Impact of Civil War on Life Expectancy

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Prabhat Singh's picture

The following article is a result of coming together of some fortunate coincidences* and my recent forays into the big bad world of data analytics. I feel this analysis is extremely important to not just layman/non-specialist readers (such as myself), but even to world leaders, as it deals with arguably the greatest man-made killer of humanity, i.e., civil wars. Such quick data bites could help dispel the cloud of uncertainty that envelopes civil wars and their unimaginably egregious consequences, and help shape future response of the international community to such events.

The data I have worked on is ‘Life expectancy at birth’ (Link) from 1960-2012, taken from World Bank’s public database. The reason why the words ‘at birth’ have been italicized is that they signify the expected number of years a child would live when it’s born. Consequently, any drop in this metric shows that children are at risk of dying at an early age. Reasons behind such a drop would generally either be outbreak of epidemics or deliberate killing of children. In my analysis, I have tried to show how the outbreak of civil war in any particular country adversely impacts its life expectancy at birth  (LEB), thus mainly focusing on the second reason behind death of children.

Eureka Moment!

The spark that such large and seemingly innocuous data could carry a clandestine message occurred to me when I plotted the Average, Maximum and Minimum values of LEB data for all countries of the world for each year from 1960-2012. Below is the graph, which, for example, shows that the country with maximum value of LEB in the whole world in 1960 was Norway (73.55 years), the one with minimum value of LEB in the same year was Mali (28.21years), while the average LEB for all the countries put together in this year was 53.73 years.



As seen above, things seem fine with the top two line graphs, with steady increases observed in each of the metrics. By 2012, the value of highest LEB for any one country/region in the world had jumped to 83.48 years (for HK) while the average for the whole world had climbed to a healthy 70.60 years. Similar end-to-end increase is seen for the lowermost line graph (in blue), with the value having climbed to 45.32 years (for Sierra Leone) in 2012, from 28.21 years (for Mali) in 1960. However, this last metric jumps out because of the two almost magnificent horse-shoe shaped dips, centred at 1977 and 1994. The dips make this last graph worthy of further scrutiny.

First evidence:

Curious to see why the minimum LEB in the world dipped so sharply at these two points, I revisited the data, and found out that the country depicting minimum LEB in the year 1977 was Cambodia. For further clarity, I superimposed Cambodia’s LEB (1960-2012) on the above graph, and got this shocking result:



Cambodia’s graph for LEB (in dark blue) shows a dip in the country’s LEB from a peak of 42.61 years in 1968, to a mind-numbing trough of 19.50 years in 1977! This period coincides with the murderous rule of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which was responsible for the egregious slaughter of millions of its countrymen. Though it would be hard to find out precisely how many of the dead were children, the above graphic should be enough to make even the most hardened of men quake in their boots.

Second evidence:

Intrigued, baffled and deeply upset by the first finding, I dug further to find out that the country behind the low LEB around 1994 was Rwanda. Upon superposition of Rwanda with the first graph, this is what I found:


As with Cambodia, Rwanda too shows a shocking dip in LEB from 49.90 years in 1984 to 26.76 years in 1993. Again, this coincides with the bloody Rwandan civil war where Hutus butchered Tutsis by the millions. However, this doesn’t present the full picture. The same period is also infamous for the outbreak of AIDS virus in Central Africa, which was responsible for devouring probably many more than what the Rwandan Civil War did. To put things in perspective, I carried out a comparative analysis of countries surrounding Rwanda, which resulted in the following graph:



Three of Rwanda’s bordering nations-Kenya, Tanzania and Congo-show sharp dips in LEB around the same time period, though none as pronounced as Rwanda’s. All of these dips could be attributed to the outbreak of AIDS virus, however, Rwanda’s situation is aggravated by the outbreak of civil war.

Further evidence:

Bolstered by two evidences where civil wars clearly coincided with sharp reductions in LEB, I proceeded to check further evidence. Plotting LEB data for two countries, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone, both of which bore the brunt of civil wars at different times in their history, I found this:



Bangladesh (in Blue) shows a dip in LEB between 1970 and 1972, when it reeled under a genocide inflicted by military dictators in West Pakistan. Similarly, Sierra Leone (in Red) shows a dip around the time it was engulfed by a civil war.


The most obvious application of the above correlation between Civil War and LEB in today’s world is Syria. However, fortunately or unfortunately, the correlation doesn’t hold, as Syria seems to have maintained a consistent level of LEB through the civil war, so far. Similarly, South Sudan’s LEB data has not been impacted by the long and bloody civil war.



I haven’t really been able to figure out the reasons behind the above two exceptions (there might be more that I’ve missed). Maybe the children were just plain lucky, because it seems unlikely that aerial bombs and chemical weapons would single out children for forgiveness. In any case, data on demographics of the dead would make the picture clearer.

What is notable, though, is the fact that data on LEB exists only till 2012, and we might well have to be prepared for a sharp dip in Syria’s LEB as and when data for further years emerges, as the seemingly never ending civil war rages on. Hopefully, Syria’s children will continue to have it slightly better than their adult countrymen, hundreds of thousands of whom have already perished.

Concluding Remarks:

It is said that confounding correlation with causation is one of the gravest and the most antique mistakes of mankind. However, in this case, the unmistakably strong correlation is indeed a compelling argument for civil war’s being the cause for dip in LEB, and by corollary, the bloodcurdling slaughter of millions of children.

The world watched in disbelief as unarguably the world’s most powerful man let arguably the world’s most cruel man happily cross the so-called “Red Line.” Maybe the self-proclaimed do-gooders of the world need to have a look at this and redefine the Red Line to mean the deaths of innocent children, and never ever let another vile man cross it.




*I do not intend to take sole credit for this paper.