The Worst World EVER…in the Past 5 or 10 Years

A couple of months ago, the head of the UN’s refugee agency announced that, in 2013, “the number of people displaced by violent conflict hit the highest level since World War II,” and he noted that the number was still growing in 2014.

A few days ago, under the headline “Countries in Crisis at Record High,” Foreign Policy‘s The Cable reported that the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee for the first time ever had identified four situations worldwide—Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, and Central African Republic—as level 3 humanitarian emergencies, its highest (worst) designation.

Today, the Guardian reported that “last year was the most dangerous on record for humanitarian workers, with 155 killed, 171 seriously wounded and 134 kidnapped as they attempted to help others in some of the world’s most dangerous places.'”

If you read those stories, you might infer that the world has become more insecure than ever, or at least the most insecure it’s been since the last world war. That would be reasonable, but probably also wrong.  These press accounts of record-breaking trends are often omitting or underplaying a crucial detail: the data series on which these claims rely don’t extend very far into the past.

In fact, we don’t know how the current number of displaced persons compares to all years since World War II, because the UN only has data on that since 1989. In absolute terms, the number of refugees worldwide is now the largest it’s been since record-keeping began 25 years ago. Measured as a share of global population, however, the number of displaced persons in 2013 had not yet matched the peak of the early 1990s (see the Addendum here).

The Cable accurately states that having four situations designated as level-3 humanitarian disasters by the UN is “unprecedented,” but we only learn late in the story that the system which makes these designations has only existed for a few years. In other words, unprecedented…since 2011.

Finally, while the Guardian correctly reports that 2013 was the most dangerous year on record for aid workers, it fails to note that those records only reach back to the late 1990s.

I don’t mean to make light of worrisome trends in the international system or any of the terrible conflicts driving them. From the measures I track—see here and here, for example, and here for an earlier post on causes—I’d say that global levels of instability and violent conflict are high and waxing, but they have not yet exceeded the peaks we saw in the early 1990s and probably the 1960s. Meanwhile, the share of states worldwide that are electoral democracies remains historically high, and the share of the world’s population living in poverty has declined dramatically in the past few decades. The financial crisis of 2008 set off a severe and persistent global recession, but that collapse could have been much worse, and institutions of global governance deserve some credit for helping to stave off an even deeper failure.

How can all of these things be true at the same time? It’s a bit like climate change. Just as one or even a few unusually cool years wouldn’t reverse or disprove the clear long-term trend toward a hotter planet, an extended phase of elevated disorder and violence doesn’t instantly undo the long-term trends toward a more peaceful and prosperous human society. We are currently witnessing (or suffering) a local upswing in disorder that includes numerous horrific crises, but in global historical terms, the world has not fallen apart.

Of course, if it’s a mistake to infer global collapse from these local trends, it’s also a mistake to infer that global collapse is impossible from the fact that it hasn’t occurred already. The war that is already consuming Syria and Iraq is responsible for a substantial share of the recent increase in refugee flows and casualties, and it could spread further and burn hotter for some time to come. Probably more worrisome to watchers of long-term trends in international relations, the crisis in Ukraine and recent spate of confrontations between China and its neighbors remind us that war between major powers could happen again, and this time those powers would both or all have nuclear weapons. Last but not least, climate change seems to be accelerating with consequences unknown.

Those are all important sources of elevated uncertainty, but uncertainty and breakdown are not the same thing. Although those press stories describing unprecedented crises are all covering important situations and trends, I think their historical perspective is too shallow. I’m forty-four years old. The global system is less orderly than it’s been in a while, but it’s still not worse than it’s ever been in my lifetime, and it’s still nowhere near as bad as it was when my parents were born. I won’t stop worrying or working on ways to try to make things a tiny bit better, but I will keep that frame of reference in mind.

Is the World Boiling Over or Just Getting Back to Normal?

Here’s a plot of observed and “predicted” rates of political instability onset around the world from 1956 to 2012, the most recent year for which I now have data. The dots are the annual rates, and the lines are smoothing curves fitted from those annual rates using local regression (or loess).

  • The observed rates come from the U.S. government-funded Political Instability Task Force (PITF), which identifies political instability through the occurrence of civil war, state collapse, contested state break-up, abrupt declines in democracy, or genocide or politicide. The observed rate is just the number of onsets that occurred that year divided by the number of countries in the world at the time.
  • The “predicted” probabilities come from an approximation of a model the PITF developed to assess risks of instability onset in countries worldwide. That model includes measures of infant mortality, political regime type, state-led communal discrimination, armed conflict in nearby states, and geographic region. (See this 2010 journal article on which I was a co-author for more info.) In the plot, the “predicted” rate (green) is the sum of the predicted probabilities for the year divided by the number of countries with predicted probabilities that year. I put predicted in quotes because these are in-sample estimates and not actual forecasts.
Observed and Predicted Rates of Political Instability Onset Worldwide, 1956-2012

Observed and Predicted Rates of Political Instability Onset Worldwide, 1956-2012

I see a couple of interesting things in that plot.

First, these data suggest that the anomaly we need to work harder to explain isn’t the present but the recent past. As the right-most third of the plot shows, the observed incidence of political instability was unusually low in the 1990s and 2000s. For the previous several decades, the average annual rate of instability onset was about 4 percent. Apart from some big spikes around decolonization and the end of the Cold War, the trend over time was pretty flat. Then came the past 20 years, when the annual rate has hovered around 2 percent, and the peaks have barely reached the Cold War–era average. In the context of the past half-century, then, any upticks we’ve seen in the past few years don’t seem so unusual. To answer the question in this post’s title, it looks like the world isn’t boiling over after all. Instead, it looks more like we’re returning to a state of affairs that was, until recently, normal.

Second, the differences between the observed and “predicted” rates suggest that the recent window of comparative stability can’t be explained by generic trends in the structural factors that best predict instability. If anything, the opposite is true. According to our structural model of instability risk, we should have seen an increase in the rate of these crises in the past 20 years, as more countries moved from dictatorial regimes to various transitional and hybrid forms of government. Instead, we saw the opposite. He or she who can explain why that’s so with a theory that accurately predicts where this trend is now headed deserves a…well, whatever prize political scientists would get if we had our own Fields Medal.

For the latest data on the political instability events PITF tracks, see the Center for Systemic Peace’s data page. For the data and code used to approximate the PITF’s global instability model, see this GitHub repository of mine.

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