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Economic Causes of Civil War and Their Implications for Policy

Title:Economic Causes of Civil War and Their Implications for Policy
Author:Paul Collier
Pub. Date:June 15, 2000
Full Text:Adobe Acrobat (PDF) [86 KB]      

[Published in Chester A. Crocker & Fen Osler Hampson with Pamela Aall (eds.) Managing Global Chaos (Washington DC: US Institute of Peace)]

Popular perceptions of the causes of civil conflict take at face value the discourse of the rebel organization. Civil war appears as an intense political contest, fueled by grievances which are so severe as to have burst the banks of normal political channels. Rebellions are thus interpreted as the ultimate protest movements, their cadres being self-sacrificing heroes struggling against oppression. In fact, most rebellions cannot be like this. When the main grievances - inequality, political repression, and ethnic and religious divisions - are measured objectively, they provide no explanatory power in predicting rebellion. These objective grievances and hatreds simply cannot usually be the cause of violent conflict. They may well generate intense political conflict, but such conflict does not usually escalate to violent conflict.

By contrast, economic characteristics – dependence on primary commodity exports, low average incomes, slow growth, and large diasporas – are all significant and powerful predictors of civil war. Rebellions either have the objective of natural resource predation, or are critically dependent upon natural resource predation in order to pursue other objectives. These, rather than objective grievances, are the risk factors which conflict prevention must reduce if it is to be successful. Since to date conflict prevention has paid scant attention to these causes of conflict, there is probably considerable scope for policy, both domestic and international, to prevent civil conflict more effectively.

While objective grievances do not generate violent conflict, violent conflict generates subjective grievances. This is not just a by-product of conflict, but an essential activity of a rebel organization. Rebel military success depends upon motivating its soldiers to kill the enemy, and this – as in the classic Leninist theory of rebel organizations – requires indoctrination. Hence, by the end of a civil war, there is intense inter-group hatred based upon perceived grievances. A conflict has been generated which has no boundaries between political and violent actions. The task in post-conflict societies is partly, as in pre-conflict societies, to reduce the objective risk factors. However, post-conflict societies are much more at risk than implied by the inherited risk factors, because of this legacy of induced polarizing grievance. Either boundaries must be re-established between the political contest and violence, or the political contest must be resolved. Neither of these is easy, which is why, once a civil war has occurred, the chances of further conflict are so high.

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