Poverty: A Cause of War?

By Morris Miller | 2001-01-01 12:00:00

Library shelves are heavy with studies focused on the correlates and causes of war. Some of the leading scholars in that field suggest that we drop the concept of causality, since it can rarely be demonstrated. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to look at the motives of war-prone political leaders and the ways they have gained and maintained power, even to the point of leading their nations to war.

Poverty: The Prime Causal Factor?

Poverty is most often named as the prime causal factor. Therefore we approach the question by asking whether poverty is characteristic of the nations or groups that have engaged in wars.

As we shall see, poverty has never been as significant a factor as one would imagine. Largely this is because of the traits of the poor as a group - particularly their tendency to tolerate their suffering in silence and/or be deterred by the force of repressive regimes. Their voicelessness and powerlessness translate into passivity. Also, because of their illiteracy and ignorance of worldly affairs, the poor become susceptible to the messages of war-bent demagogues and often willing to become cannon fodder. The situations conductive to war involve political repression of dissidents, tight control over media that stir up chauvinism and ethnic prejudices, religious fervor, and sentiments of revenge. The poor succumb to leaders who have the power to create such conditions for their own self-serving purposes. Desperately poor people in poor nations cannot organize wars, which are exceptionally costly.

The statistics speak eloquently on this point. In the last 40 years the global arms trade has been about $1500 billion, of which two-thirds were the purchases of developing countries. That is an amount roughly equal to the foreign capital they obtained through official development aid (ODA). Since ODA does not finance arms purchases (except insofar as money that is not spent by a government on aid-financed roads is available for other purposes such as military procurement) financing is also required to control the media and communicate with the populace to convince them to support the war.

Large-scale armed conflict is so expensive that governments must resort to exceptional sources, such as drug dealing, diamond smuggling, brigandry, or deal-making with other countries. The reliance on illicit operations is well documented in a recent World Bank report that studied 47 civil wars that took place between 1960 and 1999, the main conclusion of which is that the key factor is the availability of commodities to plunder. For greed to yield war, there must be financial opportunities. Only affluent political leaders and elites can amass such weaponry, diverting funds to the military even when this runs contrary to the interests of the population. In most inter-state wars the antagonists were wealthy enough to build up their armaments and propagandize or repress to gain acceptance for their policies.

Economic Crises?

Some scholars have argued that it is not poverty, as such, that contributes to the support for armed conflict, but rather some catalyst, such as an economic crisis. However, a study by Minxin Pei and Ariel Adesnik shows that this hypothesis lacks merit. After studying 93 episodes of economic crisis in 22 countries in Latin American and Asia since World War II, they concluded that much of the conventional thinking about the political impact of economic crisis is wrong:

"The severity of economic crisis - as measured in terms of inflation and negative growth - bore no relationship to the collapse of regimes ... or (in democratic states, rarely) to an outbreak of violence... In the cases of dictatorships and semi-democracies, the ruling elites responded to crises by increasing repression (thereby using one form of violence to abort another)."

Increasing Inequality?

If armed conflict is not caused by, or correlated with, poverty or economic crises, another explanation is possible: Perhaps it is that war results when the poor become aware of the increasing gap between themselves and the rich. And certainly the gap is shocking. In 1960 there was a 30:1 gap in average per capita incomes between the fifth of the world's people who live in the rich industrialized countries and the fifth who live in the poorer countries. By 1990 the gap was 60:1, and as we enter the new millennium, it is over 74:1. The contrast is now between $30,000 annual average income per person and less than $400.

This troubling dynamic has created societal tensions that frequently take the form of riots and insurgencies. Commentators warn of impending armed conflicts on the scale of war, especially when extreme inequality coincides with ethnic or cultural divisions that create "triggers" or "flash points."

However, the historic record reveals that there has not been - and there is not now - a significant tendency for countries with high inequality to be more often engaged in war. Nor do developing countries with low degrees of inequality escape the scourge of war. To be sure, if we identify developing countries with high degrees of inequality, there are some that have been wracked by civil war. (Sierra Leone and Colombia are prime examples.) But if we look at the poor countries with a much fairer distribution of wealth and income, some have undergone the same civil war traumas as Sierra Leone and Colombia. Rwanda is an example. There one fifth of the population possesses about 40% of the total income.

Cessation of Repression Against Nationalist Conflicts?

If we are to explain the recent surge in intra-state warfare, we must search for other factors than poverty or the perception by the poor of grossly unfair distribution. One plausible explanation has been offered by Jan Eliasson, the former and first U.N. Under-Secretary for Human Affairs, who is now Swedish Ambassador to the United States. He attributes

"the explosion of civil wars to the increasing importance of internal ethnic, religious, and cultural factors (within the context of the global system's fragmentation), a tendency toward micro-nationalism that has been dividing nations along ethnic lines."

This explanation points to the cessation of the repressive forces that had been maintained throughout the intense U.S.- USSR power rivalry. This rivalry left a legacy: a world where arms are in abundant supply, and where the governments that were financially dependent on these superpowers are greatly weakened. Dissident groups can more easily obtain funds for arms by clandestine operations. Suddenly ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural differences can be explained by demagogic leaders to provoke secession.

Most of the major armed conflicts of the last decade and present are religious, tribal, and ethnic in nature - often, but not always, as a cover for the profitable illicit operations. An incomplete list of afflicted countries and regions are Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Cambodia, Colombia, Congo, Cyprus, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Guatemala, Haiti, Iraq, Kuwait, Liberia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, and the Balkans and Middle East.

Typically the afflicted nations are poor, with economies dependent on the export of unprocessed commodities such as minerals, plants, and trees. Many of them are new states carved out of colonial regions with borders that were established without regard to tribal, ethnic, and religious groupings. Their governments have been very weak in organizational structure, undemocratic, and offering little protection of human rights or to minority groups. The combatants are young, ill-trained, illiterate, and poorly paid - including an estimated 300,000 child soldiers. Some two million such child soldiers have been killed during the past decade, but the others can learn quickly to handle modern weaponry, which is light-weight, simple to use, and deadly.

Weak, Illegitimate Governance?

This points to one of the major causes of war in the realm of governance: The probability of armed conflict is greater

when control over resources by government is weak, so that illicit sales of resources are possible in defiance of governmental regulations;

when the political institutions and policies do not reflect the will of the citizens; when there is neither transparency nor accountability to the people by political leaders, so that ethnic and religious leaders may pursue their own narrow interests. (The World Bank finds that there is more than a 50:50 chance that a nation will have a civil war if it has already suffered that fate recently without any major change in governance having taken place.)

This suggests that any search for a factor correlating with war should focus on the political process - especially its following three aspects: (1) public support for the governing institutions; (2) the class interests served by the leadership; and (3) the nature of the global system in which the nations function, with its corresponding power to engage in war.

As Professor Robbins suggests, "the ultimate condition giving rise to those clashes of national economic interests that lead to international war is the existence of independent national sovereignties. Not capitalism, but the anarchic political organization of the world, is the root disease of our civilization."

The concept of sovereignty is the legacy of the Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648 and reinforced at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Professor Kimon Valaskakis has characterized the Westphalian agreement as

"a turning point in the mutual recognition of sovereignty rights, the unintended consequence of which was to create a global order based on a 'state system' that became the building blocks of the world order from 1648 to 2000."

Valaskakis observes further that

"growing global interdependence has brought us to a dangerous junction in human history where the institutions and mechanisms that have been set up to govern Planet Earth are in danger of collapsing. The Westphalian Order was not able to prevent World War II and its 50 million death toll (nor the wars since). We are approaching a major governance vacuum as the 'Old Westphalian' assumptions with their primacy of national sovereignty and the star role played by nation-state governments in the global system, are now obsolete, especially the principle that retains war as an acceptable method of conflict resolution, if all else fails."

War-prone leaders of nations still believe they have a right to go to war when they choose, unrestrained by any higher power in the international system of governance that could arbitrate disputes.

Lack of Access to Basic Resources?

There is a school of thought that explains wars as resulting from poverty, in which poverty is conceived as lack of access to vital resources. This resource-deficiency thesis says that war - especially civil war - is one outcome of the growth of population and consumption, the increasing scarcity of fertile land and potable water, and the depletion of forests and the quality of the environment. This account has a distinctly Malthusian flavor.

Many years ago a vice-president of the World Bank, Ismail Serageldin, predicted that the demand for water would double within 30 years and that "the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water."

Among the scholars making this linkage between deprivation and war are Peter Glieck and Thomas Homer-Dixon. Glieck has written that "History shows that access to resources has been a proximate cause of war, (with) resources both tools and targets of war." Thomas Homer-Dixon has pointed to "the significant links between environmental and demographic pressure and violence in the developing world." He writes of "resource wars among countries" as a consequence of the scarcity of vital resources.

None of the case studies cited elaborate the stages of rising tension due to resource deprivation that have erupted in armed conflict. Hence Professor Goldstone has concluded that neither Homer-Dixon nor any of the scholars associated with his projects have been able to demonstrate that large-scale regional conflicts result from the depletion of environmental resources.

Glieck's reference to "political frictions and tensions" appears reasonable, since he cites numerous instances when political leaders have threatened war. There are strife-laden situations, but these stressful conditions do not necessarily end in armed conflict.

Thomas Homer-Dixon has developed a model to explain how the tension and stress can be transmuted into violence on a societal scale. He wrote,

"Scarcities can contribute to heightened grievances and alter the opportunity structure in three ways; first, scarcities can cause social segmentation; second, scarcities damage the relations between state and society; and/or third, scarcities debilitate the strength of institutions, in particular the state.... Factors raising the level of grievance within the population change the political opportunities for violent collective action.... We are claiming that because environmental scarcities are worsening we can expect an increase in frequency of conflicts with an environmental component."

The utility for policy-making of these modeling exercises is negligible, for reasons that become clear when we examine three of the key concepts: poverty/ income scarcity; stress/grievance level; and violent action.

Poverty/income deprivation. At one level this refers to deprivation of the basic necessities of life. But at another level poverty is ambiguous, for it covers "felt needs" that go beyond basic necessities. Valerie Percival, who was associated with Homer-Dixon's project, noted that poverty was neglected in the modeling exercises because of the difficulty of incorporating it in relation to violent conflict.

Stress/grievance level. It is not possible to specify the impact of poverty on the form and intensity of stress at either an individual or societal level. The most that can be said is that reducing poverty significantly is conducive to achieving a "civil society."

Violent collective action. This takes many forms - crime waves, riots, terrorism, civil insurgencies, political repression, and war. If we take poverty as the independent variable and violence as the dependent one, probably no model could be designed to show how changes in poverty affects stress and thereby affects violence. As Michael Brown has noted,

"Most major internal conflicts are triggered by internal, elite-level actors - to put it bluntly, bad leaders - contrary to what policy-makers, popular commentary, and the scholarly literature on the subject generally suggest. Mass-level forces are important, but mainly in terms of creating the underlying conditions that make conflict possible. Bad leaders are usually the catalysts that turn potentially volatile situations into open warfare."

The Virtuous Cycle: Inactivating the War-Making Process

The historical record seems to show that poverty has rarely, if ever, been a pro-active factor, either in inter-state or intra-state wars. We cannot expect the emergence of national political leaders who will eschew war if it seems tantalizingly profitable to them. Instead, we should focus on achieving better institutions. Our realistic objective should be to strive for a less-than-ideal solution that reduces as much as possible the probability of armed conflict. Here are some promising approaches:

On the Plane of National Governance.The struggle to prevent wars begins with the strengthening of democratic institution. Many authors on war have propounded the "theory of democratic peace - that democracies do not fight each other." [See Hanna Newcombe's article, p. 15] In a five-volume study,Understanding Conflict and War, Rudolph Rummel concluded that the political institutional factor is the most decisive one determining whether wars are initiated at all, and by whom. He wrote:

"If one defines an international war as any military engagement in which 1,000 or more were killed, then 353 pairs of nations engaged in such wars between 1816 and 1991. None were between two democracies, while 155 pairs involved a democracy and a non-democracy, and 198 involved two non-democracies fighting each other...The odds of this absence of war between two democracies being by chance is virtually 100 to 1."

The reasoning Rummel offers for this phenomenon is that

"freedom produces a diversity of groups and interests that inhibit violence and foster negotiation, compromise, and tolerance.... The struggle for human rights is therefore not only justified for its own sake but for its importance for global peace and security."

A study by The Economist (April 8, 2000) reveals that the number of countries with democratic governments has been increasing from about 20 in 1950 to over 80 today, while over the same period the population living on less than $1 per day has held steady in the vicinity of 1.2 and 1.3 billion. As they put it, the trends show "democracy mounting and poverty persisting." Professor Daniel Tarschus has commented,

"The proliferation of democratic institutions has been one of the most remarkable features of the history of the 20th century. When James Bryce undertook his study of modern democracies after the First World War he found only six countries in the world matching his requirements. ... Today, only a handful of states still cling to the doctrine of one-party regimes. ..."

In new democratic states there must be at least a literate populace. The educational deprivations of the poor must be eradicated. The greatest preventive value comes from initiatives that focus on the education of women and children. The highest rate of return on investment is in programs that educate young girls. Their economic contribution will be enhanced and they will be more likely to control family size.

On The International Level of Governance. The educational foundation for democratic governance requires an international program. An estimated 130 million children in developing countries have no access to education of any sort; most of them are in rural communities that are physically isolated and poor. The youngsters will migrate to the cities over the next decades, where they must be educated if they are to gain employment. It is feasible to educate those children now, using computers in their own villages, with ODA funding.

A second set of measures offers a more immediate payoff: those that curb the flow of weapons to the belligerents in armed conflicts. One approach is to establish an audit trail for finished diamonds to assure buyers that diamonds have not originated in such zones as Sierra Leone and the Congo.

A third suggestion is to stigmatize the warlords who sell local resources on the global market in order to buy more guns and missiles. Most proposals that address this issue call for firm action by the vendors of arms - but here lies the dismaying fact. The overwhelming percentage of the weapon systems the underpin the armed conflicts are provided by the five permanent members of the security Council and Germany, who, together, account for 80 to 90 percent of the conventional arms sold in the world's markets.. The United States accounts for about half of that total.

A fourth set of measures that could diminish the chance of armed conflict consists of a resolution to the conflict between the national sovereignty principle and the obligations of signatories to the United Nations. Such signatures can be meaningful only if, by signing, each nation agreed to constrain the exercise of its sovereignty. At present, global organizations are subject to the Westphalian Principle of Sovereign Equality - one state equals one vote. Professor Kimon Vasakakis has suggested burying the old Westphalian system and replacing it with a new system better suited to the present and future. The Westphalian legacy of nationhood may be five centuries old and under assault by globalization, but it remains alive and defiant.

Still, there has been some progress in reconciling human rights law with the sovereignty-based U.N. charter. We have a body of enforceable international law now that is growing and that really limits sovereignty. Moreover, democracy has expanded at the national level to the point where the majority of members of the United Nations have some democratic institutions, and there is momentum to increase these further. We also have a growing system of international institutions in which some degree of sovereignty is sacrificed for the global common good.

Alleviating Poverty

Poverty and repression create stress. This may not give rise to armed conflicts but nonetheless it needs to be addressed on moral grounds and for the sake of societal health. But the struggle to reduce the probability of wars requires that we differentiate the objectives of war reduction and of poverty reduction. The latter goal is a longer-term and more difficult challenge that calls for systemic institutional changes of a transformative nature. The steps to a more peacful world calls for democratization at the level of national governance that is well on its way in formal terms (though not as far and as fast in real terms that involve the economic and social aspects) and for a weakening of the Westphalian concept and practice of national sovereignty when - and only when - the global common good is thereby enhanced. And fewer poverty-enhancing wars is one key element of that global common good for which we must strive.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2001

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2001, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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