole generation has grown up in places like Sudan (failed state since 1991) knowing nothing else but war. In these conflicts the entire population gets involved in massive violence and death without clear idea of what is happening: they have no side, no option, not even a goal to fight for or a vision of something other than war.
European countries overcame disaster and rose prosperous after the Wars. I wonder if that would be the future for today´s countries in conflict. Right now it seems very difficult to foresee peace and future prosperity for the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. Their trauma and deep pain seem to last forever, mixed with rage, despair and hate. When people are hurt in a way so strong, without evident purpose and the possibility to fight for something better (as the soldiers of the Wars did), their suffering might just not disappear ever. That suffering spreads to others and destroys people´s lives and their hope and belief for the future, and that is precisely what worries me the most.
Development economists wonder trying to find the root of growth and prosperity of nations. Since Adam Smith in the 18th century we have been trying to explain economic growth and what makes some nations rich while others stagnate. Geography, culture, institutions and politics, accumulation of capital and technology, are among the main factors we have to try to answer those questions. And still, we are far from being able to fully explain the dramatic differences in prosperity between nations. One key factor is without doubt something difficult to measure. And that is precisely the power of the human spirit to work for a better future. But when many people are hurt at the same time, the mass of suffering inflicted may just “poison” that society for a long time and handicap that spirit. The prospects for development, for peace and prosperity and a better quality of life are devastated for years.
War, famines, colonialism, invasion, genocide, humanitarian disasters and the like, in the past as in the present, are the kind of traumas that break the path for development for many nations. There is traumatic capital loss - human, physical and social -, institutional failure and environmental distress. But the major reason why these traumas hinder development is that they debilitate the human spirit. They diminish the belief in each other, the belief that all our hard work is worthwhile. They set our minds in the past, they trap us in all the suffering we experienced and in the pain we cannot get rid of. That suffering and pain that does not let us see ahead and plan for the future. Prosperity depends precisely on that belief in the possibility of a better quality of life, the belief in each other, in hard work knowing that it pays off. My hope for the people that suffer conflict today is that they, somehow, remain powerful enough to fight and work hard for a better future for their offspring. It is the force of the human spirit, its desire to succeed and do things better, which drives development and takes us further as individuals and as a society. That is the real force which drives saving and investment, research and innovation, sound policies and institutional set up, our struggle with geography and nature. It is the true force behind growth and development, the essential force behind the wealth of nations. As Kepa Aulestia puts it “the future of a country depends on the self esteem with which their people face the upcoming”.