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date: 17 June 2024

The Aftermaths of Civil Conflictsfree

The Aftermaths of Civil Conflictsfree

  • Jaclyn M. JohnsonJaclyn M. JohnsonDepartment of Political Science, University of Kentucky
  •  and Clayton L. ThyneClayton L. ThyneDepartment of Political Science, University of Kentucky


The devastating Syrian civil war that began after the Arab Spring in 2011 has reminded the international community of the many consequences of civil war. However, this conflict is simply one of many ongoing conflicts around the globe. Civil war has a number of effects on individual lives, the country experiencing the conflict, as well as the international system more broadly.

The humanitarian costs of civil war are steep. Individuals are negatively impacted by civil war in a myriad of ways. Three main areas of research are of interest: mortality, physical and mental trauma, and education. Several factors increase the number of deaths in a civil war, including a lack of democracy, economic downturns, and foreign assistance to combatants. Even if civilians survive conflict, they are likely to endure trauma that affects both mental and physical health. Strong evidence indicates that civil war spreads infectious diseases and severely diminishes life expectancy. Mental health is also likely to suffer in the face of conflict, as individuals often must overcome debilitating trauma. Finally, children are particularly susceptible in civil war settings. Children are often unable to continue their education as a consequence of civil war because combatants often target schools strategically or the state is unable to fund education as a result of funneling resources to the conflict.

Civil wars also pose a number of threats to the state itself. First, a state that has experienced a civil war is much more likely to have another civil war in its future. Conflict recurrence has been explained through the type of settlement that concludes the initial civil war, institutions that may prevent recurrence like proportional representation, and the role of third parties in providing peace-ensuring security guarantees. Beyond recurrence of war, scholars have looked at the impact that civil wars have on state-level institutions, including democratization. While most state-level effects of civil war seem to be deleterious, there may also be positive effects, specifically in terms of female representation. Civil war in sub-Saharan Africa has been shown to increase the number of female representatives, perhaps providing an avenue for gender equality.

Civil wars have ripple effects that impact neighboring countries and the international system more broadly. Proximate states are often challenged with an influx of refugees that may burden social programs or facilitate the spread of diseases and illicit arms. However, positive consequences of hosting refugees may include trading opportunities or economic growth from remittances. Moving beyond proximate states, civil wars have consequences for the entire globe. For example, civil wars have been demonstrated to spur international terrorism. The civil war literature has explored the various effects of conflict at the individual, state, and interstate level.


  • World Politics

Why the Effects of Civil War Matter

The conflict in Syria that began after the Arab Spring in 2011 captured the world’s attention, influencing elections, causing rifts among long-standing allies, and breathing life back into Cold War tensions. With 450,000 deaths and 11 million refugees between 2011 and 2016, this is unsurprising(; Although the Syrian conflict certainly warrants this attention, this was only 1 of 29 ongoing civil conflicts in 2017 (Uppsala Conflict Data Program, 2017). Likewise, the deaths and destruction seen in Syria were more common than one may suspect. Similar death counts were associated with Mozambique’s civil conflict from 1977 to 1992 (Bowker et al., 2016), for example. Other countries experienced refugee outflows proportionally similar to those of Syria, including from the First Liberian civil war, which led to the country losing half of its domestic population to refugee outflows from 1989 to 1996 (Hegre et al., 2009). To understand both the Syrian conflict and ongoing conflicts elsewhere, it is useful to have a firm understanding of how civil conflicts begin and end, as well as the consequences of the fighting. This article focuses on this final point by providing a critical review of the literature on the consequences of civil war.

A thorough understanding of the empirical literature on the consequences of civil war is important for three main reasons. First, the consequences are not always obvious. Although conventional wisdom provides an overwhelmingly negative viewpoint, economies can benefit from civil conflicts in particular instances and refugees can play at least some positive role in host-state economies (Alix-Garcia & Saah, 2009; Horst & Van Hear, 2002; Whitaker, 2002). The empirical literature allows a better understanding of when and how various effects from civil wars occur. Second, policymakers have tight budgets to address the many consequences of civil conflicts. They may invest in infrastructure, for example, or put funds into health and education to rebuild a war-torn country. The empirical literature helps inform policy by elucidating the areas most likely to be harmed by civil war, which in turn has consequences for economic growth and political stability. Finally, a critical review allows researchers to uncover areas that need further investigation. Scholars from a variety of disciplines have contributed to our understanding of the consequences of civil wars. However, more work could cross disciplinary boundaries, yielding a more complete understanding of the consequences of civil war. Likewise, much of what is known about civil war consequences comes from nonrandomly selected case studies, which limits our ability to make inferences to other cases. As research methods become increasingly sophisticated, future empirical work would do well to draw on these studies to heighten our knowledge of the consequences of civil wars.

Review of the Empirical Literature

Although there are many reasonable ways to organize a review of the literature on the consequences of civil wars, the article is organized into three levels of analysis: individual, state, and interstate. Most empirical work focuses exclusively on one of these levels. For instance, studies have considered the economic consequences of civil war by studying individuals (e.g., wages for demobilized soldiers), the state (e.g., growth in gross domestic product, or GDP) or many states (e.g., trade levels). Few studies have attempted to evaluate more than one level at a time, and this approach is also used here. Each section provides a sketch of the theories that explain the consequences of civil wars and reviews the empirical literature on civil wars. The discussion offers critiques and provides recommendations for fruitful avenues for future study.

Consequences of Civil War for Individuals

The humanitarian costs on individuals are the primary reasons most scholars choose to study civil wars. A seminal article in this line of work noted that civil wars killed 16 million from 1945 to 1999 (Fearon & Laitin, 2003). Referencing this number, one leading scholar in the field, Patrick Regan (2009), motivated his book, Sixteen Million One, as an effort to prevent a single additional death from civil conflicts. Beyond deaths, scholars have studied the effects of civil wars on individuals in several ways. Three main areas of study are explored: mortality, physical and mental trauma, and education.


Data on civil war deaths have improved dramatically since the turn of the century. The most widely used data come from scholars at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (Lacina & Gleditsch, 2005). With its most recent update in 2015, these data show that the incidence of civil conflict has fitfully increased over time. As displayed in Figure 1, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of civil conflicts over the period that the data covers. Scholars have gained significant ground in understanding the deadly consequences of civil war since the release of these data, and three main areas of work have emerged.

Figure 1. UCDP/PRIO civil conflicts over time.

First, scholars have examined state-level factors that influence deaths. Lacina’s (2006) early article in this vein of work showed that factors commonly associated with conflict onset are not necessarily the same factors that explain battle deaths—neither state strength nor ethnic/religious heterogeneity are significantly associated with severity. Instead, ethnic homogeneity and lack of democracy seem most robustly associated with deaths. Heger and Salehyan (2007) present similar findings in regard to fewer deaths being associated with democracy. They push a step further, however, demonstrating that leaders are less constrained in their ability use force as the size of the ruling coalition decreases. One final state-level effect considers how the economy influences deaths, finding that severity increases during economic downturns (Chaudoin, Peskowitz, & Stanton, 2017).

Second, scholars have dug deeper to better understand civil war deaths by focusing on power dynamics that emerge between combatant groups, largely focusing on the intentional use of violence against civilians. The basic idea is that violence is not simply a byproduct of war but a “strategic choice made by elites” (Heger & Salehyan, 2007, p. 386). Control of territory has emerged as an important focal point. A robust body of work has shown that rebels use violence to secure civilian support (Kalyvas, 1999, 2006; Kalyvas & Kocher, 2007), to obtain information about adversaries, gain recruits, and to secure arms, food, and shelter (Wood, 2010; Wood, Kathman, & Gent, 2012). Likewise, governments attack civilians to “drain the sea” of rebel support (Valentino, Huth, & Balch-Lindsay, 2004). Beyond territory, scholars have studied the balance of capabilities between rebels and government forces to explain killings. Focusing on war consequences for civilians, scholars have shown that weak groups are apt to use harmful strategies like guerrilla warfare and terrorism and only prefer more conventional strategies as they strengthen (Byman, 2008; Butler & Gates, 2009). More specifically, Hultman (2007) shows that attacks on civilians increase after battlefield losses.

Finally, the most recent line of work studying the effect of civil wars on civilian deaths considers the role of international actors. Using the Cold War as a proxy, Lacina (2006) finds that wars become more severe as the availability of foreign assistance to actors increases. Recent work looks more directly at the relationship. Wood and his colleagues (2012), for example, find that civilian victimization increases if the opposing side receives support from an outside actor. However, even a small number of peacekeepers have been found to dramatically reduce the level of civilian killings during conflicts (Hultman, Kathman, & Shannon, 2013).

Physical and Mental Health

Although most studies on the consequences of civil wars for individuals focus on mortality, researchers are increasingly improving our understanding beyond deaths. This multidisciplinary work focuses on both physical and mental trauma due to warfare. These effects are likely to have long-term, sociological impacts on communities that have endured civil war.

Regarding diseases and disabilities, a formative article from Ghobarah, Huth, and Russett (2003) argues that the harmful effect of wars on healthy living conditions combined with lower government expenditures on health during wartime have dire consequences for individuals. Using data compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO), they focus on empirical work on “disability-adjusted life expectancy” (DALE) and “disability-adjusted life-years” (DALYs). In 1999 alone, they revealed that 8.44 million DALYs were lost due directly to warfare. Additionally, they show that another 8.01 million DALYs were lost due to the effect of past wars from 1991 to 1997, demonstrating the long-term consequences of conflicts. Iqbal (2010) moves further by focusing on a myriad of ways that war harms health, presenting robust findings that conflict harms such things as fertility rates, immunization rates, and life expectancy. More fine-grained analyses on individual cases provide additional support. Studies from places like Burundi (Bundervoet et al., 2009), Zimbabwe (Alderman et al., 2006) and Iraq (Guerrero-Serdan, 2009), for example, show that child heights are lower in conflict-ridden countries due to malnourishment.

Sexually based crimes have also been shown to be leading consequences of civil war for individuals. Rape is a common weapon of warfare. DelaCruz’s (2007) study of Rwanda demonstrates HIV prevalence rates from 3% to 11% due to the widespread use of this tactic. This burgeoning area of research has greatly benefited from the introduction of systematic data on rape during civil war over the last three decades. Cohen (2013) presents new time series and cross-sectional data to unearth relationships between the type of conflict and the likelihood of rape, finding that forced recruitment of combatants is associated with high levels of rape. Sexual exploitation in other forms, including exchanging sex for security (commonly referred to as “survival sex”) and forced marriages, produce similar deleterious effects, especially for girls and women in war-torn states (Schoepf, 2002; Zack-Williams, 1999).

While the physical consequences of civil wars are sometimes due to deliberate actions, as with killing and rape, some of the most dire consequences are byproducts of the conflict itself. Guha-Sapir et al.(2005) aligns with many other scholars in claiming that hunger and disease often kill more than munitions during civil conflicts. Case evidence from the Democratic Republic of Congo (Coghlan et al., 2009) and Darfur (Depoortere et al., 2004) support this viewpoint, showing that hunger and disease killed more than actual fighting in these civil wars.

The negative consequences of civil conflict go far beyond mortality and physical harm, and scholars from a variety of fields—mostly commonly psychology and sociology—have gained ground in understanding how war influences mental health. Early studies showed that mental trauma, particularly for children, is a common consequence of war and that exposure to caring adults can go a long way in helping children cope with warfare (Freud & Burlingham, 1943; Henshaw & Howarth, 1941). More recent work aligns well with this literature, showing that exposure to war produces health distress in the short-term and longer-term psychopathology in children and adolescents (Barenbaum et al., 2004; Betancourt & Williams, 2008; Lustig et al., 2004; Sany, 2010). Further studies examine how to mitigate the impact of mental health disorders caused by conflict. For example, studies have shown that connectedness to social groups is essential for overcoming the often debilitating trauma of civil war. Such work has been carried out in places like Chechnya (Betancourt, 2005), Colombia (Kliewer et al., 2001), Kuwait (Llabre & Hadi, 1997), and Palestine (Barber, 2001).

One interesting and recent aberration from this line of work focuses on the influence of war on individual-level cooperation. A meta-analysis from Bauer et al. (2016) examines 16 observational studies over the last decade, rejecting the idea that exposure to conflict is destructive to social capital, collective action, and trust. Instead, most studies found conflict to produce prosocial behaviors. This work is aligned with studies that examine how other forms of survival threats, including natural disasters, enhance local cooperation (Caló-Blanco et al., 2015; Cassar, Healy, & Von Kessler, 2011; Rao et al., 2011). This line of study provides one of the few potentially positive side effects of civil conflicts for individuals.


Education is critical for individuals for a number of reasons. Not only does education yield higher individual-level incomes (Psacharopoulos & Patrinos, 2004) and state-level growth (Sianesi & Van Reenen, 2003), it also provides a way for individuals to recover from the physical and mental trauma (Elbedour et al., 1993; Aguilar & Retamal, 1998). Thus, scholars have given a great deal of attention to how civil conflicts influence education.

Evidence from both cross-national studies and individual cases reveals that civil conflicts are devastating for an individual’s ability to gain education. Two mechanisms help explain why. First, schools are often deliberately targeted by government or rebel forces to either gain recruits or undermine the opponent’s support base. Second, similar to other sectors like health, education systems often suffer as the government devotes increasingly larger parts of the budgetary pie to the war-fighting effort. Empirical work on the consequences of civil conflict on education provides robust support for these contentions. In the largest cross-national study of this topic, Lai and Thyne (2007) show that enrollment declined between 1.6% and 3.2% in countries experiencing civil wars. Studies from both the policy world and academia often focus on individual cases, and yield similar (though often more dire) conclusions. The civil war in Sudan from 1983 to 2005 was particularly devastating for enrollment, producing class sizes that averaged almost 100 students per teacher and a dearth of necessary materials (Brander, 1996; CIA, 2005; Shalita, 1994). State-level findings from a variety of sources have yielded similar conclusions, including studies from Rwanda (Akresh & de Walque, 2008), Cambodia (De Walque, 2004), Tajikistan (Shemyakina, 2011), Guatemala (Chamarbagwala & Morán, 2011), Turkey (Kibris, 2015), and Cote d’Ivoire (Dabalen & Paul, 2012).

The devastating effects of civil conflicts on individual-level education extend well beyond enrollment. A variety of studies have demonstrated that wartime experience impairs learning and produces poor achievement by students. For example, Elbert et al. (2009) conducted a study of children’s mental health in Sri Lanka. They found that 92% of children they surveyed had witnessed “severely traumatizing events such as combat, bombing, shelling, or the death of a loved one” (p. 238). As such, many of these children met the formal diagnosis for PTSD. The children most affected by PTSD suffered in academic performance measures, namely memory recall. Findings of other studies from places like Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Gaza, and Sierra Leone agreed with this work (Betancourt et al., 2008; Elbert et al., 2009; Tamashiro, 2010).

Consequences of Civil War for States

Given that civil wars are state-level events, it is unsurprising that the bulk of the research on the consequences of civil conflicts have focused on the state level of analysis. Unlike individual-level consequences, however, there is less agreement on the effects of civil wars on states (Kang & Meernik, 2005). Civil conflicts devastate state economies, even though states like Nigeria and Mexico demonstrate steady economic growth despite ongoing conflict (Minhas & Radford, 2017). Likewise, civil war has produced devastating political results, including genocide and continued repression in Rwanda. However, stable democratic systems can emerge from civil conflicts, such as those in Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Peru (Fortna & Huang, 2012). In the following section, the two primary foci from the empirical literature are highlighted: political and economic outcomes.

Political Outcomes

Civil wars shake the institutional foundation of a country. While consociational democracies are the least likely to experience civil wars in the first place (Reynal-Querol, 2002), uncertainty remains regarding the long-term political effects of conflict (Blattman & Miguel, 2010). However, some strong empirical findings do shed light on the effect that civil wars have on the political system of a country. Two main areas of research have emerged from this work. The first focuses on political (in)stability and war recurrence, while the second focuses on elections and democratization.

Beginning with war recurrence, strong empirical evidence indicates that one of the best predictors for civil war is a state having experienced a civil war in its recent past (Collier & Sambanis, 2002; Collier et al., 2003). Approximately one-third of all countries that experience a civil war will experience an additional civil war (Walter, 2004). As Collier and colleagues (2003) argue, civil war incentivizes political leaders to invest in strategies, resources, weapons, and rhetoric that are most useful in the context of war. As such, they have a strong incentive to see that war continues or returns.

Three main bodies of work have emerged to explain the recurrence of war. The first focuses on the outcomes of the war. Although military victories are also associated with repression and genocide, they are also the most stable ways that civil wars come to a decisive end (Licklider, 1995; Toft, 2010). Second, scholars have examined how institutions influence war recurrence. Findings in this vein of literature show that war-ending agreements are most stable when they include power sharing across a range of dimensions, including political, territorial, military and economic spheres (Hartzell & Hoddie, 2015; Hoddie & Hartzell, 2003; Roeder & Rothchild, 2005). Likewise, scholars have shown that institutions like proportional representation and those that provide avenues for nonviolent political participation help prevent war recurrence (Cammett & Malesky, 2012; Walter 2004). Third, third parties play an integral role in preventing war recurrence. Walter’s (1997) seminal study suggests that this because third parties can help provide security guarantees, reducing the fear that one side will backtrack on agreements and restart the conflict. Subsequent studies have supported this idea, showing that third parties, particularly UN peacekeeping missions, reduce violence and prevent war recurrence (Collier, Hoeffler, & Soderbom, 2008; Doyle & Sambanis, 2006).

Beyond war recurrence, scholars have focused on how civil wars influence democratization. The basic idea behind this work is that grievances are integral to the initial decision to challenge the government, so political changes should follow the conflict. Two main bodies of work have emerged from this line of work. First, there is strong consensus that elections can be dangerous, especially when held too early. Instead of producing democracy, quick postwar elections more likely lead to war recurrence (Brancati & Snyder, 2013; Flores & Nooruddin, 2012). Second, scholars have examined how wars influence postwar political party formation, largely focusing on rebels turned parties. Noting that rebels created postwar parties in more than half of all civil wars from 1990 to 2009, for example, Manning and Smith (2016) explain that a rebel’s prewar political experience and the characteristics of the war are leading explanations for party formation, trumping other commonly cited factors such as the state’s political history and economic traits.

One final area of work on the influence of civil war on politics focuses on gender equality. In postconflict environments in sub-Saharan Africa, institutions respond in a unique and promising way. Hughes and Tripp (2015) report that the number of female policymakers tripled in two decades. While traditional arguments may suggest that this increase in female representation is a result of gender quotas or the use of a proportional representation, Hughes and Tripp demonstrate that this increase is largely a result of a country concluding a civil war. They argue that civil war shakes up traditional gender roles because women find themselves in new situations in which they must take on roles of increasing leadership and power in their homes and communities more broadly. Additionally, women are generally removed from the onset of conflict. As such, they are not penalized by electors for participation in conflict in the same way that their male counterparts may be, thus leading to increased electoral success.

Economic Outcomes

The importance of work exploring how civil conflicts influence state economies cannot be over-stated. An economy devastated by civil war leaves a desperate population, and the likelihood of civil war recurrence skyrockets without economic growth (Collier et al., 2008; Davis & Mills, 2015; Miguel et al., 2004). Leading scholars in this line of work, including Paul Collier and his colleagues, label civil war “development in reverse” (2003). Most civil war literature has examined the negative economic outcomes associated with conflict. However, not all scholars agree, and several have presented interesting empirical findings that civil war can perhaps improve a struggling economy. Next, the debate and the evidence are presented for both sides.

The first line of work in this area, sometimes referred to as the “war renewal” school, claims that war can produce beneficial economic effects by improving efficiency, human capital, innovation, and by reducing the power of special interests (Benoit, 1973, 1978; Chan, 1987; Diehl & Goertz, 1985; Olson, 1982; Organski & Kugler, 1980; Russett, 1970). Cross-national empirical analyses have shown support for this viewpoint (Stewart, 1991; Yildirim, Sezgin, & Ocal, 2005). However, this viewpoint has support with regard to some wars, such as the 1979 to 1992 conflict in El Salvador (Stanley, 1996), the bulk of this work focuses on interstate wars. More conventional thinking points to a decidedly negative effect of civil war on the economy, and the most robust empirical analyses support this viewpoint for both short- and long-term economic growth (Chen, Loayza, & Reynal-Querol, 2008; Collier, 1999; Flores & Nooruddin, 2012; Garriga & Phillips, 2014; Gyimah-Brempong & Corley, 2005; Kang & Meernik, 2005; Murdoch & Sandler, 2002).

Two primary mechanisms ground the traditional school of thought that civil war is bad for a state’s economy. The first focuses on destruction of physical capital, which includes such things as machinery, buildings, and roads. Rather than being byproducts of conflict, early research on civil war onset argued that destruction of physical capital is intentional and commonplace. As Collier and Hoeffler (1999) argue, to be successful at looting is an objective independent of how successful the rebel group is at the war effort. In other words, the rebels could have little chance of victory, but if they are good at securing resources, they may have an interest in continued fighting. Because lesser developed countries often rely on natural-resource exports, looting has a large negative effect on the economy by limiting tax revenues (Collier & Hoeffler, 1999). Physical capital is also damaged intentionally to undermine the opponent’s resource base and to coerce support from the population. The end result is that fighting and looting damage productive assets like land and livestock (Brück, 2001; Bundervoet & Verwimp, 2005; Shemyakina, 2011) and devastate both individual- and state-level incomes (Justino & Verwimp, 2006; Verpoorten, 2009).

A more recent line of work recognizes that recovering from the destruction of human capital, while not easy, can happen fairly swiftly by importing destroyed items or with infrastructure investments (Cerra & Saxena, 2008; Collier & Duponchel, 2013; Miguel & Roland, 2005). Therefore, these scholars instead focus on human capital, which includes knowledge, skills, and health (inter alia). This focus provides a tight link to our earlier discussion of the consequences of civil wars on health and education. Three main areas related to human capital come to the forefront. First, scholars have shown that physical and mental disabilities due to warfare decrease one’s ability to contribute to household income (Beegle, 2005; Brück & Schindler, 2007) and that sometimes children are substituted for adults to compensate for this loss (Dasgupta, 1993; Duryea, Lam, & Levinson, 2007). While necessary for household survival, the net result of such activity is to limit the state’s stock of future human capital (Akresh & de Walque, 2008; Case & Paxson, 2006; Maccini & Young, 2009; Merrouche, 2006; Psacharopoulos & Patrinos, 2004; Rodriguez & Sánchez, 2009; Swee, 2009). Second, conflict can harm social capital, including trust and cooperation (Fukuyama, 2001; Putnam, 1993), which impairs cooperation necessary for the functioning of a modern economy (Algan & Cahuc, 2010; Knack & Keefer, 1997). Finally, civil conflict often forces governments to move money from social programs that produce economic growth, such as schooling, to the military (Apostolakis, 1992; Collier et al., 2003; Dixon & Moon, 1986; Galvin, 2003; Huang & Mintz, 1990; Looney, 1990; Russett, 1969). Likewise, governments commonly divert labor from productive sectors to focus on the war-fighting effort (Deger, 1985). While perhaps necessary to face threats from rebels, these decisions have both short- and long-term devastating outcomes for a state’s economy.

Consequences of Civil War for External Actors

The bulk of the harmful consequences of civil wars are felt by those living in war-ravaged states. However, neighbors also often suffer from being near a state at war. Thus, scholars like Walt (2014) and McConnell and t’Hart (2014) have urged policymakers to ignore civil conflicts, particularly those in the Middle East. To do so would be problematic for several reasons. This section outlines the empirical research that examines the consequences of civil conflicts beyond the warring state’s borders, focusing first on proximate states and then on the broader international community.

Proximate States

Beyond the state of war, the most dire consequences of conflict are felt by neighboring states. The key conduit for these consequences explored so far are refugee flows, though negative effects also occur, such as decreases in investor confidence in states near a war-torn country. This section reviews the literature, primarily focuses on refugees, and highlights both negative and positive effects.

The first way that refugees harm proximate, host-country states involves health (Gleditsch, 2007; Siverson & Starr, 1991). As groups flee from war, they often bring diseases to new areas. The global HIV epidemic has been traced to the 1979 Ugandan civil war, for example (Smallman-Raynor & Cliff, 1991), though these effects extend other well-known diseases. In a broad sample of states, Montevalo and Reynal-Querol (2007) showed an increase in malaria rates for host countries. A recent study in Tanzania showed broader effect, finding that refugees from the Rwandan conflict increased child mortality, reduced adult height, and increased the spread of infectious diseases (Baez, 2011).

Beyond health, studies have shown that living near a civil war state heightens the proximate state’s likelihood of civil war onset. Known as a the “contagion effect” of civil conflict, early work by Salehyan and Gleditsch (2006) presents evidence that refugee flows are important mechanisms that may allow conflict to spread to host states. While refugees themselves rarely engage in conflict in their new location, they may facilitate the spread of ideologies and arms that are critical for conflict. This is particularly true if similar conditions and ethnic groups span borders because rebels can provide an emulation effect among neighboring citizens (Halperin, 1998; Kuran, 1998; Lake & Rothchild, 1998).

Refugee flows can also cause severe harm to a neighboring state’s economy. These consequences are not universal, however. State-level studies from places like Tanzania (Alix-Garcia, 2007; Whitaker, 2002) and Kenya (Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology, 2010) combine with broader cross-national studies (Crisp et al., 2009; Horst & Van Hear, 2002; Jacobsen, 2002) to illustrate some benefits of refugees. Such benefits include increased demand for agricultural goods, increased trading opportunities, growth spurred by remittances, and the import of well-educated and skilled workers to staff universities and hospitals.

In spite of these silver linings, however, the bulk of the empirical research presents a dark picture for neighboring state economies. Studies have shown that refugees harm host state economies by straining public funds to care for the refugee populations (World Bank, 2011). Host states often also divert funds to military expenditures as pressure mounts to get involved in neighboring conflicts (Salehyan, 2009; Salehyan & Gleditsch, 2006), and refugees often challenge host-state workers for jobs (Lischer, 2003). The net effect on neighboring economies, as demonstrated by wide-ranging, cross-sectional studies, therefore, leans toward a decidedly negative effect on economic growth for states that neighbor a state at war (Murdoch & Sandler, 2002, 2004).

Broader International Community

The final consequences of civil conflicts involve the broader international community. Although the path between civil wars in places like Syria and the effects on states like Canada are rarely direct, scholars have shown clear evidence that civil wars have negative consequences for the entire globe. The related literature falls into two main areas: terrorism and international conflict.

Scholars have given great attention to the link between civil wars and international terrorism. In an early study in this vein, Piazza (2008) used a broad, cross-national study to show that state failure, including ethnic and revolutionary wars, increases the likelihood that a state would be victimized and produce terrorism. For example, Coggins (2015) notes that civil wars in places like Bosnia, Sudan, and Somalia produced terror attacks in Croatia, Chad, and Ethiopia, respectively. This has led both scholars (Patrick, 2011) and policymakers (White House, 2006) to view civil conflicts and other forms of state fragility as key concepts in the battle against terrorism. Further empirical work supports the link between civil war and terrorism. Although she finds that lower levels of state failure do not produce terrorism, for example, Coggins (2015) concurs with Piazza’s earlier work in finding that states at war are more likely to experience and produce terror. The jury is still out on this issue, however, as a recent study from George (2017) casts doubt on the link between state failure and terrorism.

A second way in which civil conflicts influence the broader international community involves the linkage between revolutions and interstate conflict. Although revolution in this context is often conceptualized more broadly, including such things as coups and assassinations, civil conflict is a key area of concern. The empirical literature on this subject is vast and strongly points to the conclusion that revolutions increase the likelihood that the state engages in interstate conflict (Enterline, 1998; Gurr, 1988; Maoz, 1996; Walt, 1996). The primary debate is theoretical (Colgan & Weeks, 2015). Scholars like Walt (1996) focus on systemic factors like the offense-defense balance, Davies (2002) considers diversionary incentives, while scholars like Skocpol (1988) argue that successful revolutionary leaders use skills they learned from the revolution, including their ability to mobilize and organize the population, to behave aggressively toward other states. Others, including Colgan and Lucas (2017), seem to align most closely with the domestic-level explanation, arguing that revolutions tend to “select for” risk-tolerant leaders who are apt to upset the international status quo. Despite theoretical differences, the empirical link between civil wars and an increase in interstate conflict sees little debate.

Lessons Learned and the Path Forward

Empirical work studying the consequences of civil wars for individuals has gained great ground, and our knowledge has become even stronger with the introduction of new data and empirical techniques. Nevertheless, there are two main ways in which scholars can improve this area of literature moving forward.

First, scholars should pay close attention to research designs as they attempt to demonstrate causation. Two issues stand out. The first is selection bias. Prior to fighting, rational actors develop expectations for what will happen if fighting begins. If the costs of conflict for individuals supporting one side are too daunting, a war is unlikely to develop. This means that the wars are a particular set of potential wars that could exist, so the factors that led to the onset of the war are important in understanding the war’s consequences. The study by Heger and Salehyan (2007), which uses a selection model to simultaneously capture factors that influence both the conflict onset and severity, takes this issue quite seriously. Future research should emulate this approach when appropriate, with either primary analyses or robustness checks.

A second methodological issue is endogeneity. That is, factors that seem to be the consequences of civil war may more readily be understood as the causes of the conflict in the first place. For instance, civil wars may cause economic downturns, but economic downturns may also be a cause of civil wars. Some scholars take this issue quite seriously, while others provide much less analysis of this potential concern. For example, Lai and Thyne (2007) use a series of lags to examine the influence of civil war on education enrollment, and Thyne (2006) uses a diagnostic technique to examine endogeneity in his study of how education influences civil war onset. Another approach is to instrument the primary independent variable. For example, Chaudoin et al. (2017) examine how income influences conflict severity using the economic performance of a country’s export partners to indicate a warring state’s income.

The second main pathway by which future scholarship can improve our understanding of civil conflict is to focus on new avenues of work. One barrier to future work is the conventional wisdom that civil wars inevitably produce negative outcomes; thus, understanding factors associated with civil war onset or duration is more important than providing more evidence of the obvious. Although it would be foolhardy to say that civil wars are positive overall, evidence shows that they can produce positive outcomes. The works reviewed here on how civil wars can improve female representation and promote individual-level cooperation provide examples in this regard. These areas provide not only a positive aspect but also, perhaps, a cornerstone for postwar recovery.

One promising area of future study to enhance our understanding of the effects of civil war focuses on the agency of international actors responding to conflicts. Scholarly focus on the effects of civil war has often been unidirectional, considering the impact of externalities coming from the civil war state on other states. However, preliminary evidence indicates that these external actors can influence a myriad of conditions. For example, Getmansky and her colleagues (2017) deployed a survey experiment in Turkish provinces and found that when respondents were told that refugees had strong ties to militant groups, they were much more likely to support Turkish intervention in Syria. Similarly, Fisk (2017) presents strong support for the idea that refugee hosting is a strong predictor of one-sided state-sponsored violence in Africa. Thus, while the early research seems to indicate the refugees potentially cause problems for host states, these findings call attention to the need for more examination of host-state behavior. The likelihood of refugees bringing conflict is conditioned upon the treatment they receive from the host state itself. Future work on the international impacts of civil wars would be well served to consider the agency of other states and how their preferences may shape outcomes.

A second promising way to improve our understanding of civil war is to consider both short- and long-term outcomes. This is particularly important for policymakers seeking to break states from the “conflict trap” (Collier et al., 2003). For example, scholars interested in economic effects have focused on how civil wars influence both physical and human capital, often arguing that human capital has the longest-term effects. Scholars like Ghobarah and his colleagues have made short- and long-term assessments of the effects of civil wars on health. However, most studies examine only the short-term effects of civil conflicts. Little is known about how civil wars influence long-term educational attainment, for example, or how interventions influence individual capacities to recover from physical and mental trauma.

Finally, though limited, at least some evidence points toward beneficial outcomes that come from civil conflict. The literature reviewed here shows, for example, that individual-level cooperation may improve (Bauer et al., 2016) and that women may find improved avenues for leadership (Hughes & Tripp, 2015). Likewise, some studies show that meager investments by international actors can contribute much to saving lives (Hultman, Kathman, & Shannon, 2013), and that variations in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) can dramatically impact satisfaction among excombatants (Phayal et al., 2015). These findings provide evidence that all is not lost for a state at war, and they suggest ways that policymakers may harness the few positives to ground postwar recovery.


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