Category Archives: Numbercrunching

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’.







The Stapel Affair and the malaise of social sciences


So, the Netherlands and the discipline of Social Psychology have their big fraud affair! For years Diederick Stapel had been inventing data and publishing like hell in peer-reviewed journals until three rather courageous junior colleagues finally managed to alert the University that something was fishy…The University of Tilburg investigated the case and came to the conclusion that this case not only revealed individual misbehaviour but also major dysfunctions of the academic field of social psychology.

I think that other social sciences would do well to keep their “Schadenfreude” deep inside, read chapter 5 of the report and rather have seriously critical look at practices in their own respective fields. Many of the weaknesses the  Tilburg committee had identified for the Stapel’s case can be found generally throughout social sciences, even though not in this extreme form. It is the very nature of a good scandal that  it is about extreme, exceptional acts. Yet,the outright fraudelent papers are only part of Stapel’s “oeuvre”, the much larger part of his publications were found too be simply characteristic of “sloppy science” as the report says. This sloppiness has reasons and these are pretty much the same as for other cases of fraud and imposture: fast reputation, fast money and telling the world what the world wants to hear. Stapel’s confessions are sympathetic in this respect: “I have created a world in which almost nothing ever went wrong, and everything was an understandable success. The world was perfect: exactly as expected, predicted, dreamed. In a strange, naive way I thought I was doing everybody a favor with this. That I was helping people. …”

Wanting to do good, dreaming up a world and reaping the benefits of a place in the spotlight are a poisenous mixture for any scientist. In much of the social sciences and academia generally being convinced of one’s own intelligence, intellectual beauty and importance is actually a quite essential quality to survive the shark’s bassin of competitors over grants, posts, and honours. Being shown around as a poster child among the powerful, and even if this happens only in a very small and secluded circle of let’s say “the development experts” or “the NGO advisors”, easily gets to the head of quite a lot of people. In an international studies conference, one will have more difficulties numbering out the colleagues who do not suffer from occasional fits of megalomania than counting those who are humble, devoted and reserved about their achievements. The latter happen to be also those who receive less prizes, are less promoted and who would committ such follies as not applying for a new grant facility for the simply reason that it is not in their habitual area of research… in short, those colleagues who are less visible, quieter and, hence, often considered as less succesful than their brawling, boasting and, eventually, overbearing colleagues. Yet, it also happens that their research is often much more thorough, detailled, painstaking, “data scratching” rather than “data crunching” and that their theoretical reflections as well as conclusions are hesitant, careful, obssessed with the specificities of their cases and, to put it in a nutshell, utterly “unsexy”. They refuse to be squeezed into two-word headlines and to be summarized in 300 word abstracts. Annoying, indeed. And disadvantaged in comparison to the loud researchers who have no problems to wash away cumbersome complexities of the social world in order to replace them with catchy labels and categories which show “impact” and “larger audience” qualities.

There are many complaints and since long that the peer-review system is not working well and indeed the main malaise of the academic world remains the overbearing influence of “peers”. The Tilburg Report  states: “In the case of the fraud committed by Mr Stapel, the critical function of science has failed on all levels. Fundamental principles of scientific method have been ignored, or set aside as irrelevant.” (p. 54) and they say this not only with respect to the invented data but also with respect to other papers which display “sloppiness”. This sloppiness concerns numerous statistical flaws, misleading or missing information on the research procedures or manipulating the data in a way that it shows the desired results (for instance omitting variables, “shaving” off outliers to enhance significance etc.). The committee is appalled that these errors, omissions, mistakes and flaws have not been detected and denounced by colleagues, journal reviewers, editors or simply attentive readers.

When talking about conflict studies, let’s examine for instance those econometric methods which are so en vogue. Of course, there is not any study that committs uses fabricated data as Stapel did. Yet, there is a lot of sloppiness and complacent in-circle reasoning that lets slip more than one dubious hypothesis and finding through the net of critical examination. Much of this is due to the relatively great institutional power and visibility this research area has gained in recent decades, among others by advising international bodies and national development agencies on questions of development aid and security, the infamous “greed hypothesis” which I will discuss later being a case in point. At any given international studies conference of the past years, there will be easily three numbercrunchers for one qualitative working social scientist and at least five colleagues using some kind of decision making model based on rational choice for every one colleague having talked or at least listened to people in armed conflict (you do not always have to talk to them yourself as I will discuss further below). Econometric methods clout their analyses in the aura of natural science preciseness and objectivity, and usually strictly avoid discussing any of their assumptions, methods or findings in a reflective and critical way.

What is particularly fascinating about the numbercrunching colleagues is that they tend to use all the same data despite loud and recurrent criticism. It is for instance entirely normal to teach a critical understanding of GDP figures in any high school economics class; but it is still rare that econometrists working on conflicts and poverty will critically discuss the explanatory value of GDP figures. They are simply used as “proxy” for economic performance no matter if we can have major doubts that GDP actually tells us something about national economies or not, or if they, indeed, available in sufficient quality for those countries we are interested in when investigating civil wars in the past two decades. If GDP figures are not available in good quality, other indicators which are derived from GDP are not so either. And yet, Gini coefficients are for instance widely used particularly in those studies which aim at proving that there is a direct relationship between poverty and violence like the infamous “Greed vs. Grievance Study” of Paul Collier, at the time adivsor to the World Bank, and Anke Hoeffler, at the time junior scientist in Collier’s team at Oxford (so far for the glamour of research).  Taking the same data set as used in the Collier and Hoeffler Study of 2004[1] , it was only possible to identify Gini coefficients of good quality[2]for four out of the 79 cases. Crucially, the entire hypothesis that grievances do not play a major role in civil war outbreaks hinges upon the argument that inequality, measured by the proxy of the Gini coffefficient, had no significant positive correlation with war outbreak.

How much critique does it need to invalidate an analysis and is this dependent on the author’s status? It needs masses and the more popular the author is the less likely is it that sharp critique will be heard. Nicolas Sambanis and Harvard Hegre for instance, both by no means big critics of numbercrunching, showed in their article on civil wars and the PRIO dataset that slight changes to the coding of civil wars already had a major impact on the results. This critique was published; Sambanis’ very long detailled discussion of every single proxy used by Collier and Hoeffler, and how it NOT contributes to our analysis of war is only available as working paper on his webpage. As another colleague said in 2011 “It took over 10 years argument to get over Collier’s and Hoeffler’s greed hypothesis; they have diverted much needed attention and energy from the study of civil wars”.

Sambanis discussion of proxies also points to the observation that many studies contain already major flaws in their very conception not only in the data they use or the statistical methods they employ. An extraordinary example of such studies can be found in Macartan Humphrey’s and Jeremy Weinstein’s work. Methodologically their work is certainly absolutely flawless and the way they put their data at disposition for replication is extremely laudable. Yet, the very conception of some of their studies are, to say the least, astonishing. For their survey of ex-fighters in Sierra Leone which was published in 2008 undert the title “Who fights?”, the authors had interviewed members of the Sierra Leonean RUF and Self defence units who were being demobilised. The survey produced a wide array of interesting data on the origins of these fighters and contained also a large section that sought to explore their motives of taking up arms…and it is here where a look at the original questionnaire makes the critical mind wonder.

Both authors indicate that their interviewees were commonly at the beginning of their twenties at the time of their interview. They were also in the large majority of rural background. Most of them had merely finished elementary schooling before joining their respective combat unit. One of the questions to assess their political awareness asks: “Which political party or group did you support before the conflict began?”. What seems to be a question that is perfectly fine when asked in the run-up to the US presidential elections becomes extremely irrealistic when asked Sierra Leoneans who were at the outbreak of the war, 12 years earlier, around 10-13, who lived in large isolation of the capital city where party politics took place and who, as the findings of their own survey, were barely literate.

Further down, Weinstein and Humphreys ask in several questions for the motives of joining the warring factions. At each question the choice of answers that indicate material motives outnumber other choices. Answers indicating material incentives are explicit and concrete; answers indicating political goals are worded in very abstract and cloudy sentences. For instance: “What did the group tell you you would gain from joining?” with the choice of answers “1. Money, 2. Diamonds, 3. Women/ Men, 4. Food, 5. A Job, 6. Land, 7. A way to improve the situation in Sierra Leone, 8. That my family would be protected, 9. A possibility to get revenge, 10. other” … the ex-fighters would have needed to be fine ideologists to answer 7 above all and alone. There are other startling examples in the questionnaire which tell a lot about the authors’ preconceived ideas and how the questionnaire was streamlined to produce the inevitable result that political motives were irrelevant as compared to material motives; a conclusion that so shortly after the war and at the moment where there was the large international support for the conservative-liberal President Kabbah was exactly what the UN and other international donors wanted to hear…

Both authors are very transparent about the data and the statistical methods they use (although I cannot find the link to the questionnaire anymore…). To mention them in a blog post that starts with a link to a ousted fraudster seems extremely unfair. Yet, my aim is to push the nail of sloppiness in social sciences further in. It is actually not sloppiness but more or less conscious complacency and power schmoozing that is at the heart of the matter. In some quarters Humphreys and Weinstein’s work has been hailed as being brilliant because they would be the first to have asked fighters why they fight…a statement that ignores all the detailed and on-the-ground work that had been done before but which, unfortunately, had come to conclusions that neither pleased the UN nor Western donor agencies (for instance Paul Richards “Fighting for the rainforest” and Krijn Peters earlier publications of the research of his book). The statistics additionally give these findings the aura of the “scientific” and the “objective”, hence providing a legitimation for the results that is rather based on the reader’s (willing) ignorance of the arbitrariness of survey methods. Such ignorance has a reason and that is that not only authors sometimes only like to publish what they like but readers too only like to read what they think they know already.

The formation of cliques, schools of thought, chapels and sects and their grip to institutional power in the form of university chairs, tenure committees, professional association committees, editorial boards of journals and lucrative advisor jobs for government and IOs has yet to be broken. What the Stapel Affair so brillantly shows is that whoever has gained the admiration and confidence of those illustre circles can go very far in writing whatever pleases and confirms received ideas. Critical voices are not only less published ; they are also less sollicited by those who confer external legitimacy to fashionable research, namely government agencies, international organisations etc. It is not only the scientific community that needs to rethink the way it pushes “likeable” papers and suppresses the annoying ones (a review of mine that contained the above criticism and more was rejected by one journal reviewer in one single paragraph which quintessentially said “this is too critical, I don’t like it”, an experience other critics of these approaches above know all too well). Those at who this research is addressed have to rethink, too, if they prefer to read what they know and think already or if they want thoroughly researched, alas uncomfortable truths that eventually could lead to real policy change.


[1] Klaus Deininger and Lyn Squire, “A New Data Set Measuring Income Inequality”, World Bank Economic Review 10 (1996): 565-591.

[2] Deininger and Squire distinguish the quality of their data according to the reliability of their sources; acceptable quality means that the income surveys on which the calculations of the Gini coefficient are based cover the entire national territory and are representative of the populations’ income. In most of the cases here where the quality was not acceptable the weakness was that survey data did not cover the whole national territory.


Counting ethnic groups…


… seems in many respects an unhelpful way to start thinking about ethnic conflict and, yet, if we want to gain some clarity about the conditions of ethnic escalations a large cross-country comparison still seems a necessary step. Indeed, there are some, although very few intelligent analyses of ethnic conflict that use quantitative data. Yet, the main problem remains that in order to count ethnic groups we have to assume that these groups exist with clear boundaries, a thick homogeneity within and clear distinctions without. We also assume that in multi-ethnic societies, the ethnic cleavages are the most important cleavages, for whatever reason, and that they, per se, generating conflict. In short, we reify ethnic groups and conflicts — which is, to say it again, a risky and epistemologically dubious enterprise.

However, much of the quantitative research on ethnic conflict cannot avoid assuming reified groups in order to have individual, distinct datapoints. Such analysis can make sense if a conflict already exists and the works of Nils B. Weidmann, Jan Ketil Rød and Lars-Erik Cederman or Andreas Wimmer, Lars-Erik Cederman and Brian Min shows how to make intelligent use of such datasets on the background of careful relational, sociological analyses of ethnicity and ethnification processes (see particularly Andreas Wimmer‘s work).  A number of data projects have developed the dataset on the basis of the Atlas Narodov Mira, an ethnographic atlas, picturing ethnic boundaries across the world. The atlas was established by Soviet geographers and ethnologists in the 1960s. On which grounds, with which sources, with which criteria … all this remains obscure. These methodological problems have often been noted, however, this has not kept researchers from using the Atlas as source for databases on ethnic groups (quite often by the same who have criticized the lack of methodology). This weakness is quite striking and even to some point ludicrulous given the claim of statistic analysis to provide objective analyses with a high certainty. The common aura of statistics is that what is countable is “true”….even if the apples that are counted might be the pure invention of a hungry mind.

This obscurity of the original data source was all the more annoying for the academic community as the Atlas Narodov Mira is difficult to come by. But now, the worldmap project of the University of Harvard, provides a digital map of the Atlas Narodov. Even though the access to the map is not really what one could call user-friendly, it allows having a closer look at the ethnic divisions the Atlas notes and to compare these with other data on ethnicity. And here the trouble starts: the project has decided to render the maps without legend. So it remains entirely unclear which groups are counted as what. For instance, the Southern China border with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar shows the miniscule patchwork structure that anyone who knows the region would expect. But then, it is totally unclear whether for instance the Mao (in China) and Mhong (in Vietnam) are counted as one and the same group (as some claim them to be) or as different groups, and if so as how many and different in which respect? If one wants to do comparative quantitative analyses of ethnicity and conflict…for instance in order to introduce a dynamic view of ethnic constructions….then this person would be ill served by the digital map and, most probably, its source the Atlas Narodov Mira. But probably that is the merit of this project: it shows the poverty of the data source and draws attention to the necessity of a much more serious, honest and critical discussion on the methods of conflict analysis.


The deadends of counting the dead


In his article “The Libyan Model?” Vijay Prashad points out that there has not been yet a forensic mission to Libya, counting the dead before UN Security Council resolution 1973 or after in order to assess if the humanitarian intervention was really humanitarian. This lack of serious counting of the dead is not an exception and any account of dead in armed conflicts remains fiercly disputed. In some cases like the wars in Sierra Leone estimates vary enourmously, ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 (similarly the numbers put forward for the IDPs in Sierra Leone vary from 250,000 to 4.5 Million, the latter meaning that almost all of the country’s population was displaced).

In Congo, the estimates even vary in numbers of millions, with the International Rescue Committee advancing 5.4 million dead while the Human Security Report of 2009 contended that “only” 3.9 million people died (a summary of the debate can be found here). In those conflicts were forensic missions have been deployed, they sometimes have found much lower numbers than those put forward during the conflict by policy makers and observers in NGOs, think tanks or media. In the case of the war in Bosnia, the figure of 250,000 dead circulated for a long time until it was corrected to be rather around 100,000 in 2005 (see notably the works of Ewa Tabeau and others).

Much of the confusion in accounting for the dead derive from the varying methodologies and the conflation of numbers of battle casualties with civilian deaths (see Adam Roberts on this) and in this latter category the conflation of civilians killed in military actions and “war-related” deaths which may include death by diseases, malnourishment or psychological trauma, whether induced by exposure to violence or by the consequences fighting had generally on the lives of people through economic breakdown, expulsion and flight, breakdown of essential infrastructures etc. Counting the dead is by itself an extremely difficult exercise, so does it really matter?

As the Congo disaster neatly shows, the real problem is that numbers actually do not really matter in the decision whether to intervene or not. Rather they appear to be tools in the political battles over the question if an intervention is justified or not. At the times of the Kosovo war, Tony Blair heralded a new age of humanitarian intervention with reference to 2000 Albanians reportedley killed; in Congo we are talking of millions and in Darfur of hundreds of thousands killed. When it arranged the US Department of State under Colin Powell, they swiftly produced the “Atrocities Documentation Survey” in 2004, which, the authors, mainly lawyers of the Coalition for International Justice, claimed to be based on “hard” statistic facts. Subsequently, Powell declared that the situation was well to be called a genocide, yet that this would not change US policy in Darfur. When Colin Powell was replaced by Condoleeza Rice, the State Department changed the assessment team, the assessor’s expertise (public health instead of law) and, surprise, found a much lower number of deaths, leading to the conclusion that the situation could not be labelled genocidal (see for a full account the excellent article by Ron Levi and John Hagan: Lawyers, humanitarian emergencies and the politics of large numbers in Dezalay/Garth 2012: Lawyers and the Construction of Transnational Justice, p. 13-47).

This came in handy as the Bush administration had to fight back extremely high, some would even say genocidal estimates of war deaths in Iraq. Yet, the debate over how many people died subsequently to the military invasion of Iraq has not yielded any slightest change in policy, even though the WHO estimate of 104,00 to 223,000 is appalling enough. All these number games only show that minimum conditions of just war, mass atrocities on the one hand, and the criteria of commensurability of means, are simply irrelevant in the decision making for or against interventions. What seems much more important is the political bartering over military interventions and this can or cannot be based on reliable or unreliable figures.

However, if carefully analysed and cautiously contextualized, those figures and their debates are extremely relevant for our understanding of conflicts. First of all, they demonstrate (of course, one wants to add) how widespread and generalized armed fighting is and the stretch of the social capillaries affected by armed combat. Second, it can give an indication of the social groups affected, the geographic areas and of other characteristics of fighting groups. It is here where careful contextualization is, however, extremely important in order to avoid biased (hence, conflict reproducing) accounts of what happened. Third, as Guha-Saphir and van Panhuis pointed out almost 10 years ago, they can tell a lot about the state of the population’s health before the conflict, which is in turn an important indicator of conflict causes.

If it is not for a thorough examination of world power politics, then it is at least for the sake of research that thorough forensic missions to war zones should be undertaken.

As an example of diverging numbers, I have summarized below the numbers found for the conflict in Sierra Leone:

Death count Distinction combatant/ non-combatant? Displaced/refugees Secondary source Primary source
50000 No Half of population Nnadozie, Emmanuel/ Abdulmelik, Siham, 2009, The role of te private sector in Sierra Leone’s post-conflict reconstruction efforts, in Besada, Hany, From Civil Strife to Peace Building: Examinig Private Sector Involvement in West African Reconstruction, Waterloo, CA, Wilfrid Laurier U.P., p. 146
20,000 No Half of the population Douglas, Ian, Fighting for diamonds, in Cilliers, J., P. Mason, et al. (1999) Peace, profit or plunder? : the privatisation of security in war-torn African societies, Halfway House, South Africa, Institute for Security Studies. p. 175
75,000 No Half of the population refugees, 4.5 Million displaced (adds up to more than the population in 1990) The heart of the matter report, p. 8
No 1999: 600,000 in neighbouring countries; 2/3 displaced inside Reno, William. 2003. Political Networks in a Failing State. The Roots and Future of Violent Conflict in Sierra Leone. Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft(2).
50000 to 75000 No Half of the population Mateos, Oscar, Beyond greed and grievance, in Bowd, R., A. B. Chikwanha-Dzenga, et al. (2010) Understanding Africa’s contemporary conflicts : origins, challenges and peacebuilding, Pretoria, Institute for Security Studies. “some UN agencies”





Was there a war in Iraq? Aaaaah, well, yes, no, uhm, dunno….


Was there a war in Iraq? John Tirman asks in the Huffington Post. Yes, “there was a war, started by the United States, pursued in violation of international law, and resulting in the deaths and displacement of more people than virtually anyone cares to acknowledge. If it’s not mentioned, it just might not have happened, at least for those who urged it on” he pursues in his paper after having looked at many different ways the US public and pundits are trying to forget already what has happened in Iraq. Just another way of forgetting is to endogeneize the fighting in Iraq by presenting it as just again an episode of an ancient struggle between ethnic or religious groups that has just been provisionaly buckled down by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The explanatory pattern is strikingly similar to the one used for the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, in Congo and other places: ancient conflicts which existed since the age of time and which a brutal, dictatorial regime stopped only through force, hence, making them briddle up once that brutal regime is gone.

John Tirman asks why there is this forgetting…and yet, the answer is obvious. By presenting these wars as internal affairs, the barbarian equivalent to the pub brawl of some aborigines in a far away country, responsibility of global and third actors is denied. This endogenization and denial are among others reflected in the data sets used in many quantitative studies. The Correlates of War project lists Iraq once in its Inter-state war set as inter-state conflict “Invasion” in 2003, and once in its “Extra-state war” data set for 2004…and that’s it. Otherwise no Americans, British or others seem to have been involved in any fighting in Iraq (or Afghanistan for that matter) — or at least not to the point to make into the COW dataset.

The PRIO dataset is somewhat clearer here as it lists the United States, alongside the other states of the coalition, as “side A 2nd” next to Iraq (side A) versus diverse groups on side B, and this from 2004 on. This still does not fully account for the particular responsibility of the United States in this mess but it does, at least, point to them and their allies as participating in an armed conflict although the main conflict is seen to be between the government of Iraq and rebel groups (Interestingly, Iran is not mentioned as being “side B 2nd”…). The US responsibility is nicely dilluted in the mass of countries appearing to be participating as secondaries. Yes, there was a war but the US was somehow but maybe not really or just a little involved….



It’s the weather, stupid! Hsiang, Meng and Cane on El Niño and conflict in “Nature”


Since a decade or so, large-N studies on the causes of war have appeared everywhere. They have this pretention of certainty around them, making believe that we could analyse wars like epidemics and find the cures through so-called “scientific” methods. But, well, yes,  uhm, hm, they might prove things but they are still a far cry from explaining anything as this recent high-profile publication shows.

One common claim of large-N studies is that their evidence goes beyond “anecdotical evidence” by which they obviously mean case studies, historical studies and other qualitative “stories”.  Solomon M. Hsiang’s, Kyle C. Meng’s and Mark A. Cane’s paper in the November 2011 “Nature” (online August 2011) are no exception to the rule. In their eye-catching article, the authors claim to provide a systematic evidence that changes in climate provide a higher risk of armed conflict. Their prove is a significant correlation of what they call “Armed Conflict Risk” with incidences of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) affecting local weather. Yet, as commonly the case with over-aggregated, large-N studies the authors are incapable of offering an explanation for this phenomenon beyond highly speculative guesswork. So, their final concluding call is for more detailed, in-depth studies on how ENSO affects local conditions as to heighten the risk of war…to the anecdotes, isn’t it?

This paper epitomizes the fundamental problems of overaggregated, large-N studies. They look extremely sleek and fancy with their large data, colourful tables and complicated statistics but if someone would like to know more about the causes of armed conflict she will not receive an answer. At a closer look, when the glitter comes of, a number of serious questions arise over the methodology, the ontology of conflict and the political implications of such type of research. And most importantly, there remains a shallow taste of disappointment as we do not learn very much we haven’t known already from other studies, usually those diffamated as “anecdotical”.

If we look at the methodology – the alleged strong point of the essay – we can examine a bit closer the claim that the results reflect a global approach to the question whether weather and climate affect civil war risks. The authors argue that they can capture the global effect by grouping all countries over the world which are affected by ENSO climate changes. ENSO spreads indeed all over the world through so-called teleconnections. Yet, in order to construct one group of ENSO affected countries, we need to assume that these countries are affected by it in the same manner, for instance that it creates in all countries a particularly dry weather. However, this is not the case. There seems to be general agreement that teleconnections are non-linear and that El Niño-Southern Oscillation does not affect all regions in the same way.

Whereas in some regions ENSO creates a particularly dry and warm weather, other regions see a rise in precipitations and cold air. If the effects of ENSO on local weather is different in different parts of the world, then it becomes very unclear how we can compare these regions with each other beyond simply saying that their weather changes but it does not do so in the same way, so in the end we cannot know if it is the dry weather (droughts) or the rain (floods) that affect the countries in question (see for instance: Hoerling, Martin P., Arun Kumar, Min Zhong, 1997: El Niño, La Niña, and the Nonlinearity of Their Teleconnections. J. Climate, 10, 1769–1786.doi:<1769:ENOLNA>2.0.CO;2; Vera, Carolina, Gabriel Silvestri, Vicente Barros, Andrea Carril, 2004: Differences in El Niño Response over the Southern Hemisphere. J. Climate, 17, 1741–1753. doi:<1741:DIENRO>2.0.CO;2) . The analysis also does not adequately summarize the many possible differently interacting variables, at least not in this research where different effects of ENSO are lumped together in one group.

This is, of course, not very reassuring as to understanding what actually happens when particularly dry or particularly wet weather hit a country. The authors are, indeed, entirely at loss when they need to twist the correlation into an explanation. The authors present, in fact, a joly shopping list of possible causal mechanism (I absoluteley do not like the term “causal mechanism” as human society does not work like a machine but for the sake of simplicity I will use it here.) In their own words (p. 440):

  • “Generalizing our results to global climate changes other than ENSO will require an understanding of the mechanisms that link conflict to climate. ENSO has a proximate influence on a variety of climatological variables, each of which may plausibly influence how conflict-prone a society is. Precipitation, temperature, sunlight, humidity and ecological extremes can adversely influence both agrarian and non-agrarian economies.” Right! So, ENSO influences potato chip and micro-chip production in the same way? And with the same effects? How very interesting…
  • “In addition, ENSO variations affect natural disasters, such as tropical cyclones, and trigger disease outbreaks.” Well, well, and I always thought that diseases are caused by bacteries and viruses…
  • “All of these have adverse economic effects, such as loss of income or increasing food prices…” Which only matters if you spend more than 2/3 of your income on food and not on your iPhone or Gucci bag…
  • “Furthermore, altered environmental conditions stress the human psyche, sometimes leading to aggressive behaviour. We hypothesize that El Niño can simultaneously lead to any of these adverse economic and psychological effects, increasing the likelihood of conflict.” – of all these suppositions this one is certainly the most outstanding for its unabashed remininescence of good ol’ colonial malthusianist views of the savage…
  • “…and it is thought that economic shocks can generate civil conflict through a variety of pathways” – say, say…
  • “Furthermore, the influence of ENSO may exceed the sum influence of these individual pathways because it is a global-scale process that generates simultaneous and correlated conditions around the world.”

Well, isn’t that exactly the reason why we need micro-studies to know whether ENSO has impacted on cacao crops, potato and cabbage production, micro-chip production, financial markets, the inventiveness of Haliburton to sell their weapons or on the mood of parliamentarians and generals etc.? But if we would find that factor X has only been influenced indirectly by ENSO, let’s say that bad crops are only a problem because there are no other sources of income for peasants because their labour has been squeezed to starvation by extremely inequal landowning and exploitation structures? Wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of “anecdotical evidence” the authors think is not very useful for the study of the impact of climate on civil wars?