Inequality and conflict: what happens when you have nothing to lose?

Jonathan Couturier

The relationship between inequality and conflict, especially internal (intra-state) conflict has been, and continues to be, overlooked. On paper, the idea that significant disparities within a population could fuel violence stands to reason: If group A deprives group B of something, simply because group A thinks they are better than everyone else, then a fight is likely to break out. Yet, there lacks political will to recognise and act upon the issue, mainly because policy-makers aren’t interested in what stands to reason. To mobilise political will, they want something that either 1) confirms their prejudices, or 2) is backed-up by overwhelming evidence. And therein lies the problem: many governments are simply not interested in the relationship between inequality and violence, and for those which are, the relationship is hard to pin down. Yet, continuing to overlook it will merely allow policy makers to ignore the issue, or let them get away with it.

One of the reasons it is hard to delineate the links between conflict and inequality is because for a long time, analysts have been holding-up the wrong end of the stick. When inequality was considered as a potential driver of conflict, it was understood (and measured) as inequalities between individuals (so called “vertical inequalities”). Research conducted on this basis, which plotted instances of violence against vertical measures of inequality such as the GINI, found no evidence to support a relationship. However, another approach has been to look at “horizontal inequalities”, which Saferworld defines as “inequalities among and between groups” (as opposed to individuals). In other words, when different groups (whether ethnic, religious or cultural) are denied equal access to political and cultural rights, economic resources, social protection, justice or security simply because of their perceived identity as a group, the incidence of violence increases significantly.

Using this yardstick, the relationship between inequality and conflict becomes a lot clearer. In a review of the quantitative and qualitative data on horizontal inequalities and conflicts, Saferworld finds significant linkages:

Research in sub-Saharan Africa has shown that in countries with prominent ethnic divisions, incentives for “national solidarity” (i.e. the public provision of social services) are much reduced – and spending on public goods is not only lower than in more homogenous societies, but it is also concentrated in the hands of “dominant” groups. This in turn significantly increases the chances of conflict between the “haves” and “have-nots”. What happened recently in Mali is a manifestation of this. The Tuaregs in the north have long felt alienated by the non-Tuaregs in the south, and periodically rose up in rebellion – and in the last instance, nearly brought the country to its knees.

Similarly, the violence which literally tore North and South Sudan apart stemmed from pronounced inequalities. While it is dangerous and erroneous to portray the conflict between an ‘Arab’ North monopolising oil revenues and political power at the expense of the ‘non-Arab’ South, the deep material and political differences between the various ethnic, religious and cultural groups were amongst the leading causes of the violence.

In Nigeria, there has been a similar scenario on an even more fragmented scale. Small political elites have monopolised oil revenues and the power associated with them – and rewarded their own communities with the benefits. The remaining ethnic/cultural groups who were excluded from this communal patronage have often resorted to violence to fight these monopolies. While this sort of violence has been labelled as “greed”, it is worth pointing out that it didn’t start because these communities wanted something, but because they had nothing.

Looking at political exclusion, research by Lars-Erik Cederman and colleagues on ethnic conflicts between 1946 and 2005 has suggested that: “[politically] excluded groups across all income levels are three times more likely to initiate conflict against the state as compared with included groups that enjoy representation at the centre”. Sri Lanka is a recent manifestation of this relationship: the civil war which pitted the Tamils against the Singhalese state was partly driven by the denial of political and economic rights to the former, who were seeking autonomy to escape this deprivation. The danger is that the Singhalese state’s recent military victory may be a hollow one if it does not address the marginalisation felt by the Tamils.

Straying from inequalities in the developing world, we can look to our own shores for a glimpse of the process.  In Northern Ireland, the unionist/protestant hold on political power and economic resources was one of the driving factors behind what was euphemistically termed “the troubles”. What was in effect a civil war was partly driven by the exclusion of one group by another – and which was only brought to a (fragile) end through an inclusive political settlement where unionist-protestant, and catholic-republican factions agreed on power-sharing.

Yet, despite the mounting evidence highlighting the links between horizontal inequalities and conflict, the idea is struggling to gain ground in policy-circles. In the UK’s Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) for instance – the blueprint for British conflict-prevention policy – inequality is mentioned only once. Similarly, when David Cameron talks of the “golden thread” of policies needed for successful development, he mentions good governance, the rule of law, property rights and free markets, but not inequality. Indeed, throughout the development community as a whole it was until recently only whispered.

Why this reluctance? First, as mentioned above, there is a lack of political will to recognise the issue. Many are ideologically opposed to acknowledging, or acting upon inequalities – seeing it as interference into “markets” and “meritocracy”, uncomprehending its links to xenophobic sentiments. Others simply refuse to recognise it because it is to the advantage of the group they represent. Further, inequality is also a messy issue – it is insufficient on its own to explain conflict. It often blends with a host of socio-political, economic and historical threads to produce tangled webs – and policy-makers tend to shy away from this complexity because it is disempowering: it robs them of simple solutions. In Mali, for instance, inequality between Tuaregs and the rest of the population goes back to colonialism: borders were drawn around populations which did not want to live together, and had little sense of common identity. As a result, the majority group chose to exclude the minority group they could not identify with (the Tuaregs). However, few politicians would want to stare at such a problem in the face. Instead, they resort to simplistic, single-variable explanations for conflict which do not require painful political solutions, but comfortably rely on stigmatising ‘the Other’, accusing them of inherent violence or greed. This merely perpetuates or worsens the problem.

Secondly, while the evidence is indeed “mounting”, it is not yet overwhelming. Just because something stands to reason doesn’t make it an incontrovertible fact. Those who are ideologically inclined will accept the argument. Those who are cynically conscious of it will ignore it. Those who are politically allergic to the notion (as Cameron is) will need solid, overwhelmingly clear data. And therein lies the problem: collecting data on horizontal inequalities is extremely difficult. When looking for inequality between groups, how do you define “groups”? What defines an ethnicity, a religious or cultural group? Who is going to collect the data? The governments who benefit from maintaining inequality? Of course not.

Therefore while the relationship between inequality and conflict may seem obvious, it is still in danger of being overlooked. Many politicians stand to gain by ignoring it. A lot more work needs to be done to expose it. Otherwise what stands to reason will not stand to political will.

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