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 Development and security


Frances Stewart


Director of CRISE, Centre for Research in Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity

Professor in Development Economics, Somerville College, Oxford


This paper is based upon a presentation given at the Economic Justice Conference 5-7 November 2004, organised by the Quaker Council for European Affairs and Quaker Peace and Social Witness.


Violent conflict constitutes one of the biggest obstacles to the achievement of human progress and development. Not only does violent conflict lead to many deaths and injuries, but political instability undermines economic institutions and economic and social development .  Countries in conflict frequently show regress rather than progress on economic and social indicators. It has been estimated, for example, that the extra infant deaths as a result of the war in Cambodia amounted to 3% of the country’s 1990 population. Consequently, understanding the root causes of conflict, and identifying policies which may reduce its incidence, is of fundamental importance for promoting human development and poverty reduction, especially given the high incidence of violent political conflict in the world today. This paper reviews some fundamental causes of conflict, and considers some implications for policies to prevent conflict.


All societies are subject to some degree of conflict, including political protests, violent crime and other sporadic civil disturbances.  At a minor level such conflicts do not lead to serious disruptions in development. Here we are concerned with  major organised violent political  conflict. In contrast to criminality, which may also lead to considerable deaths and disruption, we are concerned with conflicts in which the opposing parties have political objectives, i.e. those who fight  seek to control the state, or to gain independence, or to transform the ideology and policies of the state.


Most conflicts today are within states (sometimes called ‘civil’ wars) although there is frequently considerable outside intervention. The incidence of intra-state conflict has been rising sharply since 1950 (see Chart One). Africa has been especially badly affected in recent years, while low-income countries suffer most having, lost 0.5% of their population, 1960-1995, as a result of war, compared with 0.02 among high income countries . The costs are likely to be especially heavy in internal  wars because damage to civilians  is often large. Not only are civilians deliberately targeted, but they also suffer from economic disruptions caused by war.  In wars in Africa between 1970 and 1995, civilian deaths were estimated to amount to 95% or more of the total (Sivard 1996).  Hence identifying the causes of such conflicts and policies which might help prevent them has a very high priority for anyone concerned with human wellbeing.



Source: Nils Petter Gleditsch, Peter Wallensteen, Mikael Eriksson, Margareta Sollenberg & Håvard Strand, 2000, ‘Armed Conflict 1946–2000: A New Dataset’, www.pcr.uu.se.



Text Box: Chart One.  Number of Armed Conflicts by Level, All Types, 1946–2000
Source: Nils Petter Gleditsch, Peter Wallensteen, Mikael Eriksson, Margareta Sollenberg & Håvard Strand, 2000, ‘Armed Conflict 1946–2000: A New Dataset’, www.pcr.uu.se. 























Two opposing explanations of conflict predominate: a cultural explanation, which argues that war is the outcome of longstanding ethnic hatreds, or the ‘clash of civilisations’ (Huntington); the other is a purely individualistic economic explanation-- i.e. war is the outcome of individuals’ ‘greed’, a view associated with Collier and other economists -- in which culture plays no part. This paper rejects both views in pure form, arguing that neither cultural,  economic nor political factors are sufficient on their own to explain the outbreak of conflict, but  generally all factors are involved and need to be considered in preventative policies.



The cultural explanation


A popular explanation of violence points to cultural or ethnic differences as being fundamentally responsible – that there is some innate propensity among peoples from different cultures to fight each other, for domination or autonomy. While Huntington applied this to global divisions between the modernised west and others (especially Moslems), similar views have been advanced to explain internecine conflict within nations – e.g. in the former Yugoslavia, where it has been argued that age-old ethnic enmities, suppressed under communism, again came to the fore in the post-communist era; similar statements are frequently made about Tutsis and Hutus in Burundi/Rwanda.


It is certainly true that many conflicts have a cultural dimension, in the sense that the groups that fight perceive themselves as belonging to a common culture (ethnicity or religion) and are partly fighting for cultural autonomy. However, most anthropologists point to serious problems with this approach, taken by itself. Extensive evidence on how identities are formed and change indicates  that while  a person’s culture is partly inherited, it is also constructed and chosen, with many having multiple identities (Alexander, McGregor et al. 2000; Turton 1997).  Many tribal distinctions in Africa, for example,  were created by the colonial powers : ‘Modern Central Africa tribes are not so much survivals from a pre-colonial past but rather colonial creations by colonial officers and African intellectuals..’ (Wim van Binsbergen, quoted in Ranger 1983). The distinction between Hutus and Tutsis, largely invented by the Colonial powers for administrative convenience, is a powerful example.


The promotion of identity and difference and the use of cultural symbols  is a powerful way of binding people together to act collectively for political or economic purposes. Leaders often accentuate particular identities in order to mobilise people to fight. In international wars, this takes the shape of enhancing national consciousness, with flag waving, historical references, military parades, and so on. In civil wars, it is a matter of raising ethnic or religious consciousness of one identity against another. Shared identities are consequently an element in many violent conflicts. Nonetheless cultural differences alone are not sufficient to explain violent struggles.  Many multiethnic societies live peacefully, and in many others there are long periods – centuries even – without major violence. We therefore need to go beyond cultural differences to explain contemporary wars.  For this we need to turn to economic and political explanations of conflict.



Economic explanations


Among the range of economic hypotheses explaining contemporary intra-state wars three are prominent: group motivation associated with group inequalities; private motivation and incentives; and a failure of the social contract, stemming from economic failure and poor government services.


Group motivation and horizontal inequalities.  Most internal conflicts consist in fighting between groups – some who wish to gain independence or take over the state and some  who resist this, wishing to preserve their control, and/or the integrity of the nation (Horowitz 1985; Gurr, 1993; Stewart, 2001).   These groups often share common cultural characteristics.  Such cultural characteristics, however, do not provoke conflict on their own.  It is when  cultural differences – for example ethnic or religious affiliations -  coincide with  economic and political differences between groups,  this can cause  deep resentments which may lead to violent struggles.  As Cohen stated: ‘Men may and do certainly joke about or ridicule the strange and bizarre customs of men from other ethnic groups…But they do not fight over such differences alone. When men do, on the other hand, fight across ethnic lines it is nearly always the case that they fight over some fundamental issues concerning the distribution and exercise of power, whether economic, political, or both’ (Cohen, 1974).


If groups which are distinguished by culture (ethnicity or religion) face sharp  differences in access to economic or political resources this can be a source of group grievance and mobilisation for conflict.  Such differences, which can be termed horizontal inequalities, may thus form a fundamental cause of war.  Horizontal inequalities have many dimensions –  economic (inequalities in access to incomes, employment and assets),  political (inequalities in access to political power) and social (inequalities in access to servies, including education, health and housing). It is not only the deprived, but also the relatively privileged groups that can sometimes be motivated to fight in order to protect their privileged position from being encroached on by the relatively deprived. Geographic inequalities, especially when they coincide with some cultural differences, often lead to demands for autonomy or independence, as in parts of Indonesia. 


There are many examples of sharp horizontal inequalities between groups in conflict  - for example, between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland; between Moslems and Hindhus  in India; between ethnicities and classes in Nepal; and groups of different ethnicity in  Kosova,  Rwanda and Burundi. In some cases, conflict may be precipitated by the relatively richer areas (e.g. Biafra in Nigeria, the Basque country in Spain and richer regions in Indonesia).  Horizontal inequalities appear to be most likely to lead to conflict where they are significant, consistent across dimensions, and widening over time.



 Private motivation. War confers benefits on individuals, as well as costs. Some political sociologists and economists have emphasised private or individual motivation as the fundamental cause of conflict, concluding that the net economic advantages of war to some individuals motivates them to fight (see Keen 1994; Keen 1998; Collier and Hoeffler 2000).Keen, for example, shows how war permits uneducated young men, to gain employment as soldiers; it offers opportunities to loot; to profiteer from shortages and from aid; to trade arms, and to carry out illicit production and trade in drugs, diamonds, timber, and other commodities. Where alternative opportunities are few, because of low incomes and poor employment, and possibilities of enrichment by war considerable (for example, where there are valuable resources such as diamonds which can readily be mined, or stolen and traded),  the incidence and duration of wars are likely to be greater, according to this view. While individual incentives are generally part of the explanation for conflict, this does not seem to be the exclusive explanation – group motives are generally also present. A recent collection of case studies from all over the world, concludes that

‘very few contemporary conflicts can be adequately captured as pure instances of “resource wars” or conflicts caused by “loot seeking” on the part of either insurgents or state actors. Economic incentives have not been the only or even the primary causes of these conflicts’ ( Ballentine and Sherman, 2003, p 259-260.)


 Failure of the social contract. This explanation refers to the failure of the state to play its part in the social contract – in delivering economic benefits or social services. It derives from the view that social stability is implicitly premised on a social contract between the people and the government: according to this (hypothetical) contract people accept state authority so long as the state delivers services and provides reasonable economic conditions (employment and incomes). With economic stagnation, or decline, and worsening state services, the social contract breaks down, and violence results.  There is empirical evidence of more conflict in poorer economies,  those that have weak economic growth and low health standards (Nafziger and Auvinen 2000).   Of course, there is a problem about the direction of causality since the conflicts themselves affect people’s incomes and health negatively, but tests for this suggest the negative relationship from poverty etc. to conflict is stronger than the reverse relationship (Nafziger and Auvinen 2000).


 Political explanations

Political factors may also contribute to the outbreak of political violence. One element is the strength of the state: a highly repressive state can suppress potential conflict (e.g. in Indonesia under Soharto), while weak or ‘failed’ states may predispose to lawlessness and conflict. ‘Humanitarian crises are more likely to occur where the state is weak and venal’,(Nafziger and Auvinen 2002:154). At the other end of the spectrum, stable democratic institutions can allow change to be achieved peacefully. Statistical investigations of the type of political regime most liable to violence suggests that  ‘intermediate’ regimes, i.e. those in transition between authoritarian regimes and established democracies are most conflict-prone  (Reynal-Querol, 2001  and others).  As noted in the discussion of group motivation, horizontal inequalities in political participation can be an important cause of violence since lack of access to political power is a strong motive for leaders to attempt to over turn the government.   


Each of the causes considered above can play a significant role in predisposing countries to conflict. Each explanation applies in some conflicts,  and more than one in some cases. For example, the North/South conflict in the Sudan was an example both of horizontal inequality (with the South being heavily deprived), and one of powerful private gains secured as a result of the war, the profiteering from food aid, the looting, and employment as soldiers which helped to  perpetuate the struggle



 Economic, Social And Political Policies Towards Preventing Conflict


Analysis of the economic, social and political forces liable to lead to conflict points to  preventative policies which could help reduce the incidence of conflicts. Such  policies should be considered for all countries vulnerable to conflict. Vulnerable countries include all low-income, low human development  countries -  at least half of these countries have been in conflict at some time over the past thirty years; secondly, any  country that has been in serious conflict over the previous thirty years is vulnerable -  since evidence shows that previous conflict is one of the most significant pointers to further conflict; thirdly, any country with high horizontal inequalities in political or economic dimensions is vulnerable; fourthly, countries whose political regime is ‘intermediate’, i.e. in transition from strong repressive regimes to more democratic regimes is also in the vulnerable category.


Policy change is particularly difficult to achieve in the context of a country prone to violence, and with a history of conflict.  There are inherited memories and grievances, and entrenched group identity and inter-group animosities while the government is rarely broad based and often represents only a subset of the groups in society. It is sometimes naive to think that the government wants to promote peace, given the prevalence of state-instigated violence. For example, in the case of Uganda, the governments of Amin and Obote were themselves responsible for much of the violence. The same is true in Sudan, while the government of the Congo has only recently started a serious effort to reach a peaceful solution.

Hence the context for introducing policy change must be recognised as structurally unfavourable. Nonetheless, some governments (particularly just after a serious conflict) do wish to promote peace and are willing to promote inclusive policies – an example is  Museveni when he came to power in Uganda in the 1980s; while in some cases, outside agents may undertake corrective policies (such as the UK government in N.Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s). But we must remember that in some cases, it is outside actors that are themselves largely responsible for provoking conflict, as in the current conflict in Iraq.


Three types of policy are needed, directed at the main factors responsible for conflict.

·              Policies to address horizontal inequalities

·              Policies to reduce the functionality of conflict

·              Policies to promote equitable development.


Correcting  horizontal,  inequalities

 The general direction of policy change to avoid violence should be to reduce group inequalities. To achieve this it essential to have inclusive policies, politically, economically and socially. This does not necessarily imply specifically targeted affirmative action, although it can do so.  It requires policies to achieve balanced geographic benefits, as well as balance in resource access between ethnicities, religions or race.  From a political perspective,  this means that all major groups in a society participate in political power, the administration, the army and the police. Inclusive economic policies require horizontal inequality in economic aspects (assets, employment and incomes) to be moderate; and inclusive policies socially that horizontal inequality in social participation and achieved well-being is also moderate.


The most universal requirement is for political inclusivity because it is  monopolisation of political power by one group or another that is normally responsible for provoking conflict and for many of the other inequalities. Yet achieving political inclusivity is among the most difficult changes to bring about. It is not just a matter of democracy, defined as rule with the support of the majority, as majority rule can be consistent with abuse of minorities, as, for example, in the recent history of Rwanda, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe.  In a politically inclusive democratic system, particular types of proportional representation are needed to ensure participation by all major groups in the elected bodies. For inclusive government, representation of all such groups is essential not only at the level of the cabinet but also other organs of government.  Aspects of such politically inclusive policies have been adopted by well-known peace-making regimes, e.g. the post-Pinochet Chilean government, Museveni in Uganda, South Africa under Mandela.


Economic and social inclusivity

The aim is to reduce horizontal inequalities in economic and social dimensions and generate inclusive societies.  In the government sector, policies need to ensure group balance in benefits from government expenditure and jobs, education at all levels,  health services,  water and sanitation,  housing and so on. Equality of access in education is particularly important since this contributes to equity in income earning potential, while its absence perpetuates income inequality. It is also important to secure inclusive policies in the private sector though this is more difficult to achieve. The situation in South Africa represents an example where a huge amount of horizontal inequality stems from private sector activity. The particular policies to be followed to deal with private sector sources of horizontal inequality differ across countries, but may include land reform -  in El Salvador, for example,  differential land ownership had been a major source of conflict and the subsequent land reform was intended to contribute to a peaceful solution; and policies to ensure balanced representation in jobs and employment in the private sector. Malaysia successful pursued such policies, improving the distribution of income and assets between the poorer Malays and the Chinese, and avoiding conflict in the financial crisis in 1997 in contrast to other countries in the region, such as Indonesia and Thailand. Moreover, Malaysia was remarkably successful in achieving high economic growth and poverty reduction as well as horizontal equity.


In introducing such policies, however, a cautious and politically sensitive approach is required, as heavy-handed corrective action can itself promote conflict. Action to eliminate some privileges in education and employment enjoyed by Sri Lankan Tamils, for example, was itself among the causes of conflict of the Tamil demand for autonomy and the prolonged conflict that followed.


A  critical requirement is that  such policies are included by the international community in its dealings with conflict-prone countries given the pervasive power of these institutions.   At present such policies are not part of the explicit international agenda.    IMF and World Bank policy conditionality is ‘blind’ to these issues -- they take no account of horizontal equity in their policy prescriptions, nor do they allow for the possible undermining of the state resulting from cutbacks in government expenditure and powers following their recommendations. As lead institutions, it is essential that these considerations are incorporated into their conditionality, both with respect to project  allocation and to the policy conditionality applied to government economic interventions and expenditures. This would require a quite marked change in their programmes for conflict-prone countries.


Policies towards private incentives.

 Policies are also needed to reduce the private incentives for conflict. One important aspect of such policies is to increase people’s peacetime economic opportunities – through extending their access to education and other assets, and through a dynamic peacetime economy which offers people employment and earnings opportunities, so the gains that can be made during conflict (through theft, smuggling, looting etc) are less attractive.


Strengthening the state is also an important aspect of preventative policies since this will reduce lawlessness and make private profiteering more difficult.  Yet current governance reforms,  which demand greater transparency and accountability, are aimed at improving the moral character and efficiency of the state, but do not strengthen it, while the strong push towards the market, cutbacks in government expenditure, the increasing use of NGOs for service delivery, and moves towards decentralisation of government all contribute to the weakening of the state.


General development policies

 Given the strong evidence of an association between conflict and levels and growth of per capita incomes,  policies that promote such growth should form part of any pro-peace policy package.  But it should be stressed that the growth must be widely shared. Inequitably distributed growth can reinforce horizontal inequality and thus be conflict-promoting, as for example occurred in Rwanda.


The global situation

 So far I have looked at the causes of conflict within countries. Yet the analysis can readily be extended to the global situation. There are sharp horizontal inequalities between the Moslem and the Western world today. The cultural ties of Islam, combined with these inequalities,  provide strong group grievances and incentives for conflict. For example, in 1999, per capita incomes in high-income OECD countries were nearly six times that of the Arab states, while from 1975-1999, growth in per capita incomes in Arab States was 0.3% compared with high-income OECD countries 2.2%. Moreover, within Western countries, education and employment levels of Moslem populations are well below average levels. High levels of poverty in many countries mean that people have little to lose by fighting so that joining the wars may seem attractive.


The arguments presented above suggest that sustained and secure global peace will only be achieved if inclusive policies are adopted and these inequalities reduced. Unfortunately, though, the policies adopted by the West, like those of the governments of many developing countries,  are to tackle the situation with arms and repression rather than by reducing world inequalities.


Security is an essential component of people’s well-being. This security can only be achieved, at a national and global level, by inclusive political and economic policies. To achieve this, any war against terror should use the weapons of development, not those of violence.




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Cohen, A. (1974). Two-dimensional Man: an Essay on the Anthropology of Power and Symbolism in Complex Society. Berkeley, University of California Press.


Collier, P. and A. Hoeffler. (2000). Greed and Grievance in Civil War. Washington DC, World Bank: 42.


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Huntington, S. P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York, Simon & Schuster.     


Keen, D. (1994). The Benefits of Famine: a Political Economy of Famine Relief in Southwestern Sudan 1883-1989. Princeton, Princeton University Press.


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Nafziger, E. W. and J. Auvinen (2000). The economic causes of humanitarian emergencies. War, Hunger and Displacement: The Origin of Humanitarian Emergencies. E. W. Nafziger, S. Frances and R. Vayrynen. Oxford, OUP.


Nafziger, E. W. and J. Auvinen (2002). "Economic development, inequality, war and state violence." World Development 30(2): 163-163.


Ranger, T. (1983). The invention of tradition in Colonial Africa. The Invention of Tradition. E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger. Cambridge, Canto: 211-262.


Sivard, R. L. (1996). World military and social expenditures. [Leesburg, Va.,, WMSE Publications.     


Stewart, F. (2001). Horizontal inequalities as a source of conflict. From Reaction to Prevention. F. Hampson and D. Malone. London, Lynne Rienner.


 Turton, D. (1997). "War and ethnicity: global connections and local violence in North East Africa and Former Yugoslavia." Oxford Development Studies 25: 77-94.




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