Conflict Traps: How does poverty cause war, and how does war cause poverty?

By Patricia Justino 

This year’s World Development Report, published a couple of weeks ago, emphasises the fact that one of the biggest drivers of poverty in the developing world is violent conflict. One of the biggest risks for developing countries, it argues, is that of being caught in a conflict trap – a vicious circle whereby poverty stokes conflict, and conflict in turn increases poverty.

Over the past few years, one of MICROCON’s main aims has been to unpack the interaction between poverty and conflict at the micro-level, in order to uncover the role of dynamic local processes in the outbreak and duration of civil wars, and the impact of armed conflicts on the livelihoods of individuals and households affected by violence.

I would like to use this blog post to briefly summarise some of our main findings about the main channels that link poverty and conflict, as well as the findings from a related research network, the Households in Conflict Network.

I will start with the impacts of war on poverty. Research to date tells us this impact operates through several channels. The first two of these are ‘physical capital’ and ‘human capital’. Physical capital refers mainly to assets such as houses, land, labour, cattle and other productive assets. These are often destroyed or looted during wars, which deprives households of important sources of livelihood, although other households may benefit from looting and the redistribution of assets.

Human capital refers to the characteristics of households which allow them to perform labour and so to earn a living. Such capital can be lost through the deaths of, and injuries to, household members, as well as through psychological trauma, malnutrition and the denial of education. Such losses can severely impair households’ earning ability.

The nature and extent of the impact of these types of war-induced shocks is determined to a large extent by the way in which different individuals and households respond to war-induced shocks. There is currently little understanding about how war-time and post-war coping strategies differ, but it seems clear that people adopt a complex set of strategies such as diversification of land holdings and crop cultivation, storage of grain, resorting to sales of assets, and migration – and such strategies may also include fighting, looting, support for armed groups and participation in illegal activities.

One of the most under-researched areas in looking at the impact of war on poverty is that of institutional change. Institutional change can have a considerable impact on the level and dynamics of poverty in wartime, because they affect the nature, organisation and use of violence in civil wars. Two areas of institutional change remain particularly under-researched.

First, is the way in which war changes social cohesion and norms of cooperation. The impact of these changes on individual and household poverty levels and dynamics can be significant because these changes affect people’s ability to rely on community relations in times of difficulty, including accessing particular employment or credit arrangements. These effects are largely determined by changes in household composition and the displacement and migration of households to safer areas. They are also caused by the dynamics of the conflict itself, such as people denouncing each other, different groups turning against each other and changes in levels of trust.

Conversely, some studies have found that there can be some positive effects of exposure to violence, especially through increased political participation of those affected. However, evidence on both positive and negative effects is still scarce, and there is a need for more studies that combine in-depth social analysis with larger quantitative studies.

Second, is the effect of war on political institutions and local governance. These effects are likely to be important in contexts of civil war because during such wars property rights are insecure and often cannot be enforced because the state has lost the monopoly of violence and the rule of law does not operate.

There is also likely to be profound institutional transformation during violent conflict. The type of institutions that emerge during violent conflict determines the access of households to education opportunities, to buy land and other assets, to borrow funds and invest them in productive activities and to have a voice in socio-political decisions in their communities.

The reverse chain of causation – from poverty to war – has been the subject of a significant body of work over the past decade. An influential body of cross-national empirical work has yielded some important findings, most famously that civil wars are more likely to take place in poor countries. However, the cross-country work gives us only limited accounts of the mechanisms through which low incomes amongst a large portion of society affect the outbreak of civil war.

Why would those living under precarious economic conditions participate in and support civil wars? Traditional political science literature attributes participation in violence to the presence of material incentives, and many studies have supported this view. A related view has also been supported, that it may be too costly for people not to participate, due for instance to the danger of being associated with the other side of the conflict.

In addition, many other studies have shown that many people may become soldiers for less directly material reasons, from misery and a lack of voice, to a whole range of socio-emotional motivations such as grief, anger, pride in participation, or to gain a new sense of hope and dignity.

Literature on the role of poverty in collective mobilisation is contradictory, with some emphasising the role of ‘greed’ in mobilisation, whilst others present evidence for the role of inequalities and grievances conceptualised in a variety of ways. How can we account for these seemingly contradictory findings? While poverty, inequality, social exclusion, discrimination and other sources of grievances exist in most societies, only a handful of countries have experienced civil wars because not all countries have in place appropriate structures and institutions that allow the translation of grievances into acts of violence and rebellion.

In addition, armed conflict cannot be sustained without material and financial support. Therefore, poverty per se is unlikely to be a sufficient condition to trigger civil war, but may be instrumental to the organisation of collective violence when other conditions are in place.

In spite of considerable progress in our understanding of the channels linking poverty and war over the past decade, our knowledge is still quite limited. It is vital that progress continues to be made towards better estimation of the effects of civil wars on individual and household poverty levels and dynamics, and more systematic theorisation of channels whereby warfare affects poverty. This will contribute towards more realistic post-conflict social policies to reduce poverty and increase economic resilience amongst those living with violence. It will also have important implications for the sustainability of peace as protection strategies adopted by individuals and households in conflict areas have a considerable impact on the organisation and duration of warfare.

You can find a more detailed analysis of these issues in my MICROCON paper‘War and Poverty’.



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