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Fall 2015 Seminar Series Topic

Development, Religious Extremism, Security, and the State in Africa

The Finance and Development Journal (June 2015) notes that 2015 is a pivotal year for global development efforts. World leaders will come together three times—in July, September, and December—to press for progress in the fight against poverty and to forge partnerships in support of a better quality of life for people around the world. In July, the Third International Conference on Financing for Development will meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to discuss how to secure the financing needed to lift millions out of extreme poverty. In September, world leaders will assemble in New York for a UN Summit to adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that map out development through 2030. Finally, in December, participants at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris will work towards a set of environmental targets aimed at ensuring a sustainable future.

The themes of the three conferences—better quality of life, an end to poverty, and sustainable environmental practices in the world—are seriously impacted by the inter-related problems of security and poverty. The UNDP Human Development Report defines the development objective as "enlarging people’s choices in a way that enables them to lead longer, healthier, and fuller lives." People may have the potential to do and be many things, yet this potential and a sense of well-being may be seriously compromised by high levels of insecurity. Conflicts can be terrifyingly direct: people are killed, infrastructure is destroyed, and members of a society may be reduced to refugees.

But insecurity does more than that: it harms economies by increasing the costs of economic transactions; it disrupts economic activity and food production; it breaks down communities and introduces forced migration. By depressing the expected return on capital invested in a conflict area, insecurity also discourages investment in that area.

Conflicts are caused by a variety of factors, including ethnic rivalries, disputes over resources, and religious extremism. In recent conflicts in Africa (Central African Republic, Nigeria–Boko Haram), religious extremism has played a major role. Explaining the spread of extremism, some argue that such movements offer values, economic support, and a sense of community that are attractive—especially to the young and disenfranchised—in power vacuums and in areas where corrupt governance is the norm. Conflicts and fragility have a mutually reinforcing relationship, which in turn perpetuates poverty and undermines the quality of life.

We must, however, point out that human security in its broadest sense embraces far more than the absence of violent conflict. It encompasses human rights, good governance, access to education and health care, and ensuring that each individual has opportunities and choices to fulfill his or her own potential.

This introduction raises a number of issues. What are the causes of conflict? What is the impact of religious extremism on conflicts and development? How do we fix the economic, political, and security problems that disrupt development and trap fragile states in cycles of violence? How do we strengthen national institutions and improve governance in ways that prioritize citizen security, justice, jobs, and food security? The complex and multidimensional issue of development and security in its broadest sense is at the core of this theme. The debate is topical in Africa and elsewhere in the world and invites Cornell’s participation.