Category Archives: Poverty & conflict

Finally a full stop to the (in)famous greed vs. grievance debate: Lars-Erik Cederman, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch and Halvard Buhaug (2013) Inequality, Grievances, and Civil War, New York: Cambridge UP.


This book will hopefully set an end to the deeply fatigued and flawed debate about Paul Collier’s  and Anke Hoeffler’s claim that grievances do not matter for the outbreak of violent conflicts. Its epistemology is the same as Collier and Hoeffler’s, that is the book is situated in the behaviouralist research paradigm. It therefore can hardly be brushed away as ‘non-scientific’ as it uses exactly those scientising tools that are now so popular in the Journal of Peace Research. We have categories, variables (dependent and independent, of course), causal mechanisms and datasets with a lot of numbers, a nicely constructed research design and pretty proofs of hypotheses (including some francy graphs which are most useful for teaching) . And grievances matter. Full stop. Yeah.

Yet… this book also has everything that makes behaviouralist research so boring: a  lack of critical and reflexive discussion of categories, terms and notions; a superficial, opportunistic and partial reading of sociological, historical and anthropological literature; a couple of sweeping claims which would be almost funny if they weren’t so ideologized western-centric — for instance the claim: “In the new era of national self-determination and popular sovereignty that followed after the American and French revolutions in the late eighteenth century, it become increasingly difficult and costly to conquer territory, let alone to control it against the will of the local population” (pos. 986 in my kindle version) – to say the least, this is a very unusual way of describing the century of empire and colonialism….

And of course the study suffers from the greatest weakness of behaviouralist research, namely findings which are absolutely unsurprising for everyone who knows from zillions of case studies and historical literature that ‘civil wars are not a stupid thing’ as Cramer said so nicely in his book.

What do we learn from this study? If there are objective inequalities in a society and if there are ethno-national cleavages along which these inequalities run, if these inequalities are aptly exploited by the state, for instance by consistently maintaining discriminating and excluding policies, and if the groups can be mobilised through discoursive frames that pitch ethnic groups against each other or against the state, we have a situation with salient grievances. In such a situation there is an increased likelihood of armed and violent conflict. Bam!  What a truly revolutionary insight.

Now, to be fair, within the paradigm of behaviouralist research this book reformulats these insights most astutely and takes refreshingly new approaches to number crunching. It is, hence,  able to set an end to the (in)famous debate over greed vs. grievances by showing that economic fortunes of populations are closely interrelated with their political standing and that this in turn shapes their preparedness for violent politics. It allows for a multi-layered and hence somewhat more complex reconstruction of pathways to rebellion than those that this kind of research had produced before where mountains or oil where identified as causing violent politics. It reintroduces politics into the equation and it tries at least to account for processual developments and change. The latter tentative is inherently limited and restricted by the rigidity of quantitative models – there is simply a point where a category has to be fixed and a time span has to be defined consistently across many cases.

The research also has a take on a couple of questions, which this type of research had, up to now, rarely asked. It formulates ideas and hypotheses about the role of emotions, hence departing from the debilitating rigidity of the rational actor model. Indeed, the authors identify emotions as being the essential ‘jigsaw puzzle piece’ that connects objective grievances with the mobilisation of groups through discursive frames.

It also, and this is really something quite unusual for this kind of research, attempts to conceptualize conflicts as relational process. The authors conceptualize conflict process as conditioned by social relations first by taking into account group dynamics. This goes together with their emphasis on emotions and the consecutive departure from methodological individualism. Here, individuals and potential rebels behave in certain ways because they are members of groups, because others are important: their sympathy, their gaze and their feelings, good or bad.

Second, they conceptualize conflict processes as relational as they formulate a ping-pong of action and reaction between the adversary groups, or between the adversary group and the state or what the authors call “the interactive logic of claims and counterclaims issued by challengers and incumbents” (pos. 1352). The study makes extremely good use of social movements literature and this section in particular relies heavily on Jeff Goodwin’s “No other way out”. Yet, their relational thinking also finds its inherent limitation through the behaviouralist research design in which processes have to be linear and progressive to be measurable in order to avoid endogeity problems or reverse causation.

And so in the end, the study’s analysis does not go much beyond the already existing qualitative literature on grievances and violent conflict. Its central piece, the new data set of ‘Ethnic Power Relations’ offers a tool for bringing about the behaviouralist, measured proofs of what much of the qualitative case studies have already argued before (notably those quoted by the authors like Wood’s case study of El Salvador or Jeff Goodwin’s comparative case studies) and it is, surely, an achievement in itself. The dataset is certainly helpful for studies on power-sharing mechanisms and can serve well for practitioners interested in conflict prevention. It is a fine example of applied science in social science and conflict research.

Yet, in terms of understanding the how and why of conflicts the study still leaves many more questions open than it answers. First, the conflicts identified by the authors are only a small section of all armed conflicts the world has witnessed in the past decades. Notably, a large number of those conflicts which have shocked the world public most like the war in Sierra Leone or Liberia, the conflict in Somalia, large parts of the conflicts in the Congo are not considered. They obviously fit the overall framework as the authors’ focus on ethno-national groups is determined by the fact that they only have data for these groups but not by their framework.

Second, the framework is too general and unspecific to provide insights into the concrete why and how. Where do those elites come from who frame inequalities as grievances? How are these frames transmitted? How does the interaction with other groups interfere with these framing processes? Are framers, mobilizers and fighters a homogenous group or do internal divisions exist and what effect does this have, for instance on radicalization or, on the contrary, pacification? What is the role of layered and clustered identities and how do they affect mobilisation processes? These are just a couple of questions that remain unanswered by this book.

Third, the book suffers like most of this literature from its definitory focus on government-rebel group conflicts. In many social conflicts, the target of the rebellious group is not forcibly the state or the government (the RUF being a case in point as their interest in capturing the state seems to have been relatively low, see Peters).  Nation-state borders and official governments might also be simply irrelevant (blatant cases of non-existing governments like in Somalia for instance) or their involvement might be hardly recognisable in conflicts. Indeed, as Duffield pointed out some time ago in his book “Global Governance and New Wars”, many current conflicts might be better understood as conflicts over different forms of political organisation and community than those traditionally understandable with the nation-state goggles on.

In sum, the book makes an important contribution to the debate within the behaviouralist paradigm as it uses behaviouralist tools to demonstrate some of the conflict processes that have already been well analysed in the qualitative literature. It does not go beyond this as the behaviouralist paradigm does not allow delving into deep with the messy, contradictory, spiralling and irremediably non-linear social processes of conflict. Yet, as hopefully final word on the question whether the importance of grievances can be measured and therefore ‘count’, it has a brilliant place to take. It also reveals a long row of questions that still seek answers but which are unlikely to find them in this kind of quantitative analysis.

Oh, and it certainly desserves a brownie point for being one of the rare studies of this kind which locates the causes of the Croatian war, among others, in the discriminatory policies of the Tudjman regime and the Kraijna Serbs’ reaction to these, and not firstly in Serbian ‘barbarism’.







War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone, by Krijn Peters


With his book “War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone”, Krijn Peters presents an analysis that is exceptional by the materials it presents, intelligent by the way it uses the material and full of marvelous insights about the motivations and reasons why young people would not only take up arms but also commit horrendous atrocities as RUF fighters and others did in the Sierra Leonean war. For this reason alone, Peters’ book is precious and rare in the literature on civil wars, a diamond one would be tempted to say if this book would not make so brutally clear what a curse diamonds and its economy have been for Sierre Leone.

The book is a major contribution to research on armed conflict and most particularly on child soldiering as Peters manages to carve out the motivations of the combatants for joining and staying with the RUF. He reconstructs the internal organisation of this movement which has remained rather obscure and been subject to quite some phantasms, and he has found sensible explanations for the atrocities committed by RUF rebels, mainly in the second half of the 1990s. With this work that builds on former publications (some with Paul Richards) Peters successfully debunks the myth of a disemparaged youth run wild. He replaces it with a differentiated, fine grained and sensitive portrait of the mainly rural underclass of Sierra Leonean society that was surely out to take its revenge for the injustice and (violent) exploitation it had experienced before but which also pursued a project of a better society as any respectable revolutionary movement. Such a perceptive analysis is rare in war studies and particularly when it comes to organisations like the RUF which have made headlines for their brutal violence. Peters painstakingly pieces together interviews on a large range of topics.

The analysts of wars in Africa who actually go and talk to those who fought the war are few. There are a number of reasons for this: ongoing wars are particularly unpleasant fields of research, not only for the dangers they represent but also for the logistic and communicative difficulties of these environments: people engaged in armed combat are likely to have other things on their mind than talking to academics; the discussions one can have in war will most probably be fully subjected to the emotional and intellectual exceptionality of wars and might therefore not give further insights into the larger picture.

Krijn Peters is well aware of all these difficulties and the materials he collected as well as his presentation reflect the tremendous care he has taken to deal with the fallacies of doing research in these situations. Just like Mats Utas argues in his marvelous “Sweet Battlefields“, he contends that standard interviews or polls will not lead very far with these young people (Mats Utas admits that his method was “deep hanging out” with the ex-fighters and that this was a much better, complete and honest information source than the over 100 hours of formal interviews he did with youngsters in a demobilisation programme). The former combattants are far too experienced in delivering standard narratives to curious folks whether from NGOs, state agencies, media or academia. They also might have personal, psychological and reputational interests in not presenting their own story but what they assume others want to hear; Peters and Utas make this point particularly clear for the question of abduction. Although abducted, many young people might have, or actually, have chosen to stay with the armed groups they fell prey to. Whether this is the effect of brainwashing, of the Stockholm syndrome or the not unlikely discovery that, in the end, the abductees found something genuine positive in their new roles is something only careful interviewing over a long period of time can tell. Representativity of the the interview sample is, in this case, less important than getting into deep with the former combattants and just like Utas, Peters chose to follow “his” informants over a longer period of time in order to peel off the upper superficial layers of standard narratives and discourses. He nevertheless keeps his critical distance, true to his initial statement that “empathy does not mean sympathy”.

The care he has taken to choose his interview partners, to follow them over a longer period and especially to come back in well paced intervalls shows in the wealth of insights he produces from these sources. He is thus able to correct a number of received ideas about rebels and child soldiers in general and the fighters of the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in particular. With respect to recruitment, he makes a plausible case that the RUF mainly recruited from rural poor, and here from the lowest social stratum, namely young men (mainly) who lacked patronage networks to protect them from exploitation in villages or mining areas: orphans, “foreigners”, descendants from former house slaves and similar social groups. He explains internal cohesion of the movement partly with this common origin and the replacement of a hierarchical, class-based and gerontocratic social structure of the Sierra Leonean countryside by a meritocratic one in the rebel movement. In the RUF recruits could gain position and respect through their fighting; even if not spellt out in sophisticated and intellectual-theoretical terms such a “base socialism” provided important ideological ferment for the RUF. Ideology also translated into praxis with the creation of communal farms and the communal organisation of mining. Peters thus amasses evidence against a common thesis that movements like the RUF was void of political vision, just as he makes plainly clear that material incentives played overall a minor role in the motivation of the fighters, in the origins of the rebellion and in its internal organisation. For those used to the standard narrative of a “lumpen youth” (as Abdullah calls them) run wild, Peters conclusion will come as a surprise that “the movement had a set of rules and regulations and a guiding ideology which it sought to instil in its fighters during their training period”.

In the fifth chapter Peters actually provides a deep analysis of the causes for the atrocious violence deployed by, and this is an important qualification of his study, some RUF fighters and some points in time during the 12-year war and in some places. In previous chapters, Peters had explained at length the decentralized “cell” character of the movement which made consistent organisational training, monitoring and control extremely difficult, particularly during the “bush” years. This may account for the lack of discipline within the RUF but does not yet explain the actrocities committed (note that any war is brutal, the particularity here being the “specialisation” in certain types of violence like the amputation for which the RUF had gained its image as new barbarians in the onwatching world). Peters advances two sets of reasons and causes for the violence of the RUF: external influences and internal organisational dysfunctions. Among the external influences he notes that many of the atrocities committed in the early stage of war were so by Liberian fighters. This early stage settled the reputation of the RUF and the brutal repression of the rebellion by the army  (although ineffective) seem to have distanced the RUF from its natural constituency, hence, making violent antagonism between the RUF and villages escalate. Peters argues that this led to a strong paranoia among the RUF which was carried on into later phases of war and became particularly virulent in the phase after 1997 when the RUF took the bushes again. Internally, two organisational features supported the development of such paranoia and reinforced the key role particularly violent individuals could play. The RUF was organised in cells with flat hierarchies; in the beginnings, there were ony two military ranks and platoons were small. In this jungle guerilla warfare, paranoic suspicion towards civilians was actually an assett as it contributed to the group’s safety. With the rise and success of self-defense militias which would hunt down the RUF in the jungle, this paranoia became reinforced and was not mediated by a larger command or organisational movement. The second effect of this guerrilla organisation was that particularly “wicked”, i.e. violent individuals were not only difficult to control and punish for their behaviour, their aggressiveness might even be useful for the protection of the individual RUF platoons and therefore go unpunished despite the movement having a set of rules that prohibit unnecessary violence, rape and looting.

It is a pity that Peters does not engage with any of the theories of violence currently en vogue. Weinstein’s binomic and path-dependent distinction between low resource movements, who would engage in ideological training rather than loot and indiscriminate violence, from high resource organisations which will maintain adherence of fighters through lucrative material booty, does not fit at all to Peters’ descriptions. Kalyvas’ argument that indiscriminate violence will increase if territorial control, information and the loyalty of the population are contested fits Peters’ account much better. Yet, just as Elliott’s study of the Vietcong/Vietminh shows neither the material nor strategic or ideological position of these groups can fully explain how and which form of violence they employed. It appears from these two studies rather that the dynamics of violence in civil wars is also strongly determined by inner-organisational developments. For further research this is probably the most important conclusion from Peters book.

With respect to child or young soldiers, Peters book introduces also an important observation that is all too often missing from other accounts on child soldiering, namely that child soldiering is more frequent and more likely to happen if the youth that is recruited into the rebel movement had been already widely marginalised before; and that these young men take mature and responsible decisions despite their age. The latter leads us to having to rethink our understanding of childhood and youth as times of irresponsibility and immaturity. Rather, these young people have to be considered and their actions have to be analyzed within the social tissue of which they are part.



It’s not the weather, it’s politics! Mike Davis’ “Late Victorian Holocausts” revisited.


Hsiang’s, Meng’s and Cane’s pompous chatter about El Niño and conflict made me want to read again one of those books they would certainly count among the “anecdotical” accounts: Mike Davis’ “Late Victorian Holocausts”. Far from being anecdotical this is an excellent, extremely well researched and documented historical study of the mismanagement of major droughts and floods in the 19th century India and China, colonies of the British Empire, and in Brazil, equally dependent on Great-Britain at that time, and the complex reasons that led to the probably biggest humanitarian disaster in the 19th century. The droughts and floods were caused by El Niño, all right, but the ensuing famines and hecatombs (Davis speaks of estimates between 12.2 and 29.3 Million for the two Indian famines of 1876-1879 and 1896-1902 alone) were caused by something rather different, much more complex and far more political than the weather: racist mismanagement, imperial arrogance, liberal free market ideologies, colonial interferences in local property rights, agriculture and rural production structures, administrative incompetence, “modernization” and its destruction of traditional patterns of solidarity and inter-communal help, abolishment of the state capacity in India and China where famines had been successfully prevented before…

It well takes the book’s 464 pages to expose the complex path from meteorological misfortunes to widespread famine and death. Yet, the core argument remains simple enough: Climatic vulnerability had always existed in those lands where the famines appeared in the late 19th century; however, it is only when weather hazards combine with the complete remodelling of the political and economic structures of these countries in the wake of their forced and violent “integration” into the world (or more precisely European and American) market that disastruous famines like these wiped out millions of people.

Three major effects of imperialism account for the heavy toll El Niño took in those years, as Davis painstakingly sets out in the third section of his book. “First, the forcible incorporation of smallholder production into commodity and financial circuits controlled from overseas tended to undermine traditional food security” (p. 289), “Second, the integration of millions of tropical cultivators into the world market during the late nineteenth century was accompanied by a dramatic deterioration in their terms of trade” (p. 290); “Third, formal and informal Victorian imperialism, backed up by the supernational automatism of the Gold Standard, confiscated local fiscal autonomy and impeded state-level developmental responses – especially investments in water conservancy and irrigation – that might have reduced vulnerability to climate shocks.” (p. 290).

Through a combination of military force and financial pressures agricultural production in these countries was redirected towards exports at the cost of local food security. Local governments (whether the provinces were under direct or indirect rule) were severed from own resources and capacities to undertake relief measures when disaster stroke. Davis tellingly compares the lack of response to the late 19th century famines with the relief campaign of the Qing Dynasty Governor-General Fang Guanchang who had established graneries all over the province of Zhili in Northern China and successfully combated a threatening famine after severe droughts in 1743-1744, shattering by the way common assumptions about the incapable and passive Chinese Qing state (see for more on Fang Guanchang and famine relief in imperial China, Liliane M. Li “Fighting Famine in North China”). Furthermore, as Davis points out in the gruesome first chapter of his book (which can be read online here:, a hideous melange of free market ideology (no state intervention!) and colonial racism offered convenient excuses for the colonial masters to do as little as possible for relief and to do the little they did as cynically and brutally as only those can do who do not consider people of other skin as humans. Nowhere is the obscenity of British imperial contempt more palpable than in Davis’ comparison of daily calorie rations distributed by the British in Indian “work-for-food” camps (where the starving were forced to heavy coolie labour) with the higher caloric value of food rations in Buchenwald (p. 39).

Davis is first of all interested in analysing the complex interworking of the three factors mentioned above but he does mention again and again how all these features that led to these enormous famines had already before created hardship and provoked armed rebellions such as the Taiping Rebellion, the Great Mutiny or the Boxer rebellion. In the context of analysing causes and reason for political violence, Davis’ comprehensive outline of the destruction the “world market” (which, again, was actually the British or other colonial motherland’s market) brought to India’s, China’s and Brazil’s economy and states points to three major issues that need consideration.

First, rather than poverty as such conflict analysis needs to consider the income land can generate for rural poor. This depends not solely on the productivity of land but also, and particularly in times of crisis, on external circumstances such as tax regimes, world food prices, food security capacities (e.g. irrigation and graneries) and rural finances, notably in terms of cash liquidity to come through times of failing harvests. Long before droughts or floods ruin harvests and income, peasants had fallen victim to vicicous circles of debt, forcing them out of the land or into cash crop production that seriously endangered their subsistence. Similarily, taxes need to be analysed whether they serve to support poor underclasses in times of crisis or, on the contrary, squeeze them to death.

Second, intimately linked but analytically an issue of its own, property rights and usage rights have to be carefully analysed to understand how, in the long term, poverty and exploitation are produced (or abolished). The greatest “innovation” brought by colonialism in the 19th century was the introduction of private property and the transformation of communal, shared land and other property forms into private property claims with the often accompanying dispossession of those who had before born the fruit of land usage. Far from being always the product of explicit violence or laws, dispossession has indeed taken a large variety of financial, economic and political forms.

Third, Davis’ fine analysis of market liberal discourses and “modernization” points to the urgent need of self-reflexive caution when it comes to analysing political and social conflict and struggle in strange societies. The currently so fashionable homo oeconomicus paradigm of conflict analysis (the famous rational utility-maximizing individual), a borrowing from liberal economics, often sprinkled with good doses of neo-Malthusianism, is entirely inappropriate in the light of the complex structural and relational dynamics through which 19th century imperialism has created those Victorian genocides. All the features of the 19th century liberalism are still well alive in global mainstream development politics, from the aversion against state intervention to the unbelievably efficient remodeling, through development assistance, peacebuilding and so-called statebuilding, of local economies to magically fit the business interests of Western and Northern economies rather than local needs.