By Dominic Rohner and Alessandro Saia
According to the United Nations Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict, 2018 year was the worst on record in terms of children trapped in armed conflict regions, with nearly 250,000 students impacted by the closure of several hundred schools in Mali alone.
These statistics are particularly alarming because it’s widely believed by politicians, journalists and NGOs that investing in education can play a key role in reducing conflict. Armed groups trying to perpetuate fighting also seem to understand this connection. In Nigeria, for example, Boko Haram (which loosely translates into “Western education is forbidden”) deliberately target schools in their attacks, just as the Taliban have done in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It makes sense that we should expect better education to provide an antidote to civil conflict and political violence. Schooling, if well designed, can help instill tolerance and open-mindedness as well as boost rational decision-making, which is likely to raise a person’s awareness of the negative-sum nature of war.
But while there is a lot of research on conflict, very little has been devoted to examining the causal connections between conflict and education. This is in part due to the fact that quantifying the link between education and political stability is highly complex and that in economically stable countries, it can be hard to decipher this impact.
Equally, even if schooling tends to reduce violence, the propensity to commit crime and the likelihood of enlisting in armed rebellion, there’s little understanding about how and why education matters – questions that have important implications for policy.
But thanks to a unique policy experiment that began in Indonesia in the 1970s, we have been able to analyse and trace the impact education has had on reducing conflict over a 40-year period. Our recent paper, Education and Conflict: Evidence from a Policy Experiment in Indonesia, is a rare study of the political impact of such an education initiative.
The catalyst for this work was one of the largest primary school construction programs ever undertaken. Between 1974 and 1978, the Indonesian government built over 61,000 schools. This provided a wealth of data that could be analysed against our own dataset of political violence across 289 districts in Indonesia between 1955 and 1994.
Like many African countries today, Indonesia had sufficient state capacity to be able to deliver such an ambitious project while still suffering from considerable underlying instability, communal tensions and political violence. So it’s significant that we found overwhelming evidence that the school construction boom led to a measurable decrease in conflict – be it economic, ethnic, religious or political – with the magnitude of this impact increasing over time.
The effects of education may not always be positive. By increasing aspirations, it may actually encourage social unrest and increase the potential for collective action against a regime. And if it is misused as a means of indoctrination, education can stir up cultural tensions and boost nationalist sentiments.
While we can’t predict which of these potential mechanisms will have the strongest effect in a particular situation, it is highly significant that – at least in the context we studied – the social impacts of improved education make themselves apparent very quickly, with the economic benefits only appearing after several years.
There is clear evidence, for example, that education boosts religious tolerance as well as local community involvement. Interestingly, this effect is not driven by a reduction in religious observance; in fact, we found that school construction had no impact on religiosity. Instead, education leads to greater trust and tolerance of other groups. Moreover, trust increases if there is diversity in the schools, promoting more open-minded attitudes in children that in turn may have a positive impact on the tolerance levels within their own families and communities.
As to how education reduces conflict, we found that school construction is linked to a reduction in violence but does not affect the propensity to engage in peaceful protests. If anything, it makes people more willing to engage in local collective action. So what schooling does do is lead to a shift from “violence” to “voice.”
Overall, then, it’s clear that investing in education has the potential to yield substantial benefits in terms of conflict prevention that go well beyond narrow economic and human capital gains. And as Richard Akresh, Daniel Halim and Marieke Kleemans from the University of Illinois stressed in their paper, the Indonesian schools program actually paid for itself in terms of additional tax revenues and the benefits of overall improved living standards.
As explained in the 2017 book From Mines and Wells to Well-Built Minds: Turning Sub-Saharan Africa’s Natural Resource Wealth into Human Capital, for resource-rich countries with low human capital starting points, investing in education should be a priority (with or without conflict) as higher levels of human capital make investments in physical capital more productive.
In conclusion, our research suggests that while the lack of education is not the only reason for political violence, improving education may in many cases reduce the intensity of armed civil conflict, with its benefits increasing over time. Investing in education therefore needs to be seen as a key component of any long-term peace building strategy. As Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General put it: “Education is, quite simply, peace building by another name. It is the most effective form of defense spending there is.”
Dominic Rohner is a Professor of Economics at HEC Lausanne, the business school at the University of Lausanne and CEPR. He is also principal investigator of “Policies for Peace” research funded through the European Research Council who is studying, among other things, the impact of education on peace.
Alessandro Saia, a Postdoctoral Researcher, serves on the Faculty of Business and Economics at HEC Lausanne, University of Lausanne.
Image: USAID file