The long shadow of conflict: “It’s so easy to destroy, yet so difficult to rebuild”

Published on 4 March 2022

Peter Taylor

Director of Research

The world is reeling again this week from the shock of scenes of devastation and tragic loss of life in Ukraine and I have been reminded of a personal experience I had in Afghanistan, during a period of relative calm between times of conflict.

I was fortunate to be able to walk alone through parts of the city in safety, and to speak with people who were happy to pass a few moments in conversation with a stranger. As I stood inside the remaining ruins of a bombed-out girls’ school, in clear line of sight from a hilltop from where, only recently, missiles had regularly rained, an elderly man passing on a bicycle stopped to speak to me. We exchanged greetings, and he then shook his head, saying “It is so easy to destroy, yet it is so difficult to rebuild”. He rode away, still shaking his head.

At IDS, we deplore the loss of life and suffering in these many conflicts, and applaud all efforts being made from multiple actors to bring the active warfare engulfing Ukraine and in other conflict-affected contexts to a rapid close, and to spare further loss of life.

Far-reaching impacts of conflict in Ukraine

Aside from the human tragedy unfolding before our eyes via the power and immediacy of instant newsfeeds, the dark shadow of this latest conflict and others will be enormous and far-reaching. Ultimately, millions of people in Ukraine are likely to be displaced, seeking refuge in other countries. Meeting the most basic human needs – water, food, energy – is already becoming impossible for many. Lives and livelihoods will be affected in the most drastic ways for many years to come. The most basic rights of citizens, for safety, security and peace, are being eroded or removed outright. The present challenges of the war, and the impacts still to come, are reverberating worldwide.

Tragic though the circumstances in Ukraine are, they are not happening in isolation. Data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) , a partner in the IDS-led Covid Collective, reveals just how widespread armed conflict is throughout the world. Research undertaken by IDS and its partners recently highlighted the massive impact that in countries that include Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Ethiopia, to name just some of the contexts where conflict has been present for extended periods of time. Indeed, the conflict in Ukraine itself is not new, with many thousands of lives lost over recent years from territorial disputes in Eastern Ukraine.

Multiple challenges and uncertainties

All of this is happening whilst the world has been grappling with other universal challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged the lives of millions globally, and has had the greatest impact where inequalities are most pronounced and where there is least resilience creating uncertainties and heightening existing fragilities. Is it possible to turn around these global trends that spell disaster for many, most of all for those who are already being left behind?

These days it seems, bizarrely, quite easy to think the unthinkable – a core lesson from the pandemic where many aspects of life and livelihoods have been upended. It is hard to predict what will happen from day to day, week to week, and month to month. How does the world respond to the shocks that are already rippling out of the pandemic in the short term, whilst also responding to new crises, including conflicts, whilst looking further ahead?

At IDS we see multiple implications from the war in Ukraine and other conflicts that will require significant attention. Those already experiencing vulnerabilities of different kinds – because of poverty, disability, age, religion or ethnicity – are the least resilient in the face of such extreme circumstances. They are often least able to protect themselves during conflict by moving to safety or having access to services and provisions which enable them to meet their most basic needs. They need urgent protection and support through humanitarian efforts in the short terms, and longer-term support, including social protection and other provisions that will be essential if these crises become protracted, or for a considerable time after the conflict ends.

The right to accurate information

As the events taking place in Ukraine are beamed around the world via various forms of online media, there is also the challenge posed by significant flows of mis and disinformation and manipulation of evidence, whereby the rights of citizens to access accurate information about events is being infringed. These responses are all too familiar, with a growing body of evidence that demonstrates how States and other powerful bodies restrict the digital rights of citizens.

The immediate effects of the conflict in Ukraine and other contexts are overwhelming, yet they intersect with multiple other universal challenges, which at IDS we are committed to addressing: upholding climate and environmental justice; reducing extreme inequities; fostering healthy and fulfilling lives; and nurturing inclusive, democratic and accountable societies These needs and commitments are not diminished by the emergence of conflicts. In fact, the urgency to address them through concerted, collective and joined-up action by international, national and local actors working together to strengthen commitments and effectively and efficiently becomes more important than ever.

Our thoughts at IDS are with all those now suffering the gravest dangers due to conflict in Ukraine and many other contexts. The ‘loss of civilian life’ figures can all too easily gloss over the actual, devastating experiences of people and families as they do all they can to protect and care for each other in appalling circumstances beyond their control.

Rebuilding lives and societies

Returning to the wise counsel of the cyclist I encountered in Kabul some years ago, our commitment continues to work in partnership and collaboration with others in helping those afflicted by conflict in rebuilding their lives and societies. IDS’ work on resilience in crises has looked at how people themselves work together to create ‘islands of peace’ in times of conflict and the Participation cluster’s work on conflict in Myanmar and in Mali, for example, has shown the importance of including local communities in peacebuilding.

But that act of rebuilding and peacebuilding may feel a long way off for Ukraine at the moment. And it will need to happen in ways that also address the deep structural cracks and fissures in society which have promoted and propagated violent conflict and other inequities, which blight the lives of so many citizens around the world.



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