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The Economics of Civil War in Africa

July 11, 2012


The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute recently that “…Africa is the most conflict ridden region of the World and the only region in which the number of armed conflicts is on the increase.” This view seems to be true enough without one giving much thought to it. I would venture so far as to say this would in fact be a universal view for people across the world were they to be quizzed on the matter. Granted that this view is close enough to reality, the question would be why is civil war incidence higher in Africa?  And are there any economic underpinnings to this?

So I went into the world of Academia and did some digging for this week’s post and fortunately stumbled upon some useful findings. An econometric study done by World Bank economist Paul Collier found evidence to corroborate the view that civil war incidence is higher in our part of the world than in other regions and even more worryingly, the incidence of civil war has been increasing in Sub-Sahara Africa over the last 35 years while there has been a steady decline in other parts of the world.

I quite like the How Collier sets off his thesis with the question, is Africa systematically different from other regions? This is an important philosophical question I feel, as it addresses culture, heritage and temperament.  For example I would go on further myself to ask is there a mysterious `Africa effect’ that makes people of our continent more violent than others?

The findings were not that surprising as Collier found out that the African continent the generally seemed to buck the global trend of a more peaceful world.  It seems to be that non-African developing countries have gradually become less prone to civil conflict over the past thirty-five years.  Contrary to other regions, Africa has indeed experienced a rising trend of conflict. However, this is fully accounted for by divergent trends in African and non-African economic conditions. Africa has experienced a rising trend of conflict because its economies have performed so poorly both absolutely and relative to other regions.

In the same study Collier designed an analytic econometric model that is in line with the rational choice tradition, with the ability to predict the probability of a civil war being initiated in a country during a five year period. The analytic model focuses on whether a rebel organization will be established.

The benefits of rebellion might accrue through a variety of sources. The rebellion might be motivated purely by `greed’ – the income that can be achieved either during the rebellion from quasi-criminal looting, and the benefits that ensue if the rebellion is victorious from control of the state revenues. Alternatively, it might be motivated purely by `grievance’ – the opposition to perceived or actual injustice.

The main costs of rebellion are the labor-force and equipment needed for a rebel army that can survive against the military threat posed by government forces. Because these costs must be met, even if the rebellion is motivated entirely by grievance it must generate revenue. Hence, the circumstances that determine financial viability are potentially important regardless of the motivation for rebellion.

The probability of rebellion increases as benefits rise relative to costs. Four important determinants of a rebellion as per the model are said to be finance, grievance, military viability and history. Potentially, finance is the only binding constraint on rebellion. Civil wars occur only when rebel groups are able to build large organizations, and such organizations require substantial financial resources both to meet their payrolls and to purchase armaments. Societies may differ considerably in the extent to which such large scale finance is available so that this is decisive.

An alternative is that finance is usually available when needed, whereas the supply of groups wishing to satisfy grievances through violent means is the binding constraint on rebellion. In this case we might expect that objective indicators of grievance, such as economic inequality, and ethnic or religious divisions, would fuel grievance, while the lack of democracy might channel these grievances into violence. Hence, these indicators would predict rebellion.

A further alternative is that rebellion is determined by its military viability. Rebels may need to meet a `survival constraint’ determined by the size of rebel forces relative to government forces and geographic factors such as whether the population is dispersed.

Rebellions are then more likely in societies in which government forces are weak and geographic conditions make it difficult for these forces to defend national territory. A final alternative is that conflict risk is determined by history. Once a conflict has occurred it creates a legacy of hatred and this hatred fuels further conflict. On this analysis, some societies are doomed to a cycle of repeated conflict.

Furthermore Collier’s model concluded that primary commodity exports have a strong effect on the risk of conflict, although the effect is non-monotonic. Until high levels of primary commodity dependence are reached, primary commodity exports powerfully increase the risk of conflict. This is what political commentators have often termed the ‘Africa’s natural mineral’s curse’.

So what is Collier saying when it’s all said and done? On average, over the period 1965-99, Africa had an incidence of conflict similar to that in other developing regions. However, its structure of risk was very different. Africa’s economic characteristics generated a high risk of conflict.

The model predicts correctly that non-African developing countries would have experienced a declining trend of conflict. The model accounts for this by their improved economic conditions. By contrast, the model correctly predicts the rising trend of African conflict. Again, this is fully accounted for by the deterioration in Africa’s economic performance. The analysis suggests that the rising trend of African conflict is not due to deep problems in its social structure, as suggested by other analysts, but rather is the contingent effect of economic circumstances. So there you go folks, our black people are no more inherently violent than any other race.


From → Economics

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