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Doing Business in the Post-Conflict Part I

Updated: May 19, 2021

Quick Money and Slow Violence: What lingers underneath the surface in the aftermath of post-conflict societies?


By: Bob Rehorst

Countries that have suffered through political turmoil are increasingly attractive as emerging markets. However, underneath all that potential, hidden risks may linger in the shadows of the country’s turbulent past. This first part focuses on the risks of prolonged environmental degradation and the notion of slow violence in post-conflict societies. To understand this, let us first examine the example of South Lebanon.

Well-over a decade ago, a war raged in the south of Lebanon between Israel and the Hezbollah-led ‘Lebanese Resistance’. Six years after the war, the inhabitants of Lebanon’s southern regions, which posed the battleground for the 2006 ‘July War’, insistently spoke about their infertile lands, failed harvests, and dying bodies[1].

Such stories continued to emerge in the long aftermath of the war, long after the UN-brokered a ceasefire and most troops went home. Although difficult to prove, the blame is commonly directed towards the remains of Israeli weapons in the region, including shrapnel, phosphorus and other toxic remnants.

The question is, why is this so difficult to prove? Lebanon is, unfortunately, not unique. Vietnam has experienced similar toxicity in the aftermath of its American war in the 60’s and 70’s due to a toxin called Agent Orange. It is this slow, lingering, and often invisible, type of violence that will be explored here.

Violence is normally expressive and visible. ‘Normal’ violence is generally defined as an ‘act of physical hurt’[2], and characterised to be immediate in time, explosive and spectacular. Slow violence, on the other hand, is a phenomenon that is described to occur gradually, and out of sight. It is defined as a type of 'delayed destruction' that is spread out across space and can take place over long periods [3]. Examples of this can be the gradual deterioration of soil, health, and ecosystems due to human pollution.

Then what are the effects? Because of its gradual nature, slow violence is severely underrepresented in mass media. We live in an era where the black mirrors of our phones and laptops have become, not only part of our daily life, but also a general ecosystem of constant distraction. It seems that we systematically fail to keep focus, beating through our everyday lives with continuous partial attention. News is fast; Twitter is faster, articles get smaller and messaging has become shorter. In this milieu of speeded up time, and brief narration, generating awareness towards the hidden, lingering aftermath becomes tougher.

To briefly illustrate this point, let us take a closer look at the Vietnamese case. Agent Orange, used controversially as a defoliant by the Americans during the Vietnam war, caused leaves of jungle trees to die, making it easier to detect enemy positions. However, humans exposed to the substance were at risk of poisoning. In Vietnam, it is estimated that as many as four million people suffered from dioxin poisoning as a result of Agent Orange. More so, babies are reported to be born with defects. Through biomagnification, dioxins build up in the fatty tissues of ducks and fish, pass from nature into everyday life in Vietnam. There is very little attention to this, because attempts to scientifically prove the correlation between Agent Orange and birth defects, for example, failed in U.S. Courts.

Contested scientific evidence also occurs in Lebanon. Various actors, pushing deviating political agendas, have opted for fluctuating scientific support or deniability regarding the causal relationship between the remnants of war and its victims. Numerous scientific sources argue that this fluctuation of ‘evidence’ is by design. The common consensus is that there is an active production of doubt, which makes it possible to shift responsibility away from the perpetrators and prolong the circulation of hazardous products.[4] In other words, it is a smokescreen, actively designed to refute blame.

Such active creation of doubt around scientific evidence is not only produced by political actors. For several large corporations, this smokescreen provides a perfect stage to continue unsustainable business practices. In sectors such as tobacco or mining corporations, there is money to be made in sustaining doubt surrounding environmental factors to prolong the consensus that their business is, without a doubt, unsustainable. In this way, doubt becomes profitable.

The question is then, at what cost? Understanding the deliberate manufacturing of doubt as a factor for prolonged slow violence, as explained in the cases of Vietnam and Lebanon, we can see how this contributes to environmental deterioration, as well as violations of human rights.

Businesses aspiring to access emerging markets in post-conflict societies should take note of the existence of slow violence. Because slow violence is not visible on the surface, and the smokescreen of doubt can create confusing surroundings, one should tread carefully. Lack of awareness about such turbulent factors carries the risk of operating in, or contributing to, unsustainable environments. In order to minimise risk and conduct sustainable business, it is advisable to generate an understanding of one’s operational environment.

References [1] Touhouliotis, V. (2018). Weak seed and a poisoned land: Slow violence and the toxic infrastructures of war in South Lebanon. Environmental Humanities, 10(1), 86-106. [2] Riches, D. (1986). “The phenomenon of Violence” in D. Riches (Ed.) The Anthropology of Violence, Oxford: Blackwell. [3]Nixon, R. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press. [4] Touhouliotis, V. (2018), p.92.

This article is part one of a series highlighting the potential risks of doing business in post-conflict countries.

For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the Author:

Bob Rehorst is a Global Security Analyst at Dyami. He has extensive field experience in the Levant-Middle East region, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. He holds a Graduate Degree in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, and an Undergraduate Degree in Cultural Anthropology, both from Utrecht University. Bob specializes in geopolitics, conflict development and global crises.

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