The global agenda on conflict and peacebuilding has drastically changed over the past fifty years. If the twentieth century agenda was dominated by conflicts between national states, today the concern has shifted towards contexts that combine state fragility with protracted and intractable conflict, often involving alliances between non-state groups and regional and international actors. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently estimated that:
“In 2016, more countries experienced some form of violent conflict than at any time in the past 30 years. Close to 26,000 people died from terrorist attacks and 560,000 people lost their lives because of violence. The number of displaced people in the world is the highest since the end of the Second World War.
Besides engaging in short-term efforts to restore peace in so-called fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS), international actors have sought to deploy development assistance to positively affect the structural conditions of fragility and render FCAS more resilient and stable. In this regard, investments in infrastructure development have emerged as a crucial catalyst for peacebuilding efforts. This is due to infrastructure’s ability to promote immediate reconstruction and employment opportunities, enable longer-term economic benefits (e.g., access to markets) and improve access to public services (e.g., peace and justice institutions). Indeed, it should come as no surprise that the most fragile states also have the lowest per capita densities of basic infrastructure services, which disproportionately affects vulnerable and marginalized groups, including women and girls.
This gap in access to infrastructure services became increasingly evident as the first confirmed cases of the COVID-19 emerged in FCAS, raising questions on how the pandemic would impact peacebuilding and development efforts in such complex environments. In such contexts, the lack of health infrastructure is likely to increase pressure on strained public health services, intensifying access gaps that can lead to group-based grievances and instability. Furthermore, in countries experiencing ongoing conflict, health infrastructure can be increasingly subject to power disputes and become targets of warring factions. In Libya, Syria and Yemen, for instance, hospitals and healthcare facilities have been directly targeted in the past, and the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to increase the frequency of these attacks. A hospital treating coronavirus patients in Libya has already suffered a rocket attack following the outbreak. Ultimately, the loss of health infrastructure in conflict settings can hinder peacebuilding attempts by hampering recovery efforts in the short-term and aggravating tensions over healthcare access in the long-term.
Donors and governments recognize the potential role infrastructure can play to address ongoing conflict and underpin peacebuilding processes by supporting or restoring the rule of law in fragile societies. Infrastructure can help overcome inequalities in access to public services and can be used to prevent emergencies from turning endemic. However, if poorly implemented, infrastructure can also hinder peacebuilding efforts and aggravate social inequalities. Given the ‘lock-in’ effect caused by the long lifespan of infrastructure assets, investments that fail to account for both the positive and negative impacts infrastructure can have on peacebuilding efforts risk contributing to prolonged instability and fragility.
This paper makes a case for increased knowledge and awareness of the role of infrastructure in FCAS. It advocates a shift away from the traditional view of infrastructure as individual, isolated physical assets towards a holistic understanding of infrastructure as complex systems that interact with different aspects of fragility. To illustrate this crucial point, the paper assesses how infrastructure systems interact with the five dimensions of fragility as defined by the OECD. Given that infrastructure systems and the services they provide play different roles as fragile contexts change, this paper identifies the potential role of infrastructure across different stages of the conflict life cycle, highlighting the different contexts in which infrastructure can support or hinder peacebuilding efforts.
Ultimately, this paper seeks to contribute to the body of knowledge on infrastructure and peacebuilding in an effort to encourage the UN system, donors, national actors and implementing partners to cooperate on the basis of knowledge gathering and evidence-based decisions around infrastructure. With over 25 years of experience in infrastructure and infrastructure-related services in FCAS, UNOPS is committed to supporting its partners to make informed decisions around infrastructure development. It is our view that taking an informed approach to infrastructure is paramount to promote long-term, inclusive, sustainable and resilient development. Failing to do so will lead to missed opportunities for positive impact and may even lock in communities to enduring cycles of poverty, fragility and violence.
Such conflicts exacerbate the fragility of FCAS, hindering their ability to provide essential services and escape the spiral of violence to ultimately achieve sustainable development. Connected to this issue is the fact that current conflict dynamics pose unique challenges to prevention efforts and the development of inclusive responses to conflict (e.g., combining short- and long-term strategies for conflict prevention while addressing the different needs of several stakeholders, such as national governments and civil society groups).