The Cost of Conflict: Understanding the Ramifications of Internal Warfare

Kristina Hook

March 2013

Directory-Oriented Peacebuilding Series

Far too often, a peace agreement is viewed as the final chapter in the saga of a civil war. In reality, however, the work of peacebuilding is just beginning. Successful post-conflict efforts will only survive the precarious early stages of the post-conflict period if they are based on a coordinated, integrated, and holistic approach by peacebuilding actors. Over the course of this four-part series, this author seeks to achieve four distinct yet complementary objectives. The first and foundational article of this series synthesizes existing academic knowledge to more fully understand the far-reaching impacts of civil conflict on societies, which in turn informs our understanding of the peacebuilding process ("The Cost of Conflict: Understanding the Ramifications of Internal Warfare"). The second article builds upon this knowledge, as principles of post-conflict coordination are introduced with the aim of demonstrating how increased coordination and cooperation could greatly improve existing efforts ("The Coordination Quandary: Applications and Implications of Post-Conflict Coordination Principles"). Practical applications of such concepts can be found in the following two articles. In the third article, the usefulness of a post-conflict directory is introduced and developed, as this author contends that such a resource would greatly improve the coordination of post-conflict efforts ("Rehabilitating the Responders: The Role of a Post-Conflict Directory in Improving Coordination"). The fourth article concludes this series by analyzing how a post-conflict directory would have improved coordination in the aftermath of the Ugandan civil war and the reconstruction projects that followed in its aftermath ("Substantiating the Claim: Establishing the Effectiveness of a Post-Conflict Directory").


Since the conclusion of the Cold War, data has shown that the overall number of armed conflicts has decreased. For example, the 2006 Human Security Brief reported that in 2003, twenty-nine active conflicts were measured, a marked reduction from the fifty-four such conflicts that were counted in 1989 (Mack, 2006). In related good news, this same brief also details the noticeable decline in armed conflicts, war death tolls, military coups, international crises, genocides, and refugee numbers following the end of the Cold War (see also Figure 1).

FIGURE 1 Source: Center for Systemic Peace. "Global Conflict Trends: Measuring Systemic Peace." Last modified September 11, 2010.

While examining such statistics offers much validation to the field of conflict resolution, these numbers unfortunately do not tell the whole story. Though the overall number of armed conflicts has decreased, civil wars and conflicts are still a major cause of suffering in the world. Of the one hundred sixteen significant armed conflicts that have occurred around the world between 1989 and 2003, ninety-two of these conflicts were essentially internal (Mack, 2006). The high rates of internal conflicts are particularly sobering when coupled with data that civilians are increasingly being targeted for attacks (Mack, 2006).

The high rates of civilians who have been attacked by their own countrymen must be pondered when dealing with the ramifications of internal conflict. As Monty Marshall somberly points out, "War ends abruptly for the dead but gains immortality in the disturbed minds of the survivors" (2002, 66). Thus, as a nation transitions to its post-conflict status, special efforts must be made to meet the wide variety of needs presented by the civilians living in such a society. Designing the reconciliation and reconstruction programs that are to be carried out in the immediate post-conflict stages is an extremely delicate process. The first decade after a conflict comes to a close can be particularly volatile, as the 2006 Human Security Brief found that negotiated settlements are twice as likely to restart within five years than conflicts that were decided by a definitive victory on one side, perhaps due to the latter's tendency for one side to emerge from the conflict significantly weakened (Mack, 2006).

"War ends abruptly for the dead but gains immortality in the disturbed minds of the survivors."

- Monty Marshall

In the face of such dire statistics, this author contends that successful post-conflict efforts will only survive this precarious first decade if they are based on a coordinated, integrated, and holistic approach by peacebuilding actors. Over the course of this four-part series, this author will seek to not only understand the challenges of post-conflict coordination, but also to make practical suggestions for surmounting such obstacles. In this foundational article, existing academic knowledge is drawn upon and synthesized in order to more fully understand the far-reaching impact of conflict on societies. Understanding the ramifications of conflict on a nation is the pivotal first step in designing programs that will not only survive the tumultuous first decade, but that will also move a post-conflict society from simply existing to thriving.

The Ramifications of Social Conflict

As we move towards the ultimate goal of elucidating practical suggestions for the field of post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding, we must return to the topic of civil conflict ramifications. A true comprehension of the post-conflict stage necessitates a well-rounded understanding of the impact that a civil conflict has had on the society in the first place. Such an understanding requires both a grasp of the general ramifications of conflicts on societies and a more detailed examination of the specific influence that a civil conflict has had in a certain context. Just as a doctor is well-versed in the general expressions of pathologies and uses this knowledge to evaluate the specific symptoms that his patient is exhibiting, so must post-conflict peacebuilders be ready to recognize the general trends at work in their location as well as well as any context-specific manifestations.

Perhaps the best way for peacebuilders to become adept at recognizing context-specific ramifications of conflict in a given location is to understand just how far-reaching the costs of internal warfare usually are. Internal conflicts deserve special attention by researchers and peacebuilders alike, in that ways must be found to reunite a country that has been torn apart politically, economically, socially, mentally, culturally, etc. In the aftermath of a civil conflict, the civilian populations are typically found to have borne the brunt of battles as exhibited through death tolls, population displacements, and the destruction of the country's infrastructure (Humphreys and Weinstein, 2006).

The Ramifications of Civil Conflicts Include:

  1. Economic Impacts
  • Destruction of Infrastructure
  • Diversion of Productive Assets to Violence
  • Capital Flight
  • Reduction of Nation's Economic Growth
  • Loss of Private Assets and Investments
  1. Human Costs
  • Death Tolls
  • Targeting of Civilians
  • Population Displacements and Refugee Flows
  1. Social Tolls
  • Increased Child and Adult Mortality Rates
  • Reduced Life Expectancy
  • Increased Physical and Mental Health Problems
  • Destruction of Health and Education Systems
  • Spread of Infectious Diseases
  1. Political Instability
  • Increased Opportunities for Corruption
  • Violations of Human Rights
  • Potential for Authoritarian Regimes

Not only do conflicts tear down a society, but they also divert potentially productive assets and activities to violence. For the sake of analysis, civil conflict ramifications can be grouped into several broad categories. We began our exploration of this subject by first examining the human costs of civil conflict.

Human Costs

One of the most obvious tolls of civil conflicts is the human cost of war. Research has found that internal conflicts are much more deadly for the civilian population than any other type of war, with internal conflicts accounting for an incredible 90% of all civilian battle deaths from 1990-2002 (Lacina, 2006). Additionally, even within these civil conflicts, the total number of deaths is disproportionally slanted towards noncombatants, as civilians represent an average of 90% of a conflict's total causalities (Hoeffler and Reynal-Querol, 2003). Further, the numbers of people believed to be killed during civil conflicts are staggering. Arguilals estimates that during the thirty year span from 1960 to 1990, civil conflict killed 2,000,000 Nigerians; 700,000 Chinese; 600,000 Ugandans; 500,000 Indonesians; 500,000 Ethiopians; 415,000 Mozambiqueans; 105,000 Iraqis; and 138,000 Guatemalans (2003). Thus, almost five million people are believed to have died as the result of only eight historically recent civil conflicts, providing a special sense of urgency to the field of conflict resolution. Further, such high causalities are not isolated statistics. Under the four years of the Khmer Rouge's rule in Cambodia, Brandt and Scott approximate that up to 20% of the population, that is, two million people, perished due to violence, starvation, or the spread of disease (2004).

However, the human cost of civil conflict does not simply end with the tallying of victims killed. Conflicts also produce refugee flows, both across national borders and within the country itself. The sheer number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) present significant challenges to reconstruction efforts, as these groups are particularly vulnerable to disease, natural disasters, and to any sporadic attempts at violence that combatants may use as an attempt to derail peace negotiation efforts. Some scholars argue that refugees are both a result and a potential cause of subsequent conflict in host and origin countries, contending that such refugee flows constitute a major negative externality of civil war (Salehyan and Gleditsch, 2006). For example, they may broaden rebels' social networks; facilitate a transnational spread of weapons, violence-prone political ideologies, and combatants; worsen economic competition; and change the ethnic composition of the state. In addition, refugee flows often create an enormous challenge for receiving nations, many of whom are often enduring tremendous economic and social difficulties themselves (see, Organization for African Unity, 1994). As such, the human cost of conflict spreads far beyond the nation at center of the civil conflict, as host nations are given what the Organization of African Unity describes as "intolerable security, social, and economic burdens" (1994,1), and as the international humanitarian enterprise urgently seeks to prevent the variety of humanitarian crises that can result from refugee flows.

Economic Impacts

Furthermore, the effects of conflict extend far beyond the numbers of deceased or displaced civilians, as the human costs of civil war lead to many other far-reaching economic problems. For example, civil conflict acts as a major impediment to future development, a troubling thought as one considers that many such conflicts occur in nations who already face hurdles in the global economy. Hoeffler and Reynal-Querol present research showing that a civil war lasting just five years reduces the nation's annual growth rate by more than 2%, making countries even worse off than they were before the conflict in a variety of ways (2003). The seriousness of this finding is further emphasized through the realization that many civil wars last much, much longer. Hoeffler and Reynal-Querol also note that the economic costs of civil war include the destruction of infrastructure (including that of the vitally important health, transportation, and communication sectors), the loss of private assets, and the flight of financial capital abroad (2003). Many of these economic effects are long-term, as capital flights continue even after a peace agreement is signed, as corruption results in a loss of social capital, as inflated military spending occurs post-conflict, and as policies, institutions, and civil rights are jeopardized.

The outright costs of engaging in civil war are also of startling magnitude, and they are again particularly worrisome when one considers that such capital could have been spent on furthering national infrastructures, education, or healthcare frameworks. Enduring civil conflicts often reach astronomical financial costs, such as Colombia's long-lasting civil war, which is estimated to cost US$10 billion annually, or 11.4% of this nation's gross national product (GNP) (Rossiasco, 2001). This financial total is almost doubled when indirect costs are added, including lost investment, productivity declines, diminished employment opportunities, and increased crime.

Further Social Tolls

When considering the human costs and the economic impacts of internal warfare, it is important to understand the mutually reinforcing, exacerbating relationship between these two dynamics. In light of this aggravating relationship, a wide variety of social effects also take place in the wake of civil conflict. For instance, even as a conflict diverts resources away from productive economic use, it may also drastically reduce a workforce due to killing or displacement. Additionally, wars can cause worker disabilities because of violence-related injuries or the increased disease burden. One method of examining such impacts is to calculate disability adjusted life expectancy, also known as disability adjusted life years (DALYs), which incorporates both the years of healthy life lost to long-term disability and the years of life lost to disease and injury. Using data from the World Health Organization (WHO), Ghoborah, Huth, and Russet (2003) state that about 8.4 million DALYs were lost as a direct result of civil war in 1999. Another 8 million DALYs were also lost during civil wars ending from 1991-1997. Such losses leave a legacy of negative impacts and disproportionally affect women and children.

"Internal conflicts kill far more civilians even after the conflict is over than the number of combatants that die during the conflict."

- Anke Hoeffler and Mara Reynal-Querol

Moreover, a loss of productive years is often coupled with other harsh societal conditions. Concluding that conflict takes an excessive social toll, Hoeffler and Reynal-Querol illustrate that along with a breakdown in a healthcare infrastructurecomes increased child and adult mortality rates, a reduction in life expectancy, an increase in significant mental health problems, the destruction or disruption of health education systems, and the spread of infectious diseases, especially in displacement camps (2003). As infrastructure is destroyed, food systems and transportation are interrupted, frequently causing food insecurity, as was the case during the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil conflict when 17 million people faced significant food shortages (Brandt and Scott, 2003). Destruction of educational systems also takes place, as exemplified by the demolishment of 80% of the clinics and schools in Sierra Leone's civil war (Brandt and Scott, 2003). Such research adds much credence to Hoeffler and Reynal-Querol's grim and data-based conclusion that internal conflicts "kill far more civilians even after the conflict is over than the number of combatants that die during the conflict" (2003, 13).

Political Instability

In addition to the potentiality that a civil war may reignite or that rebels may launch counterattacks, the post-conflict setting is also often characterized by various types of political instabilities. Post-conflict environments are widely noted to be susceptible to corruption, with many post-conflict countries perceived to be among the most corrupt in the world (Harvey, 2012). Again, we turn to the legacy of civil wars in explaining this dynamic. Post-conflict societies can be quite diverse with respect to cultural, societal, political, and economic arrangements. These important distinctions have led to a myriad of potential explanations for corruption in post-conflict environments. However, one general observation involves the overall fragility of the post-conflict context and how this type of environment can effectively foster the growth of corruption. As Bolongaita summarizes, post-conflict contexts often contain the right combination of exceptionally high opportunities and particularly low punitive risks if corruption is discovered (2005). In particular, the weak nature of post-conflict governmental structures, economic systems, and societal institutions appear to make this type of context especially vulnerable and defenseless to corruption.

Other political effects of civil conflict include the possibility for authoritarian regimes to spring up if a political power vacuum emerges and/or an increased likelihood of human rights violations. Hoeffler and Reynal-Querol again provide important evidence to support this conclusion (2003). Using a ten-point political science index that measures the democratic nature of political institutions, they found that a country in the first decade of post-war peace scores even lower than low-income countries that are neither at war nor in post-war peace. According to such research, then, the democratic nature of political institutions in a post-conflict nation appear to be lower than their counterparts in other contexts, suggesting that another impact of conflict may be an increased likelihood of authoritarian governance structures. They also cite comparable research from Freedom House, which illustrates that civil conflict results in a deterioration, not improvement, of freedom measurements and political institutions. Similarly, Collier and Hoeffler's work, which estimated that the risk of a post-conflict country reengaging in civil conflict is three times higher than that of the average country, points to increased political instability in the wake of civil war (2004). In part, this risk occurs because the society is typically more divided and embittered than before the conflict, but also because conflict creates interest groups that favor continued corruption, criminality, and violence. Increased societal fear and repression may then occur more easily in this setting.


As this overview has illustrated, the ramifications of civil conflict are not only extremely harmful, but also result in a Hydra-like problem of multiplying and exacerbating negative externalities. The far-reaching costs of conflict are difficult to fully grasp, as deleterious effects continue to unfold long after the warring factions have laid down their arms. Yet understanding such impacts should remain a priority for those involved in each stage of the post-conflict process in order to achieve a more holistic and realistic view of institution building, post-conflict reconstruction, and peacebuilding. In light of the challenges presented here, this article must stress the importance of understanding that a peace agreement should not be seen as the final chapter in a civil conflict. Rather, the work of peacebuilders is just beginning.


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Salehyan, Idean and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch. 2006. "Refugees and the Spread of Civil War." International Organization, 60(Spring 2006):335-366.

Use the following to cite this article:
Hook, Kristina. "The Cost of Conflict: Understanding the Ramifications of Internal Warfare." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. March, 2013. <>.

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