Exclusion as a cause and consequence of violent conflict

Social exclusion as a cause of violent conflict

There are close links between social exclusion and violent conflict and insecurity, both in terms of causes and consequences. There are now convincing arguments that some forms of social exclusion generate the conditions in which conflict can arise.  This can range from civil unrest to violent armed conflict and terrorist activity. Severely disadvantaged groups with shared characteristics (such as ethnicity or religion) may resort to violent conflict in order to claim their rights and redress inequalities. Group differences are not enough in themselves to cause conflict, but social exclusion and horizontal inequalities provide fertile ground for violent mobilisation. Hence, the concept of social exclusion can help in conflict resolution because it identifies some of the causes of conflict. By analysing why some societies with sharp horizontal inequalities suffer conflict and others do not, it has become evident that conflict occurs most frequently when socio-economic and political horizontal inequalities are combined. Becoming aware of exclusion and inequality, therefore, can be an essential first step for international development practitioners in contributing to conflict prevention and resolution in fragile states.

For syntheses of recent evidence on violent conflict and its practical implications for aid, including for social exclusion, see the following GSDRC topic guides:

Haider, H. (2014). Conflict: Topic Guide (Revised edition with B. Rohwerder, chapters 1-2). Birmingham: GSDRC, University of Birmingham. Chapter 1Chapter 2

Strachan, A. L. and Haider, H. (2015). Gender and conflict: Topic guide. Birmingham: GSDRC, University of Birmingham. 

The following three papers examine the concept of horizontal inequalities and their impact on development and social stability.

Stewart, F., Brown, G, K., & Langer, A. (2008). Major Findings and Conclusions on the Relationship between Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict. In Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict: Understanding Group Violence in Multiethnic Societies. Palgrave Macmillan.
What are the links between horizontal inequalities (HIs) and conflict? This chapter summarises findings from case studies plus more global analyses. Severe HIs are particularly likely to be a source of conflict when they are consistent across socioeconomic, cultural and political dimensions. While socioeconomic HIs generate fertile ground for conflict and cultural status inequalities bind groups together, political HIs provide incentives for leaders to mobilise people for rebellion.
Access full text: available online

Kanbur, R. (2007). Poverty and Conflict: The Inequality Link. New York: International Peace Academy.
How do poverty and inequality causally interact with conflict? While there is a general view that poverty and inequality can lead to conflict, the nature of the links are less well appreciated. This paper draws out the links based on the recent economics literature and discusses their implications for policy. While inequality is a natural concomitant of economic processes, particularly those driven by the market, its implications for security emerge when unequal outcomes align with socio-political cleavages.
Access full text: available online

Østby, G. (2006). Horizontal Inequalities, Political Environment and Civil Conflict: Evidence From 55 Developing Countries. CRISE Working Paper 28. Oxford: University of Oxford.
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.
Access full text: available online

A particular issue in fragile or failed states is seen by political scientists as the lack of a ‘social contract’ between the state, incumbent elite groups and ethnic communities. This leads to political fragmentation, which is further exacerbated by the convergence of various social, ethnic and resource exploitation-related issues.

Douma, P. (2006). Poverty, Relative Deprivation and Political Exclusion as Drivers of Violent Conflict in Sub Saharan Africa. Journal on Science and World Affairs2(2), 59-69.
How can states in sub-Saharan Africa better provide for the needs of their populations and reduce inter-group violence? This article examines poverty and conflict escalation in Niger and Senegal. The partiality of some state policies regarding resource distribution promotes inter-group inequality and contributes to violence. The incumbent state elite should adopt a long-term perspective based on cross-group solidarity.
Access full text: available online

Recent research has also shown that the inclusiveness of political settlements, i.e. those agreements through which key actors – usually elites – organise and share political power in society, can have an important effect on mitigating the potential for political instability and violent conflict.

Lindemann S. (2008). Do Inclusive Elite Bargains Matter? A Research Framework for Understanding the Causes of Civil War in Sub-Saharan Africa (Discussion Paper 15). Crisis States Research Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science.
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.
Access full text: available online

Horizontal inequalities can be based on both real and imagined differences. These differences can be exploited by faction leaders in order to exercise and maintain power.

Choi, H. J. (2014). How Ethnic Exclusion Influences Rebellion and Leader Survival A Simulation Approach. Social Science Computer Review, 32(4), 453–473.
Ethnically inclusive ruling coalitions have not always helped prevent and manage conflict in ethnically divided dictatorships, a comparison of 52 countries that had small minimum winning coalitions between 1946 and 2004 shows. Further, the author’s computational simulation finds that, with small coalitions, authoritarian leaders gain lasting political benefits from exclusive ethnic policies, even if those policies motivate excluded groups to rebel. The risk of rebellion (through civil war or a coup) is greatest with semi-exclusive regimes, and lowest with either highly exclusive or highly inclusive regimes. On the other hand, in large winning coalitions, leaders who use even moderate exclusion are likely to be ousted in a regular manner. The author therefore calls policymakers to consider leaders’ political incentives when pushing for greater inclusiveness, to address risks of violence and instability.
Access full text: available online

Langer, A., & Ukiwo, U. (2007). Ethnicity, Religion and the State in Ghana and Nigeria: Perceptions from the Street (CRISE Working Paper No. 34). Oxford: Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity.
What can social surveys tell us about perceptions of ethnicity, religion and the state in Ghana and Nigeria? This working paper analyses survey data on how people see their own identities and their perceptions of the domination of state institutions by particular ethnic or religious groups. The data show quite marked differences in comparative perceptions of identities and of perceptions of the state in both countries. These differences may help to explain why Nigeria has been more prone to violent conflict than Ghana.
Access full text: available online

Social exclusion as a consequence of violent conflict

As well as being a common cause of conflict, social exclusion can also occur as a result of conflict. Pervasive conflict can marginalise whole societies, and is a major cause of refugees who then become excluded in the place or country to which they move.

Halabi, Z. (2004). Exclusion and Identity in Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugee Camps: A Story of Sustained Conflict. Environment and Urbanization, 16(2), 39-48
This paper describes the events that have taken place over the last fifty years since the establishment of the first Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and the relationship between these events and the endemic inter-communal violence within these camps. It explains the exclusionist policies of the Lebanese state and the resulting levels of tension and conflict that have undermined peace processes and social reconciliation following the Lebanese civil war. A case study of one camp, Chatila, illustrates how these realities play out in the daily lives of Palestinian refugees and other residents within the camp, stimulating conflicts over identity and continuing hostility.
Access full text: available online

Certain groups, such as women, can often become further marginalised by conflict. While conflict can create space for women to take on new roles, it can also create new vulnerabilities. Today’s conflicts are accompanied by widespread sexual violence against women and girls. In the aftermath, they can often suffer social stigmatisation as a result of rape, injury or HIV infection sustained during war. Security issues in the post-conflict phase can also hinder women and girls’ access to services. When schools are destroyed and children have to travel long distances, for example, girls are more likely to stay at home in order to avoid the increased risk of abduction, sexual violence and exploitation. Certain sub-groups of women can also become particularly vulnerable as a result of conflict and are frequently invisible in post-conflict peace processes – these are young women, female-headed households, widows, and women from already marginalised groups.

Fraser, E. (2009). The Impact of Conflict on Women’s Voice and Participation (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report). Birmingham: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.
Although conflict can reduce the voice of less powerful groups (including women), there are also opportunities for these groups to contest well-established social structures and divisions, and for new, non-traditional leaders to emerge. Women assume varied roles during armed conflict, as victims, perpetrators and peace activists. There are sub-groups of women who may be particularly vulnerable as a result of conflict and are frequently invisible in post-conflict peace processes and community-driven development, for example young women, female-headed households, widows and women from marginalised groups. However, women are not necessarily the only, or even the most, excluded group in a given society. Furthermore, female participation does not necessarily lead to positive outcomes for women. Not all women have equal voices or the same vested interests; other issues of identity, such as ethnicity, religion, and age can be equally important.
Access full text: available online

McDevitt, A. (2009). The Impact of Conflict on Women’s Education, Employment and Health Care (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report).Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.
The extent to which conflict restricts women’s freedom of movement depends on a number of factors including the stage of conflict, whether the women are displaced, whether they are directly or indirectly affected by the conflict, and the cultural norms of the conflict-affected area. Forced displacement, for example, may in some cases lead to greater mobility, where women assume additional responsibilities such as taking on the role of primary breadwinner. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that the fear of violence more often than not restricts women’s freedom of movement. In times of political, economic and social uncertainty, there is a strong tendency to revert to traditional values which appear to offer protection for women and girls but which restrict their mobility.
Access full text: available online

For further resources on the impact of conflict on women and girls, see the Conflict topic guide