Horizontal Inequalities, the Political Environment and Civil Conflict: Evidence From 55 Developing Countries

Gudrun Østby


To what extent do horizontal inequalities contribute to the onset of conflict? Are they particularly conflict provoking under certain political conditions? This study measures the impact of the political environment in 55 developing countries on the relationship between socioeconomic horizontal inequalities and civil conflict onset. It finds that horizontal inequalities are particularly inflammatory in democratic regimes with inclusive electoral systems. The study concludes that, in order to ensure peace, developing countries need governments that are both politically and economically inclusive.

There has been little systematic theorisation of the role that political institutions, such as regime type and electoral system, play in ameliorating or exacerbating the conflict potential of horizontal inequalities. Horizontal inequalities in education and assets may be particularly explosive in democratic and semi-democratic regimes because the relatively deprived groups have both a strong motive and an opportunity for violent mobilisation.

Groups are central units in conflicts. These may be based on ethnicity as in Africa, on social class as in Central America, on religion as in the Balkans, or on regional location. Horizontal inequalities are relevant for conflict because members of a disadvantaged group are likely to feel collective grievance particularly when their relative deprivation is the result of actual exploitation and discrimination. However, the initiative for conflict can also come from the richest groups.

In assessing the factors relevant to socioeconomic inequalities and conflict onset, the study finds that:

  • The size of population is not significant nor is the number of years of peace.
  • Inequalities in assets and education between regional groups are more significant than such inequalities between religious or ethnic groups.
  • The conflict provoking affect of asset inequality on regional groups is not influenced by regime type. Educational inequality is more likely to provoke conflict in democracies than in semi-democracies or autocracies.
  • A democracy with strong horizontal education inequality between regions is about twice as likely to face conflict than an autocracy with the same level of horizontal inequality.
  • The more democratic the regime, the stronger the positive effect of horizontal inequalities for conflict onset. The conflict potential of horizontal inequalities increases with more inclusive electoral systems.
  • The conflict potential of socioeconomic horizontal inequalities may increase with the level of political exclusion of minority groups in a country.

There are several policy implications that arise from the findings. These include the following:

  • It is important to address horizontal inequalities.
  • Political institutions are not sufficient to ensure peace.
  • In order to mitigate conflict, a politically inclusive government needs to be established that incorporates representatives from all the major identity groups at the political level.
  • A social system needs to be developed that spreads the benefits of progress widely, providing socio-economic growth among all the significant regional, religious and ethnic groups in society.


Østby, G., 2008, 'Inequalities, the Political Environment and Civil Conflict: Evidence From 55 Developing Countries', in Stewart, F., (Ed) Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict: Understanding Group Violence in Multiethnic Societies, Palgrave Macmillan