Chapter 1 - Understanding violent conflict

Chapter 1 - Understanding violent conflict

 

The causes of conflict (part 1)

Page contents

Main Menu


Introduction

There is no single cause of conflict.  Rather, conflict is context-specific, multi-causal and multi-dimensional and can result from a combination of the following factors:

  • Political and institutional factors: weak state institutions, elite power struggles and political exclusion, breakdown in social contract and corruption, identity politics
  • Socioeconomic factors: inequality, exclusion and marginalisation, absence or weakening of social cohesion, poverty
  • Resource and environmental factors: greed, scarcity of national resources often due to population growth leading to environmental insecurity, unjust resource exploitation

Each of these factors may constitute a cause, dynamic and/or impact of conflict. New issues will arise during conflict which perpetuate the conflict. Identifying and understanding the interactions between various causes, dimensions, correlates and dynamics of conflict - and the particular contexts in which conflict arises, is essential in determining potential areas of intervention; and designing appropriate approaches and methods for conflict prevention, resolution and transformation.

The way in which a government or institution at an international or societal level addresses conflict between individuals, groups or nations can determine whether the parties to the conflict will resort to violence.

Ohlson, T., 2008, ‘Understanding Causes of War and Peace’, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 133-160
How are the causes of war and peace related? Is it possible to bridge the conceptual gap between causes-of-war theory and conflict resolution theory? This article puts forward a new conceptual framework to facilitate the analysis of the outbreak, conduct and resolution of armed conflict within states. This 'Triple-R' framework involves consideration of reasons, resources and resolve for engaging in violence.

Smith, D., 2004, ‘Trends and Causes of Armed Conflict’, Berghof Research Centre for Constructive Conflict Management, Berlin
This chapter provides a brief overview of what is known and understood about the causes of armed conflict. The emphasis is on an applied methodology for studying and analysing armed conflict, rather than on theory. It looks at both the variety and the different types of causes of armed conflict. It introduces the conceptual pairing of justice and mobilisation as a way of linking the long and short term issues leading to conflict.
Access full text: available online

Hoeffler, A., 2012, ‘On the Causes of Civil War’, In the Oxford Handbook of the Economies of Peace and Conflict, Oxford University Press, Oxford
What causes civil wars? This chapter provides an overview of the research looking into the causes of civil war and argues that the research on the causes of war is unlikely to be helpful for settling civil wars. Irrespective of the original causes, new issues will have arisen during the conflict. For conflict prevention purposes it is probably better to refer to correlates of war, rather than causes. Countries are more likely to experience a civil war when they had a war in the past, their income is low, they have poor growth and a large population. 
Access full text: available online

Political and institutional factors

Weak state institutions

State weakness can create the conditions for violent conflict. Political institutions that are unable to manage differing group interests peacefully, to provide adequate guarantees of group protection, or to accommodate growing demands for political participation, can fracture societies. There is a degree of consensus that there is a U-shaped relationship between levels of democracy and likelihood of violent conflict. While mature democracies are able to manage tensions peacefully through democratic inclusion, stark autocracies are able to repress violence and manage conflict through force. The most vulnerable states are those in political transition. Uncertainty and collective fears of the future, stemming from state weakness, clientelism and indiscriminate repression may result in the emergence of armed responses by marginalised groups and nationalist, ethnic or other populist ideologies.

Mansfield, E.D. and Snyder, J., 2007, 'Turbulent Transitions: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War in the Twenty-first Century', in Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World, eds., C. Crocker, F.O. Hampson, and P. All, United States Institute for Peace, Washington, DC, pp. 161-176
Is democratisation the best way to promote peace? This chapter argues that the world would probably be safer if there were more mature democracies but, in the transition to democracy, countries become more aggressive and war prone. The international community should be realistic about the dangers of encouraging democratisation where the conditions are unripe. The risk of violence increases if democratic institutions are not in place when mass electoral politics are introduced.

Lake, D. A. and Rothchild, D., 1996, ‘Containing Fear: The Origins and Management of Ethnic Conflict’, International Security, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 41-75
What causes ethnic conflict, and why does it escalate? This article argues that intense ethnic conflict is usually caused by collective fears for the future. It presents a framework for understanding the origins and management of ethnic conflict, and recommends how the international community can intervene more effectively.  Three key factors contribute to the development of ethnic conflict: Information failure, when individuals or groups misrepresent or misinterpret information about other groups; Problems of credible commitment, when one group cannot credibly reassure another that it will not renege on or exploit a mutual agreement; and Security dilemmas, when one or more disputing parties has an incentive to use pre-emptive force. When these factors take hold, groups become apprehensive, the state weakens, and conflict becomes more likely.

Elite power struggles and political exclusion

Colonialism and liberation struggles in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have left various legacies, including divisive and militarised politics and fierce struggles for power and land. Post-liberation leaders in some countries have sustained these dynamics, retaining power through neo-patrimonial networks, state capture, militarisation and coercion. Studies have shown that in some cases, they have promoted ideologies of “Us versus Them”, excluding and marginalising other groups.

The domination of access to state structures and resources by any one leader, group or political party to the exclusion of others exacerbates social divisions. It may provide incentives for excluded leaders to mobilise groups to protest and engage in violent rebellion. In contrast, inclusive elite bargains that seek to address social fragmentation and integrate a broad coalition of key elites can reduce the chances of violent rebellion.

Van Wyk, J-A., 2007, 'Political Leaders in Africa: Presidents, Patrons or Profiteers?', Occasional Paper Series, vol. 2, no. 1, The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), South Africa
What impact has leadership had on the development of African states? This paper reviews and analyses the multiple layers of formal and informal political leadership in post-colonial Africa. Political leaders are the primary holders, controllers and distributors of power and resources in a particular institution and/or territory. Contemporary African leaders operate in an environment constrained by colonial legacies and instability. Leadership is characteristically neo-patrimonial, featuring presidentialism, clientelism, the use of state resources and the centralisation of power.

Lindemann, S., 2008, ‘Do Inclusive Elite Bargains Matter? A Research Framework for Understanding the Causes of Civil War in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Discussion Paper, no. 15, Crisis States Research Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science, London
Sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s most conflict-intensive region. But why have some African states experienced civil war, while others have managed to maintain political stability? This discussion paper argues that the ability of post-colonial states in Sub-Saharan Africa to maintain political stability depends on the ability of the ruling political parties to overcome the historical legacy of social fragmentation. Creating inclusive elite bargains can bring stability while exclusionary elite bargains give rise to trajectories of civil war.

DFID, 2009, 'Building the State and Securing the Peace', Department for International Development, London
How can support for state-building and peace-building be integrated? This Emerging Policy Paper outlines a strategic framework for DFID’s engagement in situations of conflict and fragility, plus operational implications. DFID’s integrated approach to state-building and peace-building aims primarily to promote inclusive political settlements. This facilitates the further goals of: (i) addressing causes of conflict and building resolution mechanisms; (ii) developing state survival functions; and (iii) responding to public expectations. Support across all four of these interrelated areas is necessary to help create a positive peace- and state-building dynamic.

Breakdown in social contract and corruption

A social contract is a framework of rules that governs state-society relations and the distribution of resources, rights and responsibilities in an organised society. How a government spends public revenue, regardless of whether it comes from taxes or from natural resources, is significant.  If it spends it equitably on social welfare and satisfying basic needs, conflict is less likely than if it appropriates revenues for corrupt or fractional purposes. Corruption undermines public trust in government, deters domestic and foreign investment, exacerbates inequalities in wealth and increases socioeconomic grievances. Equally, the inability of states to provide basic services, including justice and security, to all its citizens reduces state legitimacy and trust in state institutions, weakening or breaking the social contract.

In some cases, ruling groups may resort to violence to prolong their rule and maintain opportunities for corruption. This can in turn provoke violent rebellion by marginalised groups. In other situations, research has found that “buying off” opposition groups and belligerents may facilitate transitions to peace.

Murshed, S. M. and Tadjoeddin, M. Z., 2009, ‘Revisiting the Greed and Grievance Explanations for Violent Internal Conflict’, Journal of International Development, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 87-111
This article assesses two recent explanations for the onset of internal conflict: greed and grievance. The former reflects elite competition over valuable natural resource rents. The latter argues that relative deprivation, and the grievance it produces, fuels conflict. However, this article argues that neither the presence of greed or grievance is sufficient for the outbreak of violent conflict. Violent conflict requires institutional breakdown, or the failure of the social contract.

Chandhoke, N., 2005, ‘Of Broken Social Contracts and Ethnic Violence: The Case of Kashmir’, Working Paper, no. 75, Crisis States Research Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science, London
Are identity politics to blame for the outbreak of violence in Kashmir? This paper, based on research carried out in Srinagar, argues that this is not the case. It concludes that the outbreak of militancy has been caused by the failure of political institutions and organisations, and the violation of the social contract.

Addison, T. et al., 2008, ‘Ending Violent Conflict and Building a Social Compact’, Chapter 6 in Escaping Poverty Traps, Chronic Poverty Research Centre, Manchester
This chapter looks at the links between poverty, injustice and violence and argues that, to build lasting peace, societies must build a viable social compact. A viable social compact is one in which the state acts to reduce people’s risks – through law and order, services and infrastructure – in return for their commitment to the state. The chapter includes a discussion of the links between state fragility, poverty and violent conflict. There is also an examination of how viable social compacts are built and the role the international community has to play.
Access full text: available online

Le Billon, P., 2003, ‘Buying Peace or Fuelling War: The Role of Corruption in Armed Conflicts’, Journal of International Development, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 413 - 426
What is the relationship between corruption and the outbreak, duration and termination of conflicts? Donors and analysts consider corruption a primary explanation for a whole range of development problems. Yet this study suggests that corruption is partially driven by internal processes of capital accumulation and global structural forces. Corruption may have a corrosive effect on economies and rule-based institutions, but it also forms part of the fabric of social and political relationships. This endogenous character means that conflict may be engendered more by changes in the pattern of corruption than by corruption itself.

Additional resources

For discussion and resources on political and institutional factors of state fragility, see political and institutional factors in the causes and characteristics of fragility section of the GSDRC’s fragile states guide.

Further resources on corruption can be found in the governance programming section in the peacebuilding component in this guide.

Resources on the relationship between elections and conflict can be found in the elections in post-conflict or fragile environments section of the GSDRC’s political systems guide.


Identity politics

There has been ongoing debate about the role of identity in violent conflict. The ‘primordialist’ (or ‘ancient hatreds’) argument that ethnic, religious or cultural differences inevitably result in conflict has been discredited in much of the literature.  In contrast, ‘instrumentalist’ theorists have asserted that identity is simply constructed and exploited as a means of mobilisation (see mobilisation into violence under conflict dynamics). Most recent authors argue for a middle ground: ethnic, religious or cultural identities do not condemn people to fight against each other and are usually not the main issues and reasons for conflict; however, when introduced and mobilised, religion, ethnicity and culture provide a system of beliefs and practices that can unite adherents in a community, alter their perception of others and encourage them to take collective action in the name of their group.

In situations of exclusion and discrimination, the salience of group identity can be a deciding factor in whether groups can be mobilised to violence.  At the same time, cross-cutting identities and/or weak cohesion within particular religious or ethnic groups are believed to reduce the probability that a group will be able to mobilise in an exclusionary manner.

Identity politics can be used by both dominant and marginalised group to articulate exclusion and discontent. It should not be assumed, however, that all forms of ethnic and religious politics are exclusionary or foster violence. While identity can be a discourse of power as well as of grievance, it can provide a peaceful means of inclusion and empowerment and a basis for claiming rights and citizenship.

Further discussion and resources on identity politics can be found in the peace agreements section of this guide.

Luckham, R., Moncrieffe, J. and Harris, C., 2006, 'Understanding the Routes in and out of Political Violence: An Assessment of the Linkages Between Identity Politics, Exclusion, Inequality and Political Violence in EMAD Countries', Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, Birmingham, UK
Nationality and other sub-sets of identity, including ethnicity, religion and class, clan and sub-national region are important identity markers people use to claim citizenship and empowerment. Identity politics are dynamic. They can contribute to violent or peaceful solutions. Not all forms of ethnic and religious politics are exclusionary, nor do they necessarily lead to violence. How identity politics combine within a particular context determines whether violence does or does not occur, and extremist groups that resort to violence are often small minorities within minorities and require micro-analysis of the conditions in which they operate. This paper synthesises the results of case studies of Bolivia, Peru, Tajikistan and Yemen and recommends the application of regional and country context when analysing countries prone to political violence. 

Kadayifci-Orellana, S. A., 2009, ‘Ethno-Religious Conflicts: Exploring the Role of Religion in Conflict Resolution’, in The SAGE Handbook of Conflict Resolution, eds., J. Bercovitch, V. Kremenyuk, and I. W. Zartman, SAGE, London, pp. 264-280
How can the religious texts, values and beliefs used to incite conflict be harnessed to promote peace-building and reconciliation? What contributions can faith-based actors make to conflict resolution? This chapter examines the ways in which religion can be used to inspire both war and peace. The revival of religiously motivated conflicts, and the increasing involvement of religious actors in resolving them, requires understanding of their dynamics.

Cocodia, J., 2008, ‘Exhuming Trends in Ethnic Conflict and Cooperation in Africa: Some Selected States’, African Journal on Conflict Resolution, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 9-26
Why are certain parts of Africa characterised by ethnic conflict while other parts remain relatively calm? This paper argues that equity, justice, literacy levels and external threats are key factors which determine the likelihood of conflict. Case studies of both conflict and cooperation situations are examined - from Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa, Uganda and Côte d'Ivoire.

Miklian, J., 2009, 'Nepal's Terai: Constructing an Ethnic Conflict’, South Asia Briefing Paper, no. 1, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo
Recent ethnic violence in Nepal has polarised citizens along ethnic issues that were largely unaddressed during the civil war and the subsequent peace agreement. This paper traces the history of Nepali post-war ethnic violence and the current difficulties implementing peace agreements. Reducing the risk of future armed conflict involves targeting grassroots opinion, preventing demonisation of specific ethnic groups and recognising long-standing discrimination of the Madhesi people of the Terai region.

Melvin, N. J., 2007, ‘Conflict in Southern Thailand: Islamism, Violence and the State in the Patani Insurgency’, SIPRI Policy Paper, no. 20, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Stockholm
What is behind the recent return to violence in southern Thailand and how can the conflict be resolved? This paper outlines interpretations of conflict in the Patani region. These focus on historical grievances, the role of violent Islamism, modern Thai politics and the ‘global war on terror’. Measures to address two longstanding sources of grievance – language and education – could help improve the situation.

For resources on the role of religion and religious actors in peacemaking and peacebuilding, see 'religious peacemaking' in direct prevention mechanisms and 'religious actors' in non-state actors and peacebuilding.