One Measure By Which Things Have Recently Gotten Worse

The United Nation’s refugee agency today released its annual report on people displaced by war around the world, and the news is bad:

The number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.

The increase represents the biggest leap ever seen in a single year. Moreover, the report said the situation was likely to worsen still further.

The report focuses on raw estimates of displaced persons, but I think it makes more sense to look at this group as a share of world population. The number of people on the planet has increased by more than half a billion in the past decade, so we might expect to see some growth in the number of forcibly displaced persons even if the amount of conflict worldwide had held steady. The chart below plots annual totals from the UNHCR report as a share of mid-year world population, as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau (here).

unhcr.refugee.trends

The number of observations in this time series is too small to use Bayesian change point detection to estimate the likelihood that the upturn after 2012 marks a change in the underlying data-generating process. I’m not sure we need that kind of firepower, though. After holding more or less steady for at least six years, the share of world population forcibly displaced by war has increased by more than 50 percent in just two years, from about one of every 200 people to 1 of every 133 people. Equally important, reports from field workers indicate that this problem only continues to grow in 2015. I don’t think I would call this upturn a “paradigm change,” as UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres did, but there is little doubt that the problem of displacement by war has worsened significantly since 2012.

In historical terms, just how bad is it? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say for sure. The time series in the UNHCR report only starts in 2004, and a note warns that methodological changes in 2007 render the data before that year incomparable to the more recent estimates. The UNHCR describes the 2014 figure as “the highest level ever recorded,” and that’s technically true but not very informative when recording started only recently. A longer time series assembled by the Center for Systemic Peace (here) supports the claim that the latest raw estimate is the largest ever, but as a share of world population, it’s probably still a bit lower than the levels seen in the post–Cold War tumult of the early 1990s (see here).

Other relevant data affirm the view that, while clearly worsening, the intensity of armed conflict around the world is not at historically high levels, not even for the past few decades. Here is a plot of annual counts of battle-related deaths (low, high, and best estimates) according to the latest edition of UCDP’s data set on that topic (here), which covers the period 1989–2013. Note that these figures have not been adjusted for changes in world population.

Annual estimates of battle-related deaths worldwide, 1989-2013 (data source: UCDP)

Annual estimates of battle-related deaths worldwide, 1989-2013 (data source: UCDP)

We see similar pattern in the Center for Systemic Peace’s Major Episodes of Political Violence data set (second row here), which covers the whole post-WWII period. For the chart below, I have separately summed the data set’s scalar measure of conflict intensity for two types of conflict, civil and interstate (see the codebook for details). Like the UCDP data, these figures show a local increase in the past few years that nevertheless remains well below the prior peak, which came when the Soviet Union fell apart.

Annual intensity of political violence worldwide, 1946-2014 (data source: CSP)

Annual intensity of political violence worldwide, 1946-2014 (data source: CSP)

And, for longer-term perspective, it always helps to take another look at this one, from an earlier UCDP report:

PRIO battle death trends

I’ll wrap this up by pinning a note in something I see when comparing the shorter-term UCDP estimates to the UNHCR estimates on forcibly displaced persons: adjusting for population, it looks like armed conflicts may be killing fewer but displacing more than they used to. That impression is bolstered by a glance at UCDP data on trends in deaths from “intentional attacks on civilians by governments and formally organized armed groups,” which UCDP calls “one-sided violence” (here).  As the plot below shows, the recent upsurge in warfare has not yet produced a large increase in the incidence of these killings, either. The line is bending upward, but it remains close to historical lows.

Estimated annual deaths from one-sided violence, 1989-2013 (Source: UCDP)

Estimated annual deaths from one-sided violence, 1989-2013 (Source: UCDP)

So, in the tumult of the past few years, it looks like the rate of population displacement has surged while the rate of battle deaths has risen more slowly and the rate of one-sided violence targeting civilians hasn’t risen much at all. If that’s true, then why? Improvements in medical care in conflict zones are probably part of the story, but I wonder if changes in norms and values, and in the international institutions and practices instantiating them, aren’t also shaping these trends. Governments that in the past might have wantonly killed populations they regarded as threats now seem more inclined to press those populations by other means—not always, but more often. Meanwhile, international organizations are readier than ever to assist those groups under pressure by feeding and sheltering them, drawing attention to their miseries, and sometimes even protecting them. The trend may be fragile, and the causality is impossible to untangle with confidence, but it deserves contemplation.

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.

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