Zalingei, West Darfur, Sudan, 2010. Students protest at the University of  Zalingei as a peace negotiation team, headed by Ahmed bin Abdullah al Mahmoud, Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and Djibril Bassolé, Joint African Union-United Nations Chief Mediator for Darfur, meet with civil society leaders inside the university. UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran.

When do inequalities cause conflict?

Focus on citizenship and property rights

Rens Willems | December 2012

How are inequality and conflict connected? This question has occupied the minds of thinkers and practitioners for many years. The common-sense argument sounds convincing: where there are large inequalities between rich and poor, the latter become frustrated and organize themselves to improve their economic position, if necessary by means of violence. But when exactly do inequalities cause conflict? And what policies can prevent this?

History has shown that large inequalities in wealth and income persist and do not always lead to rebellion and conflict. In fact, very often they do not. Thus, the question of how inequality relates to conflict remains. A review of the literature shows that some inequalities matter more than others. Inequalities can occur between individuals, creating social classes, but also between countries and between cultural or ethnic groups.

Inequality between countries

Looking at inequality between countries essentially means looking at poverty. Research by internationally renowned experts like Paul Collier and Nicholas Sambanis has shown a strong link between the wealth of a country and the probability of it suffering from civil war. 1 The risk of civil war is much higher in poor than in rich countries. A country with a GDP per capita of $250 has a 15 percent chance of descending into conflict at some point in the coming five years while, in a country with a GDP of $1250 per person, the chances are less than 4%. 2 It is much cheaper to recruit rebels in a poor country, where wages are low and unemployment high, than in a rich country, where costs are much higher and the state is likely to have more resources to deter a possible rebellion. 3

Photo credit: UN Photo/Stuart Price

Afgooye, a town to the west of Mogadishu, Somalia, 2012. Soldiers of the Somali National Army (SNA) during a joint offensive with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), dubbed “Operation Free Shabelle”. UN Photo/Stuart Price.

For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a senior officer’s salary is less than $100 a month and often goes unpaid. One of the commanders of a rebel group in the east of the country recalled the moment he was recruited: “I had spent five months in a training camp in Kinshasa with no salary. My family was going hungry. When [General Laurent] Nkunda began recruiting, I saw I didn’t have any option.” 4

Social cohesion

Recognizing the rising expectations of growing middle classes in developing countries, the OECD’s report Perspectives on Global Development 2012 focused on social cohesion: “Social cohesion is also a means that enables citizens to live in societies where they enjoy a sense of belonging and trust. The inference is that the absence of social cohesion may result in instability.”v Tunisia and Thailand are cited as examples of countries where salaries are rising and education improving, but where improvements in equalities and political participation are lagging behind. The unrest in Thailand in December 2010 and the Tunisian revolution that eventually led to the ousting of President Ben Ali show that this can...

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UN Photo/Martine Perret.

Bunia, D.R Congo, 2006. A woman voter checks in before casting her vote during the elections after years of violence. UN Photo/Martine Perret.

Inequality within countries 

But can inequality within a country also cause conflict? A renowned theory, still influential today, is Ted Gurr’s Relative Deprivation Theory. 6 Gurr argues that a large gap between a group’s expected and actual economic and living conditions can fuel conflict. While Gurr does not talk explicitly about gaps between rich and poor, arguably, frustrations about the gap between expected and actual living conditions are likely to increase even more when the poor are constantly confronted in their daily lives by the conditions of the rich. The Occupy movement originated from such frustrations, and a survey in the United States found that a rising share of Americans see conflict between the rich and the poor. 7

So do the poor rebel against the rich to acquire wealth, and do the rich fight against the poor to protect their wealth? Surprisingly, the evidence to back this argument is inconclusive at best. In their well-known work Greed and Grievances in Civil War, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler find that income inequality is insignificant in determining the probability of conflict, and even reject altogether the argument that grievances cause conflicts. 8 Further research has also been unable to prove a significant relationship. 9 The frustrated poor may still want to appropriate wealth from the rich, but apparently it takes more than frustrations about inequalities to organize a civil war.

However, this does not imply that there is no correlation between inequalities and the likelihood of civil war in a country. There are a number of problems with the findings and studies mentioned above, largely relating to the availability and reliability of the data used. Especially in situations of conflict, collecting reliable and comparable data is notoriously difficult. Those claiming that inequality does not lead to civil war have to acknowledge that the available data on which this argument is based is highly imperfect. 10

Another important problem is methodological. Inequality is generally measured using indicators like the Gini coefficient, which express the distribution of wealth and income in a country. Yet such statistics fail to look at the political significance of inequalities, which may matter more in certain cases than in others. Recent research has therefore focused on ‘crosscutting cleavages’ 11 and ’horizontal inequalities’ 12 to gain insight into which factors contribute to make inequality matter. The findings suggest that the purely economic focus adopted by Collier and colleagues is inadequate.

Inequalities between groups

Horizontal inequalities occur between different ethnic, religious or regional groups. Frances Stewart argues that most studies on the link between inequalities and conflict look at the distribution of income across the whole population of countries, which she calls ‘vertical inequalities’ 13 But she finds that inequalities between different groups matter a lot more: “When cultural differences coincide with economic and political differences between groups, this can cause deep resentment that may lead to violent struggles.” 14 A clear example of this is the economic and political inequalities between Hutu and Tutsi groups in Burundi, which led to an intense civil war. The violence in Kenya after the 2007 elections was also fed by inequalities between regions and ethnic groups.

Frances Stewart looks not only at economic inequalities between groups, but also inequalities in social, political and cultural dimensions. 15

  • Economic inequalities include access to and ownership of financial, human, natural resource-based and social assets. They also include inequalities in income levels and employment opportunities.
  • Social inequalities include access to services like education, healthcare, housing, etc.
  • Political inequalities include the distribution of political opportunities and power among groups, such as control over local, regional and national institutions of governance, the army and the police. They also include inequalities in people’s capabilities to participate politically and express their needs.
  • Cultural inequalities include disparities in the recognition and standing of the language, religion, customs, norms and practices of different groups.

The argument has considerable explanatory power. To mobilize people to go to war, there must be an issue around which they can be organized. Economic or political inequalities have the potential to be such an issue, but it is much easier to organize people around it when they are already part of a group and inequalities can be interpreted as a consequence of conscious discrimination against this group.

A good example is provided by Joshua Gubler and Joel Sawat Selway, who describe two rebel leaders trying to organize a rebellion. 16 One of the leaders is able to appeal to an ethnic group. The group already has a shared history and the leader does not face the problem of having to convince a set of individuals that they are a group. Moreover, this ethnic group may have its own language and norms, which facilitates in-group communication. Once the group has been mobilized, it is difficult for members to leave it, as they cannot simply change their skin colour, family ties or cultural heritage. This increases the rebel leader’s capacity to exercise social control. The second rebel leader wants to rally a lower economic class. Creating a shared history and organizing and convincing individuals that they are part of a distinct group is a lot harder in his case. They share their history and language with members of higher economic classes and there is much greater mobility between the classes.

A focus on inequalities between different groups has another advantage. As the figure below shows, the levels of inequalities between groups may be overlooked by data examining the inequalities across a population as a whole. A country may have a highly equal distribution of income overall, but it may be divided very unevenly between particular cultural groups. In this light, focusing on inequalities between different groups draws attention to discriminatory relationships between groups in a society. 17

Source: Humphreys, Macartan (2002)
Reinout Meijnen

Source: Humphreys, Macartan (2002) Economics and Violent Conflict. Harvard CPI Portal on Economics and Conflict, Framework Paper, p. 3.

Studies indicate that conflicts are indeed more likely to break out in situations where there are large inequalities between different groups. Lars-Erik Cederman and colleagues find that ethnic groups with incomes much lower and much higher than a country’s average per capita income are far more likely to engage in civil war. 18 In another study Gudrun Østby measures economic inequalities by average household assets and social inequalities by average years of education. She finds that conflict is three times more likely to break out where inequalities between different ethnic, religious or regional groups are high than where they are average. 19 Østby’s findings indicate that the impact of social inequalities between different groups on the likelihood of conflict is even stronger than that of economic inequalities between groups. Access to education and healthcare thus seem to matter more than unequal salaries and job opportunities. The explanation she gives is that exclusion from education is more likely to be the result of the systematic discrimination of a particular group. For instance, prior to the conflict in Burundi there were deliberate policies to limit the number of Hutu students and teachers. However, differences in job opportunities may also be caused by a particular group living in an area where there is simply a weaker local economy. 20

Cederman and colleagues also find evidence of a strong influence of political inequalities, which they base on measurements of the access of ethnic groups to central political power. 21 For instance, Jok Madut Jok explains that the conflict in Sudan between the predominantly Christian groups in the south and the Arab leadership in Khartoum was partly rooted in the exclusion of southern groups from political power. 22 Additionally the decision of the government in Khartoum not to establish a federal system that would give more political power to the south was one of the triggers that led to the first Sudanese civil war.

Horizontal inequalities and civil unrest in Bahrain

On his weblog the Fragile States Resource Center Seth Kaplan analyses the inequalities between Shiites and Sunnis in the kingdom of Bahrain. He describes how a Sunni elite holds a disproportionate share of political power and benefits more than the Shiites from the country’s wealth in natural resources.

Kaplan considers these inequalities to be a key driver of the civil unrest earlier this year, exacerbating the fault lines between the two groups. Discussing political events, he concludes that a focus on economic issues would be a best first step towards addressing inequalities as there is currently no room for compromise in the political sphere.

Justin Gengler discusses the developments of the violence in Bahrain, claiming that “Bahrain’s uprising is over.” However, the uprising has not ended as a result of efforts to tackle inequalities but has been oppressed through the use of brute force by the government. Gengler finds that, as a result, society has become more fractured and opposition to the Sunni elite is becoming increasingly radical, and he warns of the possibility of armed insurgency.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

Muramvya, Burundi, 2004.Weapons being burnt during the official launch of the Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR) process . UN Photo/Martine Perret.

Implications for policy

Indicators of inequalities between different groups and regions thus seem to have much greater potential to predict the risk of civil war breaking out than those looking at nationwide inequalities between individuals. So how can the world become a safer place? What can policymakers do to prevent conflict? What kind of new laws need to be implemented? A number of implications for policy are examined below.

First, addressing social inequalities by improving access to school can hypothetically also create frustrations. When disadvantaged groups gain access to education their ambitions regarding employment and political participation will increase. Improved levels of economic and political equality therefore also need to be promoted. The revolution in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring is a case in point. Here, people’s economic situation and education improved, while their options for political participation lagged behind. Peace education could also offer a way to prevent possible tensions.

Second, addressing citizenship and property rights is vital. Without these rights, the options to improve the position of disadvantaged groups are severely limited. Issues of citizenship and property rights play a significant role in many conflicts, for instance in the land conflicts in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. One of the causes of the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo was the appropriation of ancestral land by wealthy entrepreneurs. With some ethnic groups in better a position to take advantage, this also increased ethnic tensions.

Third, to limit inequalities between different groups after conflict, the peace process should include actors from all groups. Even where it may at times be more feasible to reach a settlement between the largest groups, others should be involved in the process as early and as closely as possible, even if they were not parties to the conflict. A good example of this is the current efforts to improve the position to the Batwa in Burundi. Comprising about 1 percent of the population, they have been marginalized and were caught in the crossfire during the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi groups. The Arusha Agreement that ended the war stipulated that three seats in the National Assembly and three in the Senate be reserved for members of the Batwa community.

Fourth, post-conflict reconstruction efforts should take account of possible inequalities between different groups, as these may have been a contributing factor to the conflict in the first place. For instance, a study undertaken after the conflict in Burundi finds that rebuilding damaged buildings without looking at their geographic and ethnic distribution runs the risk of reinforcing the inequalities that caused the war. 23 The fact that particular areas were targeted during the war was also related to the fact that they previously had a favourable geography and ethnic makeup. Rebuilding the same schools that were burnt down, without building new ones in places that never had them previously, reinforces inequalities.

To conclude, more research is needed to understand exactly how and when inequalities lead to conflict and what policies can prevent this. But it is clear that a wider lens is needed than the purely economic perspective taken by Collier and colleagues. Evidence shows that when inequalities intersect with ethnic, religious or regional divides, it creates a high risk of civil conflict. Inequalities in societies should thus be taken seriously. This includes looking at the ways in which inequalities are addressed, devoting attention to citizenship and property rights and inclusive peace processes, and making sure that reconstruction efforts in fragile post-conflict situations do not ignite renewed inequalities. That will not only lead to more equal societies, but can also prevent war.


Prof. Georg Frerks, chair in Conflict Prevention and Conflict Management at Utrecht University and in Disaster Studies at Wageningen University.

Chris van der Borgh, assistant professor at the Centre for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University, the Netherlands.

Dr. Berma Klein Goldewijk, UPEACE Affiliate Associate Professor for Peace & Conflict Studies, and Academic Director of the University for Peace Centre The Hague (UPEACE The Hague).

Photo credit main picture: Photo credit: UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran