Peace in the 21st Century: Sir Paul Collier

Videography: Jean-Pierre Larroque, Interviewed by: Andrea Jovanovic 

Is the idea of peace in the 21st century an idealistic vision or an achievable goal?

OEF recently asked that question to notable thinkers who research trends in violent conflict and other key drivers affecting global stability. Their responses are captured in the series, "Peace in the 21st Century." In this video, Sir Paul Collier explains that conflict is driven partly by objective circumstances and partly by belief systems.

Sir Paul Collier:

A substantial continued reduction in conflict is very realistic because that's what we've experienced for centuries, is gradual reduction in conflict.  The world is getting to be a safer place and I expect that will continue and there are things that we can do to make that trend accelerate.  It's not a quixotic idea.

I think the causes of conflict are partly objective circumstances and partly dysfunctional beliefs.  We can tackle both.  To a reasonable extent, we know what objective circumstances make societies prone to conflict, and the societies I work on – the countries that I call the bottom billion – are prone to conflict because ordinary people are very, very poor.  That means that states can't provide effective security and people have little stake in the future. Just lifting those societies out of poverty by economic development gradually makes them safer.  That's one of the sort of robust things we know about improving security.  Economic development is a major force of peace. 

If we turn from objective circumstances to beliefs, we know that some beliefs are very conflict-inducing, very dysfunctional, and yet robust.  Trying to break those damaging systems of belief, that we know less about.  I think the challenge of research going forward is to try and understand better how dysfunctional beliefs perpetuate themselves through participation in rather exclusive social networks and how those can be broken.

Credible narratives that are inconsistent with dysfunctional belief systems can force change in those belief systems. And breaking the social networks, that could also disrupt.  For example, in the southern states of America you had a stable set of racist beliefs for a century which was broken in the 1960s very fast, namely because of the emergence of the youth culture.  The youth in the southern states of America became more closely attached to youth elsewhere, and the ideas that it held, rather than to the beliefs of their elders. 

That cracked what had been a very stable set of beliefs by a change in the social networks that people took part in, and I think we can do that elsewhere.