Webcast Recap

"The fight against poverty is not just one that we care greatly about for moral reasons," said Lael Brainard, vice president and director of The Brookings Institution's Global Economy and Development Program at an October 5, 2007, discussion sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program. "It is also one that we care a great deal about because of the intimate linkages between poverty and the drivers of poverty, and fundamental insecurity that in some cases can metastasize into conflict." Brainard, who co-edited the new book Too Poor for Peace? Global Poverty, Conflict, and Security in the 21st Century, was joined by two of the book's contributing authors: Colin Kahl, an assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, and Henrik Urdal, a senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Civil War, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO).

Poverty: A Security Issue

Poverty claims the lives of millions of people each year by increasing their vulnerability to hunger, disease, and natural disasters. Impoverished people—particularly children—are more susceptible to disease because chronic malnutrition weakens their immune systems. In addition, poor families tend to live on land that has poor soil, lacks access to water, or harbors diseases such as malaria. Moreover, they have few resources to help them withstand natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and earthquakes, so they are disproportionately affected by these catastrophic events.

Poverty not only causes insecurity in individuals' lives, but can also contribute to broader political instability, as demonstrated by failed states. Inept, corrupt, or weak governance fosters poverty; widespread poverty makes effective, equitable governance more difficult to achieve; and when weak governments fail to improve their people's lives, their legitimacy suffers. Failed states pose grave security risks to the United States, explained Brainard, because they "are generally unable to adequately control their territory, leaving lawless areas. They may become breeding grounds for criminal activity, for transborder networks, and for terrorists. Therefore, the U.S. military has a clear interest in alleviating suffering."

Natural Resources and Conflict: Scarcity or Abundance?

"The media often tends to characterize civil conflicts as stemming from ancient ethnic hatreds," said Brainard. "But the statistical analysis is very different. There are very clear predictors of civil conflict." According to the authors of Too Poor for Peace?, factors that statistically increase the risk of conflict include: weak or declining economic growth; heavy dependence on natural resources for livelihoods; a drop in per capita income; the presence of large youth cohorts; and a substantial decline in rainfall. "Individual factors such as the environment matter," said Brainard.

Colin Kahl assessed the roles that demography and the environment play in linking poverty and conflict. He critiqued the neo-Malthusian and the neo-classical schools of thought on these intervening factors, echoing a presentation he gave at the Wilson Center in May 2006.

The neo-Malthusian "deprivation hypothesis" argues that environmental and population pressures lead to resource scarcity and poverty, causing people to become frustrated and therefore more likely to rebel. However, according to Kahl, the deprivation hypothesis "dramatically overpredicts the incidence of violence. If poverty and inequality were enough to lead to civil strife, the entire world would be on fire."

A second neo-Malthusian theory, the "state failure hypothesis," posits that population and environmental pressures are more likely to cause conflict in weak states, which are unable to address their populations' grievances. However, Kahl noted that strong states sometimes voluntarily enter into conflict by using force to suppress popular discontent over scarce resources.

Neo-classical economists, on the other hand, argue that resource abundance, not resource scarcity, causes conflict. They point out that trade in natural resources—such as diamonds, oil, and minerals—has financed rebel movements and corrupt governments in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone.

Kahl argued that the two schools are not irreconcilable: "Scarcity and abundance can both occur at different levels of analysis. Even locally abundant resources are globally scarce. The only reason they are worth fighting for is because they are globally scarce and therefore valuable." Moreover, he said, the abundance of one resource can cause another to become scarce: "Look at the environment surrounding mines. An abundance of a particular resource—copper, oil—can contribute to enormous environmental degradation in the surrounding area, which puts large pressure on fisheries, freshwater resources, and arable land."

More broadly, Kahl noted, "The debate has underrated the importance of intervening variables. Indeed, environment is neither necessary nor sufficient to trigger conflict. The environment matters, but only under certain conditions, and therefore we should study those conditions." According to Kahl, such intervening variables include state capacity, a society's level of technological expertise, the nature of political institutions, and the collective action potential of conflict groups.

The Challenge of Youth Bulges

A youth bulge—formed when a large proportion of a country's total population is between 15 and 24 years old—can increase the likelihood that poverty will lead to conflict, said Henrik Urdal. Young people who are impoverished and lack educational and employment opportunities have little reason to support the status quo, and are therefore more willing to take up arms. "Large youth bulges provide a huge influx of potential rebel labor at a low opportunity cost," he said, adding, "Countries that expand education among large youth groups and subsequently are unable to facilitate these large educated groups into the labor market" cause frustration among young people and thus inadvertently increase the risk of conflict.

When Urdal performed a statistical analysis of youth bulges and conflict between 1950 and 2000, he found that the presence of a youth bulge increased the risk of a violent outbreak (i.e., civil conflict, terrorism, or violent demonstrations). Urdal also found that in autocratic regimes, youth bulges "somewhat" increased the risk of civil conflict. However, he underscored that his results were "robust for low-intensity conflict, not for intense war." Urdal also reminded the audience that "demography is not destiny. Most countries with large youth bulges do avoid conflict most of the time."

Innovative Approaches

Good governance, ingenuity, and innovation are crucial to helping break the link between poverty and conflict. "Governments hold the key," emphasized Urdal. If governments do not address their population's grievances, people are more willing to turn to rebel groups. Brainard concurred: "Today's problem is that armed groups are much better and more innovative than states in seducing young people."

Kahl acknowledged these challenges, recommending that "any attempt to address so-called environmental and demographic factors should focus not just on preventing environmental degradation or slowing population growth or increasing public health. They must also focus on those intervening factors in the middle that make certain societies more resilient in the face of crises." But he is optimistic: "In fact, this is good news, because oftentimes, it is really hard to alter demographical and environmental trajectories in a meaningful time frame politically. But you can tweak social, economical, and political factors—sometimes much more quickly."

Drafted by Thomas Renard and edited by Rachel Weisshaar.


  • Lael Brainard

    Vice President and Director, Global Economy and Development Program, The Brookings Institution
  • Colin Kahl

    Associate Professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East
  • Henrik Urdal

    Senior Researcher, Centre for the Study of Civil War, Peace Research Institute Oslo; Research Fellow, Initiative on Religion in International Affairs and International Security Program, Harvard University