Summary of the Woodrow Wilson Center Conflict Prevention Project's working group meeting on Understanding Non-Traditional Threats to Global Security: Economic and Social Inequalities, with Professor Nicholas Sambanis, Associate Director of United Nations Studies at Yale University.

Professor Sambanis stated that his remarks would encompass four broader themes within the topic of civil war: whether or not economic inequality or other types of inequality increase the risk of civil war; findings with regards to the relationship between inequality and the onset, duration, termination and recurrence of civil war; what types of inequality might be most important – inequality among groups or states, income or assets, or political inequality; and lastly an attempt to highlight some of the policies that have been shown to reduce the risk of civil war, addressing the question of whether or not policies to reduce the threat of global instability should actually try to reduce inequality, or if they should they be targeted at other problems that have been known to be associated with civil war.

Referring to the discussion paper circulated prior to the working group session, he stated that the focus of the paper – globalization and its consequences on economic inequality – assumed that inequality is related to political violence. He cautioned, however, that this conclusion had not yet been demonstrated in empirical or theoretical literature in both political science and the political economy of civil war.

Professor Sambanis explained that one of the channels that globalization might reduce civil war directly or indirectly through inequality is by increasing the level of income. "Research has shown that civil war is mainly the problem of poorer societies," he stated, "and that it has distributional consequences that are poorly understood and that are a function of a number of variables." These variables include the level of development of an economy, the type of resources in which the country is trading, the regional concentration of resources, and the cultural, social and political differences between regions. "We do not fully understand yet how globalization will actually impact the likelihood of violent political conflict," he stated. "There are plausible arguments and hypothesis on both sides, suggesting that globalization might reduce or increase risk of civil war."

As a way to advance the discussion in the direction of understanding the impact of globalization on civil war, Sambanis focused on one of the mechanisms that was hypothesized in the briefing paper – that inequality is the mechanism through which globalization might increase the level of global instability – saying that he would touch on theories and findings in the literature on civil war and discuss how inequality fits into that picture.

In the less developed parts of the world – Africa, Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, civil war has proved one of the major obstacles to development. One finding shows that civil war has important negative externalities with diffusion and contagion effects that are easily identifiable and measurable and that countries that border and directly countries with civil war are at least three times as likely to experience a war of their own within the next year. Professor Sambanis showed all of this by way of introduction, to indicate that civil war is in fact a global concern, as it influences patterns of development in entire regions, displacing international war as a major security threat. Sambanis posited that, "civil war, as 9/11 showed, is directly related to terrorism and other acts of political violence. Afghanistan has been at civil war since 1978, and the Taliban and Al Qaeda were direct products of that war and of external intervention in that country over time." He stressed that a number of different challenges that we face now are directly related to patterns of civil war.

"How does inequality figure into all of this?" Sambanis asked. "The short answer is that we do not yet know if inequality really matters in a specific sense," and if it matters in explaining the timing, duration or its termination. It is assumed in many theories, especially informal theories in political science, that inequality (since it is a plausible assumption that it would cause grievance) would be related to civil war. "Recent advances in the theory of civil war, however, have suggested that what really matters in explaining the outbreak of civil violence is not so much the underlying structural conditions, which may be prevalent in many countries at the same level, but rather the conditions that facilitate insurgency. That is an argument that had been developed separately but simultaneously by colleagues at the World Bank and Stanford University. "In this argument, we see that civil war is a rational outcome of an inefficient process," Sambanis explained

Another perspective that has been used in literature to explain civil war that dates back to the early work in the 1970's is the mobilization perspective of ethnic conflict. Sambanis said that the argument is that ethnic groups may compete for resources or for representation in the government and that unequal distribution of these resources might fuel grievances that might motivate rebellion. Furthermore, there may be systemic causes for different levels of inter-ethnic inequity of the distribution of resources in developed countries as opposed to underdeveloped countries, or there might be micro level causes for these inequalities resulting in small predatory groups either controlling governments and locking out groups that are not part of their own or actually mobilizing support from a small narrow base to try to gain control of resources in less developed states. In this perspective, concern with inequality and concern with establishing a more equal distribution of resources is paramount. "One major policy that reduces one form of inequality is democracy, because proportional representation, for example, or other systems of democracy can be argued to reduce political inequality," Sambanis stated. "However, in most empirical studies of civil war, analysts have found that democracy is not significantly correlated with the onset of civil war. The State Failure Project shows different findings, and in my own research I have also found democracy to be a significant predictor of civil war. Several other research groups working on this topic find this to be a very fragile finding, and we still really do not know if democracy is the way to reduce the risk of civil violence that results from political inequality."

Sambanis acknowledged that if one goes a step further and assumes that there are countries that are already un-democratic or are facing civil war and one believes the finding that democracy somehow reduces the risk of civil war, then one should promote policies to increase the level of democracy. The relationship between the level of democracy and the risk of civil war is different from the relationship between the rate of democratization or the process of democratization and civil war. Using a model of prevalence of civil war that combines the onset and continuation of civil war from 1960 to 1999 from a global sample of counties and uses a dynamic transition model of entering into and continuing in a civil war one can test the economic theory of civil war. In doing so, one finds that economic factors – specifically poverty and dependence on natural resources -- are significantly correlated with the onset of civil war.

Sambanis draws the conclusion that democratization is always risky. He then referred to another model that shows the effects of extreme political change and minimum political change where one does not distinguish between democratization and autocratization – one instead sees what kind of influences that political change in general might have. Using this model, Sambanis found that political change is dangerous, but that it drops as the level of democracy increases, regardless of how high the level of political change. "This suggests the finding that democratization in some societies reduces the grievances that might lead to civil war given the conditions for insurgency," Sambanis remarked.

Sambanis then noted that one of the main objectives of further research on this topic and relevant policy work would be to identify which type of inequality is more dangerous for political violence. Is it income inequality? Is it asset inequality? "In El Salvador, for example, asset inequality was one of the major factors that fueled the war, and asset reallocation was a direct consequence of efforts to terminate the war and was one of the reasons that the peace was sustained," Sambanis said. In other civil wars, like the one in Greece, where the communist guerillas' and the monarchist republicans' political grievances were the matter -- and the target was the capture of the state -- the war actually ended in the repression of communism. There was not an attempt to address or redress inequality and yet there was not a recurrence of civil war. "So there could be solutions that prevent the recurrence of civil war that are either democratic or autocratic or somewhere in the middle," Sambanis said. "There is not uniform strategy that can be applied to different environments and there is certainly not strategy that is uniform to targeting inequality in general. Zaire for example, was probably just as unequal a place as it is now but it was much more stable a place under Mobutu when it was clearly autocratic and repressive and when the US was clearly supporting that repression, than after 1989 when support for Zaire ended. The lessons that come out of the literature of civil war management are not necessarily compatible with the lessons that have been suggested with the literature on political development and democratization in general. If the priority is to be given to the establishment of global stability in the short term and the absence of violence, then different strategies have to be followed than if the aim was to provide an environment which there was to be more segments of the population represented."

Professor Sambanis then used a chart that detailed the effectiveness of UN Peace Operations and international assistance measures as a net transfer to the balance of payments and technical assistance -- in the form of conventional peace operations until 1997 -- to give a sense of how different types of peace operations worked in different environments. He explained that a simple theoretical construct suggested that the environment of (or the space for) peace is similar to a triangle in which three sides are represented. One corner of this triangle represents level of local capacities (which is the level of local development); another corner of the triangle represents the level of hostility due to the war; the last corner represents the level of international capacity, which can be defined as the level of assistance to peace operations. The triangle as a whole represents different countries, with the space of this triangle representative of the magnitude of the values of the corners as based on the amount of bilateral or multi-lateral assistance. A country of low hostilities and low capacity takes on a decidedly different geometrical shape than another country with low level of international capacity and a high level of hostility.

The conclusions to be drawn are of great relevance. Most importantly, any intervention designed has to come early; late interventions are always problematic. At the same time it suggests that if inequality is really more important in explaining ethnic conflict then non-ethnic conflict (in which ethnic conflict is dimensionally harder to resolve peacefully and have a lasting settlement), then interventions that target and reduce the kinds of inequality that might mobilize ethnic groups into civil war is a desirable strategy.

Contact: Anita Sharma, Deputy Director, Conflict Prevention Project 202-691-4083