Causes of Armed Conflict

Kendra Dupuy shares what conclusions we can draw
from the data on why armed conflicts start.
Studying conflict trends helps create better-informed attempts to resolve and manage violent conflicts.
Particular attention is paid to different theories
on how, and why, armed conflicts start.

Since civil wars are the most common armed conflict these days, a lot of attention is focused on them.
"What were the deadliest wars in the 20th century?" asks our lecturer, Kendra Dupuy, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Our answers reflect where many of us are from, or at least where we get our information: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, WWI.

These were famous conflicts that involved major western powers, but Kendra reminds us that there were other major, and majorly bloody, conflicts like the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980's, or the series of conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea since the 1960's.

'Bloody' here refers to the amount of battle deaths, which, as we were told by Henrik Urdal in the What Is Peace Research? lecture, is just one way to measure conflicts (civilian deaths and infrastructural damage are others, among many). While the field of peace research has expanded to study the broader factors that impact the start and end of a conflict, its intensity and likelihood of recurrance, tracking the amount of deaths is still a major factor.

Before getting into today's theme (causes of armed conflicts), Kendra reviews some facts that can be read from the data we have:

Historically High Death Rates
Major conflict-related deaths, since the end of the Second World War, have been highest in Korea, Vietnam, Iran/Iraq and Syria.
Patterns in Conflict Deaths
Conflict deaths are on the decline, generally speaking. But the drop in direct deaths doesn't account for those from conflict-related starvation or other consequences. We don't have reliable enough ways of monitoring these factors yet.
Non-State Actors
The number of conflicts that involve non-state actors are on the rise, which is a major problem. Non-state actors can be found impacting ethnic-based conflicts, or conflicts involving groups such as the Islamic State (IS).

In 2018, IS was involved in 30% of current conflicts. This is most prominent in Syria, but other conflict zones involving prominent non-state actors are found in Somalia and Central Africa.
Current Conflict Death Rates
The deadliest current conflicts, per direct death rate, are Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Proxy Wars
We are also seeing the rise and entrenchment of proxy wars, which is when powerful states, such as the USA or Russia, fight conflicts indirectly, by means of other states, rebel groups and their armies.

Judging by the case in Syria (a prominent case, according to many, of proxy war), this is going to be a relevant trend for some time.
Studying conflict involves describing trends and factors using concrete terms. Some of these we learned in the previous lecture with Henrik:
Helpful Terms (UCPD):
Armed Conflict + War
A state-based armed conflict is a contested incompatibility that concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths in one calendar year.

A state-based conflict or dyad is considered a war when it reaches at least 1000 battle-related deaths in a calendar year.
One-Sided Violence
One-sided violence is the targeted killings of unarmed citizens. One-off events are known as massacres, and systemic one-sided violence can become genocide.

The case of Rwanda in the 1990's, for example, is less a civil war than two concentric episodes of one-sided violence.

Things can be mixed - in 2018, the Rohinga both experienced genocide (against civilians) while there was an onoging inter-state conflict involving Rohinga-affiliated rebel groups fighting against the government.
A conflict between two or more governments.
A conflict between a government and a non-governmental party, with no interference from other countries.
An armed conflict between a government and a non-government party where the government side, the opposing side, or both sides, receive troop support from other governments that actively participate in the conflict.
An extra-systemic conflict is a conflict between a state and a non-state group outside its own territory. These conflicts are by definition territorial, since the government side is fighting to retain control of a territory outside the state system.

The last extra-systemic conflict ended in 1974. This category basically contains colonial conflicts.

"There are three basic questions that PRIO asks itself," Kendra continues. "What explains past conflict trends, what explains current conflict trends, and why do people go to war?"

There are a number of theories concerning that last question, and in the case of civil (intrastate) war they tackle different aspects of why people choose to engage in organized, violent action against the government.

A number of possible causes include a weak state, increased opportunities to attack, grievances (including historical or and exaggerated grievances), lack of/access to resources, fear responses, ethnic or ideological factors, coercion, the formation of new states, third party interference, identity, social exclusion and more.

Current factors being studied with special interest are how large populations affect the likelihood of conflict, especially when pressures of climate change or agricultural issues make resources scarce. Demographic competitions are often seen as zero-sum games where it's either win-lose.

There's also a theory that places with a higher amount of diversity (culturally, historically) are more likely to generate conflict. Another large factor is having had a prior conflict – if you've had a war before, your likelihood of having another increases.

Internal factors like regime transitions, either to a form of democracy or from one regime to another, can create instability, uncertainty or create opportunities for attack that weren't there before (the army or police might be weaker, for example.

Then there are international influences, like globalization and economics, or how some states support or even prop up others, or withdraw their support, or use them as pawns in a proxy war.

The issue with all these theories is that they account for probabilities – no one theory can explain every conflict everywhere, and so it's up to researchers to learn more about how these factors interact with each other, and when exactly one factor becomes more relevant than another.

The job of a peace analyst is to think through the logic of different factors. We have to understand a lot of moving pieces if we want to understand why people would be driven to kill.
Fighters of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI or KDPI) in 2013.
Kurdishstruggle | Wikipedia
The way peace researchers approached these factors has changed over time, with some potential reasons receiving more attention than others at different periods of time.

When it became clear a number of years ago that around 90% of conflicts since the end of the Cold War have been civil wars in poorer regions in Asia and Africa, poverty began to be investigated as a contributor to armed conflict.

While no metric is perfect, there were some striking statistical patterns that appeared on analyzing the data.

One pattern linked the GDP per capita (income per household) to the risk of civil war, and a strong empirical relationship established that if the yearly GDP was around $250, then the probability of a civil war starting within the next five year increased by 15%. That risk lowered to 7% when personal income reached $600, and to 4% at $1250. These aren't huge probabilities, but they also aren't zero.

Does poverty cause conflict? ended up being the question in the field during the 1990's and 2000's, but obviously it's not as simple as that. When trying to analyze how poverty can impact something as complicated as a war, we need to figure out if there's a true causal relationship (does one cause the other?) or if it's merely a correlation (they're both the result of something else).

Plus, even when there is a causal link, it can go both ways (if poverty can lead to war, it goes without saying that war can lead in many cases to poverty). So you also have to account for chicken-egg dynamics.

A causal link doesn't have to be direct, though – there can also be causal mechanisms that act like chains, with one thing leading to another that leads to another that can eventually lead to war. Poverty might lead to people getting upset with the government, for example, or to higher levels of crime, or to a scramble for resources. It might be that poverty doesn't lead so much to an armed conflict as to the ingredients for one, and understanding that relationship can lead to smarter policies and interventions.

Also, if you want to investigate a theory like this, you also have to understand variation. As in, if poverty is a factor leading to civil war, how do we factor in that not all poor countries have civil wars? Think Tanzania, Malawi or Zambia, for example.

This is why research only focusing on one factor, in this case poverty, doesn't cut it. A better question to ask is why do some poor countries go to war and others don't? This leads us to find out more about what's actually going on.

Which has led to more complex theories of why civil wars start, and we'll be looking at three of these in particular today. Two of them have to do with what's known structural motivations (external factors subject to socio-political change), and the third is an example of what Kendra calls structural-psychological motivation, which has as much to do with our perception of structural factors as the structural factors themselves.

When talking about poverty, one theory says it matters because it gives people an economic motivation (incentive) for violent action: the opportunity to earn income and serve one's self-interest. Or to change the status quo or balance of power in society. People, in this framework, don't often pass up a profitable opportunity that they understand as such.

While there's no straightforward, mathematical answer, a theory is often described as being better if it can give a better account of why variation exists. And the classic theory of greed & grievance attempted to do just that.

1) Greed & Grievance

After the Cold War, and the resulting shift from interstate to intrastate conflict, most researchers were thinking about poverty or deprivation theories to explain civil war. But then some time passed and people started applying a more criminological framework: thinking about motivations people have to fight, and the opportunities that allow them to do so.

Early peace researchers were motivated by positivism, the attempt to quantify all sorts of behavior into researchable patterns (see Henrik's lecture), and many of their approaches favoured behaviour over motivation, and saw humans as primarily motivated to search economic self-interest. And since joining any kind of group effort (including a rebellion) was seen as being done with one's own interests in mind, the job of the researcher was to figure out what those interests are. This often came down to how greedy a person was.

And so, in the greed & grievance argument, grievance is combined with self-interest/greed and ultimately unleashed by opportunities that make war more feasible or desirable for rebel parties.

Think of war as a market that obeys basic market forces.

War generates profits, also known (academically) as rents, and it provides a context to loot, extort, dig up diamonds, take land and more. In this context, violence is a way to get resources. And this is intensified when a poor country is resource-rich, as there's an even bigger payoff if you can create a successful rebellion.

If we look at things from an economic standpoint, though, an even bigger obstacle to starting a war is money. Everything is expensive: equipment, resources, salaries and so on. A war can't be waged for free.

Rebels can get funds in a number of ways. There are what's known as primary commodity exports – rebels selling oil, drugs or other resources, for example (although creating stable export channels, especially for oil, is complicated). "Primary" often refers to the ability to sell a resource without processing it, as it goes without saying that a conflict can dramatically interrupt a nation's industrial capacity.

They can also be funded by diasporas living in richer countries (like how immigrants from Sri Lanka funded the Tamil Tigers). Then there are foreign governments funding different actors, like in Syria and other proxy wars.

If money is one big obstacle, the other is procuring enough personpower. In theory we can wage war with drones and other equipment (if you've got the cash), but generally speaking war is often low-tech.

Poverty can be a major factor in convincing other people to fight for you because, if they're poor and not necessarily having a lot to do, there's less to lose by picking up a gun. The worse a situation someone's in, the easier it may be to convince or coerce them into becoming a soldier.

This is partly what makes GDP per capita such an important data marker, especially when it's combined with low economic growth and low high school attendance patterns for young men (who are, in many cases, more easily recruitable).

Most of that's about greed and how economic factors play into conflict onset. Grievance is more about group-based hatreds that can form around social markers like ethnicity, class, religion and so on. The size of particular social groups is also a factor, as well as political repression, exclusion or domination. Then there's income inequality, with the people who have less wanting revenge on the people who have more (known as envy mechanisms).

These two factors were famously studied by researchers named Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, and their findings suggested that, while both are relevant, greed/opportunity seems to predict conflict more than grievance. Which means that places with higher amounts of primary resources, rich diasporas, less boys in schools, lower GDPs per capita and so on may be more likely to generate conflict (and thus need to be paid attention to).

But there are a number of issues with greed & grievance theory that need to be kept in mind. It treats rebels like street gangs that take what they can get, when they can get it...but gangs don't have articulated political narratives or ideologies.

It also doesn't explain why people use violence to achieve their goals, especially when there are other ways to do so. It implies another question: why do some people or groups actively NOT choose to use violence?

That, and there are plenty of downsides to a rebellion. Not everyone reaps the economic benefits, for example. Or some people participate more out of fear, survival or abduction. A lot of combatants from Sierra Leone said they were forced to fight and had no food – few people were making money, and fewer had ideological reasons for participating. Leaders profited, and folks at the bottom were left worse off.

So while this theory can tell us how wars are financed, it can't necessarily explain why people decide to fight. Nor can it completely account for cases of extreme acts of violence.

2) Weak States & Opportunities

Greed & grievance theory was challenged by two researchers named James Fearon and David Laitin, who claimed that, in fact, finance, greed and low personal (and personnel) costs don't create conditions for violence so much as a weak state and the opportunities it creates.

In other words, in what we normally refer to as a normal/healthy state, there are social, legal and physical barriers to using violence as a way to seek rents. When those barriers break down, as they can in poor or unstable states, they may create opportunities for rebellion.

Typically, the state controls a certain amount of territory, has a monopoly on violence (they can hit you, but you can't necessarily hit back), control the rules and laws, and generate public goods in return for taxes. This is the basic social contract: pay taxes and obey laws and you'll be provided with conditions that will help you live your life as you see fit (within limits).

This, however, is far from the norm in many places.

The idea that a strong, central authority prevents rebellion and chaos goes back to Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651), which implies that a life in the 'state of nature' is poor, nasty, brutish and short, a 'war of all against all' with no incentive to invest or create the conditions for humans to thrive.

The state is one attempt to create the order necessary for society to transcend these conditions, with people tolerating strong, sometimes authoritarian rule if it means less warlords and bandits roaming around.

The assumption here is that human nature is, at its core, somewhat rotten. Without central authority and/or coercion, people will go to war or hurt each other. This finds a reflection in the political theory known as realism, which says that without strong states to keep our baser natures in check, we're in trouble. It might mean that, as a side effect, the conditions for 'might makes right' abound, but it's still seen as better (especially for, but not only, the people at the top) than anarchy.

Looking at weak states as a major cause of conflict was a way to challenge what were seen as 'myths' in the world of peace research. Instead of looking merely at the end of the Cold War, researchers were also prompted to see how states were strengthened or weakened at the end of the Second World War, or before that with colonial structures and their disappearance.

For Fearon and Laitin, grievance was only a minor factor. Instead of looking to how IS appeals to ideological factors, they pay attention to how the Islamic State and the Taliban provide services usually done by the state. Local justice, taxes, education and social welfare, for example.

This dynamic, substituting the services of the state, can be especially important when rebel groups claim that the state itself has become incompetent, or even predatory (as was the claim among certain groups in Syria).

While greed & grievance speaks to the economic feasibility of civil war, weak state theory talks about political feasibility. As with any narrative, however, it has faced some challenges.

The chief of these being the presence of variation has to be accounted for – there are more weak states than there are conflicts. Even in a place like the USA there are some places where there's less government control than others. This reason alone doesn't explain the choice to use violence...its such a big step that other factors have to be considered.

Both the above theories claim that people rebel when they can, that rebellion is profitable and desirable, and that violence is a default human condition that needs strict regulations to contain. Poverty, in the context of these theories, either provides people with an economic motivation to rebel, or strips a state of its ability to resist.

This is a rather pessimistic approach to human nature, and Kendra says it doesn't entirely take into account group dynamics, or less obvious factors like beliefs, ideologies or honour.

3) Relative Deprivation

There's a lot of research that has recently explored relative deprivation, which is when people think of themselves as part of a group that's not getting the same opportunities as other groups.

Key elements here is having some kind of group identity, whether ethnic, religious, class-based or otherwise. And then comparing yourself to other groups in your society and feeling like you've gotten the short end of the stick.

Horizontal inequality is one key way of studying this phenomenon, and it's especially important because it's a way of trying to quantify some of the abstract issues mentioned above. It's important enough that we'll be looking at it in the next lecture so think of this as a teaser.
Gaps in the Theories
With all of these theories, though, the question remains: why take up arms? Why not protest, or just be an individual criminal? If opportunity and human nature were enough, then there would be a whole lot more violence in the world. Even looking at questions of identity (which we will tomorrow), it would still have to be strong enough to make me cooperate with others, or to kill.

One way of talking about these factors is the search for a reason that's both necessary and sufficient. In other words, a factor that is needed in order to start a rebellion, and is enough of a reason to start it. Often we find it easier to identify trends that are necessary without being sufficient, like media and propaganda.

When trying to fill in these gaps, we need to look at three major questions: why do people engage in a) organized b) violence c) against the state.

The first part, being organized, is a whole problem in and of itself and requires people to potentially forsake their individual interests for the benefit of the group. This is known as collective action.
The Collective Action Problem
The 'collective action problem' is a way of talking about how individual interests relate to the interests of a group. Looking at conflict onset from this point of view, the question isn't so much what factors make conflict possible? as why do people, especially young people, become motivated to fight? Neither greed, grievance nor weak states adequately address this.

Sociologist Paul Richards studied conflicts, particularly in Africa, with the hope of finding some insight into this issue. He says that war doesn't break out because of the right external conditions so much as the attempt is organized. People have to be trained, weapons have to be procured, and this work is done in groups. Without that level of collaboration, a rebellion won't work.

Researcher Christopher Cramer takes issue with greed/grievance/weak states as they seem to imply that civil war is a stupid thing, or that it's driven by base, uncontrollable impulses. He claims that it's not irrational at all; civil war is the product of highly complex designs that can't be accomplished through non-violent means.

Getting people together is hard work, even for obviously common interests like clean air, security or roads. No one person can provide these alone, and it requires a massive group effort to create and maintain these systems.

What makes convincing people to work together difficult is that individuals have to believe that the benefits (to them personally) have to outweigh the costs. And even when people are bought into this vision, you always have freeloaders who benefit from other peoples' work without doing work themselves and provide perhaps a temptation for more people to slack off and threaten the whole system.

Collective action theory tries to identify how people form groups capable of building (or, in this case, overthrowing) society. Strategies used range from selective incentives, to maintaining small enough groups for self-regulation, to coercion.

The Vietcong overcame this problem by giving people immediate payoffs (farmland) for signing up to fight. They also described large problems as collections of smaller problems so that people could see where they could concretely do something.

Selective incentives were also used, which give participants some small benefit that, while still something, isn't worth as much as the resources you contribute (imagine donating $30 and getting a $1 tshirt).

Coercion, of course, and in particular threats of violence, has often proved a major tool in the toolbox.
Unquantifiable Motivations
Then there are all the unquantifiable things that motivate people all the time: ideas, beliefs, social status, altruism, reciprocity, social conditioning, values, worldviews, religion. Or even just acting 'irrationally' or against your own interests, which happens often enough. These factors are harder to study than economics, politics or outward behaviour.

It can be helpful to see rebels as social movements and not exclusively as economic groups, as this can help us better understand the range of motivations that compel people to pick up arms. Take stories of ISIS soldiers and brides who left rich countries to fight for the self-declared Caliphate, for example. The above theories (while providing insight into other factors) don't account for this.

Peace researchers are trying to find ways of quantifying these motivations so as to make better predictions, but it's difficult to find relevant proxies.

A proxy, in this case, is an observable behaviour that might indicate an abstract motivation. We can't see hunger, but we can observe someone eating (or track food supplies that are available to a given community). The gini coefficient is a famous example, which tracks income inequalities between individuals (known as vertical inequality) in an attempt to find a proxy for general inequality in one society.

Henrik, in the first lecture we had at PRIO, described a 'law' called democratic peace theory, which is the notion that democracies are highly unlikely to attack each other. We don't know why this is (and why the concept is so stable), and researchers are trying to find the precise elements of a democratic society that makes certain kinds of conflict less likely.

This, however, does not apply to the likelihood of democracies fighting authoritarian regimes, it must be said.

Other hard-to-track factors are the social tensions unleashed when a state transitions into a newly democratic country (after the Cold War we saw lots of this). There are also transnational factors, border crossings, networks of who supports whom. Then there's all the backroom stuff that goes on that we don't have access too, and so can't factor into the equation.

That, and then there's the small pool of data to take from, and the relatively few conflicts that can be studied, and the limits of statistical analysis. You can't study conflict onset on a spectrum: either it happens or it doesn't. We can only make an educated guess as to what makes a war more or less likely. And even then you're watching for patterns (which can predict resurgent violence in West Asia) instead of outliers (no one thought that separatists would take East Ukraine).

To compensate for this, many researchers are trying to reach outside of the realm of quantitative research (numbers, statistics) in the realm of qualitative research (interviews, stories, subjective experiences of the subjects). There are many interesting collaborations with fields like anthropology, geography, the arts and so on.
Pro-Russian rebels shoot in the air at funeral of a fellow fighter killed in a battle for Marinka near Donetsk, Ukraine.
Mstyslav Chernov | Wikipedia
If there's one thing that Kendra wants to leave us with, it's that studying conflict onset is hard work, and often thankless. War is dangerous and expensive. People, generally speaking, prefer not dying or being pushed into killing others. Cooperating in groups is risky, and a choice has to be made to fight the state and not someone else.

Plus the ever-present question: why not do something else?

To answer these, and to get a better picture of how conflicts work, we can combine quantitative with qualitative approaches and try to find ways to account for psychology, emotion, leadership, ideology, social networks, group dynamics and other external influences. What was it, in this particular case, that made violence the most attractive option?

No one theory is perfect, as you have to figure out why all those deviations and variations are in play. But that's alright: we can mix and match different theories to see which ones stick.

And, Kendra says, if anyone comes up to you and says they have THE answer, feel free to respond with a healthy dose of skepticism. But be nice: researchers are people too.
Kendra Dupuy was a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) until 2019. She now works for Norwegian People's Aid.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and peacebuilding practitioner.
He studied at PRIO in 2018.
Banner photo by Christiaan Triebert on wikicommons
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Further Reading
Greed and Grievance in Civil War
Collier, Paul, and Anke Hoeffler. (2004).
Oxford Economic Papers 56(4):563-595.
Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil war
Fearon, James D., and David D. Laitin. (2003).
American Political Science Review, 97(1): 75-90.