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