How is the war on Ukraine affecting international development?

Blog post by Adinda Ceelen and Isabella Brozinga Zandonadi
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Ukrainian refugees standing on the side of a motorway
Kevin Bückert

The impacts of the war in Ukraine — the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War — are enormous. The war’s ripple effects are permeating international relations, international organizations, and trade. An important question is who is winning and losing, in which ways, and what we can do about it.

During the fourth episode of Research InSightS LIVE held on 29 June 2023, three researchers from the International Institute of Social Studies discussed the compounding effects of the war on global development.

In this blog post, Adinda Ceelen and Isabella Brozinga Zandonadi summarize the key takeaways of the discussion.

Losers of this war

Russia’s war on Ukraine has had devastating effects on more than 40 million Ukrainian people. This includes the displacement of millions of Ukrainians from their homes and from Ukraine itself. At present, there are more than 5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Ukraine, more than 8 million Ukrainian refugees across Europe, and approximately 17.6 million people in Ukraine in need of humanitarian assistance.

Beyond displacement, the war has had ripple effects that continue to be felt all over the world. In many ways this war is a game changer, not least due to its extensive global dimension, with many countries directly or indirectly involved, for instance by supplying weapons to Ukraine and implementing sanctions. Moreover, it has far-reaching consequences that are impacting the lives of millions of people far removed from the epicenter of the conflict.

Research InSightS LIVE #4 - Oane Visser

In the fourth episode of a series of engaged discussions with ISS researchers and societal partners on current topics, Dr Oane Visser, Associate Professor in Agrarian Studies at the ISS, painted a vivid picture of the compounding effect of this war on food security. Ukraine and Russia together account for more than 30% of the global wheat supply and are major suppliers to low- and middle-income countries. Disruptions in the supply chain have led to shortages and higher prices with great negative repercussions for countries like Egypt and Sudan that heavily rely on these imports. The weaker bargaining position of smaller low-income countries makes it more challenging for them to secure affordable deals, with devastating effects.

Speculators and profiteers are exploiting higher food and land prices

Media and policy discourses are quick to attribute skyrocketing food prices to the war in Ukraine, on top of the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and poor harvests due to climate change. But Visser revealed that there is more to this story: the role of speculation and hidden profiteering. According to a 2023 publication by Unearthed, a “group of ten leading ‘momentum-driven’ hedge funds made an estimated USD 1.9 billion trading on the food price spike at the start of the Ukraine war, that drove millions into hunger”. The lessons learned: while it’s important to look at who is suffering, it’s equally important to investigate who wins and who profit(eer)s.

Visser presented another lesser-heard story from Ukraine, where a recent change in law allowing the sale of farmland raises concerns about foreign investors and oligarchs taking over agricultural land and jeopardizing the livelihoods of local farmers. Ironically, while Ukrainians are fighting to defend their land in the face of foreign aggression, simultaneously there is a push to sell large amounts of this land to foreigners.

Both stories can be linked to Naomi Klein’s concept of disaster capitalism, where unpopular reforms are pushed through during times of crises, shock, and paralysis.

Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits - Research InSightS LIVE #4

Small, vulnerable countries are profoundly affected by the war

Meanwhile, in the discourse around the Russian war on Ukraine, the perspective of smaller and more vulnerable countries like Sri Lanka are rarely heard. Dr Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits, Assistant Professor in Conflict and Peace Studies at the ISS, expressed concern about this and emphasized the importance of paying attention to narratives and power dynamics.

When it comes to the ripple effects of the war, Sri Lanka did not remain untouched, evidenced amongst others by soaring food and fuel prices. The country was already in a highly vulnerable state — a product of the 2019 Easter bombings, the COVID-19 pandemic and its residual effects, negative impacts of climate change on agriculture, and dire governmental mismanagement. The Ukraine war made the country even more vulnerable to the looming economic crisis — the worst since the country’s independence. It taught the country a critical lesson: vulnerability is not only due to external factors but can also be born out of poor domestic policy.

Sri Lanka’s historical non-aligned foreign policy history in which it benefited from relations with Russia, China and Western institutions means that it cannot afford to take a strong stance. It necessitates a certain level of pragmatism. When the sanctions put in place against Russia ironically led to avenues of working around them, for instance with Russia diverting its trade through Asia, the Sri Lankan government for instance bought Russian oil from India at a subsidized price to tackle its population’s need of the hour.

Wil Hout - Research InSightS LIVE#4

The war is an attack on the liberal international order

The Ukraine war is indeed not only a European war, but a war that concerns all people and governments. During the discussion, Wil Hout, Professor of Governance and International Political Economy, explained how this war is an attack by Putin on the liberal international order. This order, established after the Second World War, has been critiqued for its legitimacy. The rules are dominated by the West and biased towards the immediate WWII power situation.

While the majority of countries voted for the March 2022 and February 2023 UN General Assembly resolutions condemning the invasion and demanding Russia’s withdrawal, which can be interpreted as continuing support for the existing order, it’s noteworthy that in both cases economic heavyweights such as China, India, and South Africa abstained from voting. Meanwhile, there are many speculations of new alliances, but the reality is that we simply do not know where things are heading, nor how this war will end. One scenario is a Russian defeat, for instance in the form of Russia leaving the Donbas or Crimea. Another scenario is the continued occupation of part of Ukraine, which might result in a new cold war and bring back to life the 'Disunited Nations' that we saw during the Cold War period.

Moving from analysis to action

'Peace is needed today more than ever. War and conflict are unleashing devastation, poverty and hunger, and driving tens of millions of people from their homes', said UN Secretary General António Guterres. Indeed, at the end of the day, war only creates losers. Considering this observation, what are the next steps?

For one, the EU has for a very long time pretended that it’s not a global power. It’s inevitable for the EU to stop pretending and to start adopting a political identity, thought Hout. Meanwhile, the world’s gaze is still too often on the here and now. Visser noted that we need to learn to think and plan aheadHow are we going to rebuild Ukraine after the war and ensure democratic control over recovery efforts? And lastly, our current order was established at a time when our situation was dramatically different. Jayasundara-Smits believes that contemporary interdependent relations of countries need to be taken much more seriously now and in the future, in times of both war and peace.

About Reserch InSightS LIVE

  • Research InSightS LIVE

    A event series sharing what ISS researchers are working on and enabling critical reflection and dialogue. Join the conversation and make an impact!
  • Research InSightS LIVE #4

    Researchers from the International Institute of Social Studies discuss the compounding effects of the war in Ukraine on global development challenges.
    Ukrainian refugees standing on the side of a motorway
  • Ukraine file

    How can and should the European Union react to the war in Ukraine? Do sanctions work? How dependent is Europe on Russian gas? Publications by ISS academics
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