Civil violence: three steps to understanding the ‘mindless criminal’

Posted by Jaideep Gupte, Research Fellow, Conflict, Violence and Development Cluster, IDS

Last weekend, twitter and various internet blogs lit up: London was under attack. Television news repeatedly showed bewildering scenes of riotous mobs on the rampage, shops being looted and buildings on fire. As the violence spread from Tottenham to several neighbourhoods across the city, ‘copy-cat criminality’[1] and mob frenzy were blamed for the continued violence. However, as public order in other cities, including Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, also broke down, it became harder to pin the violence on mindless criminality alone.

The BBC hosted a lively exchange between Edwina Currie (former Conservative MP) and West Indian columnist Darcus Howe.[2] Currie de-linked the present spate of civil violence in London from the violent rioting in Brixton in 1981, arguing that while deep-rooted racism was almost a ‘respectable’ trait in the 1980s, this was not the case now. And that youth violence today, regardless of race, is fuelled by a disconnect with society in general. In a hypothetical scenario she painted, a youth would turn to violence just to have ‘the trainers that Mum won’t buy me’ and through a lack of respect for private property, that is, not recognising the distinction between ‘what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours and I don’t touch it’. In response, Howe pointed out that young Black men continue to be a disenfranchised cohort, who are stereotyped by the police through their stop-and-search powers. Howe also indirectly questioned why that mother would not (or could not) buy running shoes for her son, or what meaning the concept of private property had for someone who had none.

These views characterise an important debate in understanding civil violence: whether it is perpetrated by mindless criminality, or whether there is a more structured anatomy of a riot. So how are we to understand the London riots? Here is a 3-step approach to understanding the ‘mindless criminal’:

Step 1 (at the macro-level): Right at the top of the list must be a recognition that civil violence, a term used to describe associated acts of violation and destruction, carried out as a sign of defiance against a central authority or between opposing groups of people, can occur in societies which we consider to be ‘modern and progressive’. There is no inherent fail-safe mechanism against the outbreak of civil violence in a modern democratic system, or in fact, any political system. Research on civil violence[3] shows us that violence can be a powerful (and emotive) mechanism to gain access to credibility and authority – for disenfranchised cohorts, this often is the most tangible means of asserting one’s identity or even gaining acceptance into social groups. This recognition keeps us from viewing the London riots as an outlandish anomaly, and in doing so, from justifying it as such.

Step 2 (at the meso-level): much has been reported about how the London rioters are destroying communities and neighbourhoods, the very fabric of society. So a second step would be to unpack why it is that shops and restaurants, often owned by known community members, were so predominantly targeted – was it because of the possibility of ‘stealing watches’, as per the clip shown repeatedly by the BBC? Quite possibly. Evidence from around the world suggests that looting and thievery form an integral part of civil violence. During the 1992-1993 riots in Mumbai, a city in India very prone to outbreaks of civil violence, for example, the police reported rioters hording mosquito repellent, cloth, TV sets and other items with a relatively low street-value. In London, it was predominantly ‘trainers…booze and fags’.[4]

Another reason for the looting might simply be that shops and restaurants are naturally the most ‘visible’ businesses from a street-view. And as such, might be seen as symbols of an economy that brings prosperity to some, but excludes others. The commonality between the various modalities of civil violence – rioting, arson, stone/missile throwing – is that they are all very ‘public’ forms of violence. There is no point in rioting in a private hall, hidden from public view. Riots, fires and scenes of stone pelting create powerful images of public disorder, which convey much more than the physical impact of the violence – they carry a message to a wider audience.

The act of looting, as much as the loot itself, is therefore of value to the looter – it symbolises defiance, identity and even (perversely) ability. These acts of violence can play important roles in signalling one’s ‘merit’ – something of tremendous importance to a disenfranchised teenager.

Step 3 (at the micro-level): Why don’t individuals ‘free-ride’? This is a simple question posed by Horowitz,[5] who asks why individuals with grievances don’t let others be violent on their behalf, and free-ride on the outcomes of the social turmoil. This question holds even though the risk of getting arrested is much lower when in a mob, since in the least, the risk of injury is still much higher in a riot. That is, why haven’t the London rioters sat back and watched, rather than instinctively taken part in the seemingly illogical acts of violence? When asked in this manner, the question seems to present the obvious answer – because there was a logic to perpetrating the violence. If the violence is against visible symbols of the prosperity that you are not a part of – if shops and restaurants are places you will never be able to provide custom to, or get a job in – then they seem distant from the turmoil of one’s own everyday needs. On the other hand, emotive acts of public violence can, and do, provide a sense belonging.

Viewed through this 3-step approach, it is evident that the London rioters are perhaps not the mindless criminals they are being made out to be. But neither can the recent events simply be seen as a spontaneous uprising of highly disenfranchised and emotive youth. While the riots need to be understood in the wider contexts of social, political and economic inequality, it also needs to be recognised that there is a certain structure to these acts of violence. The seemingly ‘mindless’ violence can in fact have very structured, even instrumental, underpinnings.

As per the Currie-Howe debate, here are some basic statistics to help you make up your own mind: unemployment in the UK for 16-24 years olds is up from 17.90% in the early 1990s to 19.70% in 2010, while London continues to have the highest unemployment rate for this cohort at 22%.[6] Currently, 22% of 19 year old boys in England do not have a basic education, while this figure drops to 15% for girls.[7] Black young adults (16-24 years) are four times as likely to be in prison under sentence, than White young adults, and almost eight times as likely as Asian young adults.[8] Nevertheless, the number of burglaries and violent incidents with injuries have dropped significantly since the 1990s – from 1.8 million burglaries in 1995 to 0.7 million this year, and from 2.4 million incidents to 1.2 million over the same time period. 50% of adults surveyed in 2000 believed that the crime rate was increasing, this figure has dropped to 28% now. And while 24% of adults reported being very worried about being the victim of violent crime in 2000, this year the figure has dropped to 13%.[9]

A final parting comment – both the Prime Minister and the Acting Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police are vociferously broadcasting a heavy-handed approach to bring the criminals responsible to justice. Research shows that prolonged ex-post policing (measures which increase police activity after the act of violence) can be linked in the long-run to an increase in social unrest.[10] Perhaps the PM’s comment that the violence is ‘wrecking your own life’,[11] further antagonises the very insecurities that cause youth to take part in such acts of civil violence.

[2] Newsnight 8th August 2011 – can be seen in the UK at

[3] Gupte, Jaideep. 2008. “Linking urban vulnerability, infra-power and ‘communal’ violence: extralegal security and policing in South Central, Mumbai.” In 9th Annual Global Development Network Conference on Security for Development: Confronting Threats to Survival and Safety Brisbane, Australia. Available at

[5] Horowitz, Donald. 2001. The Deadly Ethnic Riot. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[6] Labour Force Survey, ONS.

[7] DfE publication based on matched administrative data, England; data for 2010. Taken from

[8] Offender Management Caseload Statistics; Ministry of Justice; England and Wales, data for 2010.

[9] British Crime Survey, Home Office; England and Wales, average 2007/08 to 2009/10.

[10] Justino, P. 2007. Carrot or stick? Redistributive transfers versus policing in contexts of civil unrest. MICROCON Research Working Paper 3, Brighton: MICROCON. Available at

[11] David Cameron’s Downing Street statement on the riots, 9th August, 2011.


Violent Conflict and Incomplete Control

This blog was first posted on 1 July 2011 by Lawrence Haddad, IDS Director, on his Development Horizons blog and reproduced here with his kind permission.

In June I spent the day at a conference hosted by IDS on the Micro Analysis of Violent Conflict, organised by an EC supported research consortium, MICROCON.

 The Director of MICROCON, IDS Fellow Patricia Justino, kicked things off by pointing out that the starting point in 2006 was that (a) most work on violence and conflict is at the state level, (b) we knew very little about the impacts of conflict and violence on ordinary people and (c) very little about how people can and cannot “navigate” (a term introduced by Philip Verwimp, one of the co-Directors of MICROCON) their ways through it–ways, which if uncovered, will provide important clues and cues to policy formulation in this area.

Some reflections

  1. MICROCON has made a very conscious effort to collect data, sharing it as widely as possible. As Chris Cramer, one of the participants, said, if truth is the first casualty of war then evidence is one of the key battlegrounds–in other words, data can help shed light on dynamic, chaotic and uncertain contexts. Tilman Bruck (DIW in Germany) and Gary Milante (World Bank and an author of the latest WDR) spoke about how we can be more systematic about collecting data in conflict areas, using panels and more standard definitions of key variables.
  2. The people focus is simple, but powerful. It helps delve into the household (do conflict and violence affect intrahousehold power dynamics in predictable ways? Do regular empirical observations –e.g. greater resources in the hands of women empowers them–hold when conflict is the shock?). It also helps us understand how institutions (in terms of norms, rules of the game and organisations) can lead to and be born from violent conflict (e.g. the importance of restoring health and education services—even if not focused on the poorest–is a way of signalling that normality is returning and hope invested in a peaceful solution is less likely to be squandered).
  3. Incomplete control. We heard about Stathis Kalyvas’ incomplete control hypothesis of when political actors use violence. When they have complete control (hence the Clash picture) they don’t need to use violence and when they have no control violence is counterproductive as they have no information to make the violence selective.
  4. Conflict can turn things upside down. Like in some parallel universe, university degrees are good things in peacetime but in conflict they can be a signal to help target elites.
  5. Policy priorities. We heard from the policy-oriented participants how difficult it is to prioritise and sequence interventions in conflict affected and post-conflict settings, because everything seems to need addressing. The conclusion seemed to be “it’s almost more important to prioritise something than what is that is prioritised”. In the nutrition area, I highlighted how the presence of violence and conflict (and their apparently unpredictable distribution of impacts) made it even more important to protect the first 1000 days of an infants life, regardless of whether they are malnourished or not.

This is an exciting area. While I suspect the “impact of conflict” evidence is well on its way to being filled, the gap that is now yawning is the “impact of conflict prevention and mitigation interventions”. That would build on the work of MICROCON version 1 and would be a good focus for MICROCON version 2.

What can decision makers learn from people living in violent conflict?

Almost one third of the world’s population are affected daily by violence yet policies addressing conflict still focus on the ‘big picture’ and do little to place people at the centre of interventions. How could a more ‘micro’ approach which understands how people are affected by conflict lead to policies and peace agreements that are more effective on the ground?

MICROCON, a five-year research programme which focuses on the micro-level analysis of conflict will be holding a conference this week week to debate this issue. Among the topics being covered, participants will explore household coping strategies, how living with violence affects people’s health and the ways in which people in areas of violence adapt to survive.

Delegates, who are expected to be drawn from across the development sector, will also discuss the role that research has to play in informing policy and practice in these contexts.

During the conference, MICROCON will be unveiling their latest research findings to reveal what they believe will lead to innovative policies, more effective interventions and whether an emphasis on evidence-based policy is making a difference.

“The impacts to people living in violent conflict have been ignored for too long.” says Programme Director Dr Patricia Justino. “MICROCON hopes to change the way decisions are made about conflict so that these individuals aren’t forgotten. Development agencies and policy makers need to remember that ordinary people matter.”

This is a pivotal moment in research into violence and conflict, and MICROCON are keen to share the forthcoming debates beyond the conference walls. Highlights from the two day event will be captured in a number of ways. Visit the MICROCON website for live tweeting, video, podcasts and more.

‘Policy and practice in violent contexts: What can the latest research teach us?’ runs from 30 June – 1 July at the Institute of Development Studies, UK.

How Republican are Alassane Ouattara’s “Republican Forces”?

Posted by Moussa Fofana and Yvan Guichaoua


Laurent Gbagbo’s stubborn efforts to cling to power despite his electoral defeat have pushed his rival Alassane Ouattara to use force to gain effective presidency of Côte d’Ivoire. This choice is politically costly. It partially alters the legitimacy Ouattara won through the ballot box. It also raises the profiles of those who ousted Gbagbo through the gun: the former rebels, who were opportunistically rebranded “Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire” (RFCI) just before the assault against the security forces which remained loyal to the ex-president.

The political promotion of the ex-rebels triggers a series of questions respectively pertaining to their capacity to ensure security in the country, to the intentions of their chiefs, to the future of the forms of governance they have established in the north and to the process of demobilization of their low-level combatants.

It is worth stressing that the bulk of Ouattara’s troops do not generally correspond to the portrait of ‘traditional warriors’ from the north seeking ethnic revenge – this idea is more ideological than empirically grounded. The few serious sociological investigations available show the wide array of drivers of enlistment in the ex-rebel forces. Some may be opportunistic and personal. Others have to do with the deep moral outrage caused by the institutionalization of the discriminatory ideology of “Ivoirité” under Bédié and Gbagbo which made many Northerners feel like second-class citizens.

Furthermore, new untrained recruits might have been mobilized in Abidjan immediately before the fall of Gbagbo but most of the pro-Ouattara fighters were professional soldiers or enrolled in a process of professionalization as part of the integration programs stemming from the 2007 Ouagadougou peace accords. The army that fought for Ouattara in 2011 bears little resemblance to the hastily mobilized forces that fought Gbagbo’s troops in the aftermath of the failed coup in 2002. Ouattara’s RFCI were also rapidly reinforced by regular army soldiers abandoning Gbagbo as defeat got closer. The ‘Republican’ quality of this new and unusual composite of security forces still needs to be tested, though.

The first test concerns the capacity of the RFCI to secure the country’s territory and prevent atrocities. The RFCI’s accomplishments so far are hardly commendable. The minimum, consisting in capturing Gbagbo alive and avoiding the bloodbath prophesized by his followers, has been achieved. But, according to the international NGO Human Rights Watch, some members of the RFCI were involved in the massacres perpetrated in Duekoue. Similarly, the conquest of Abidjan was accompanied by bloody reprisals for the attacks perpetrated by the pro-Gbagbo militias after the elections in November.

A second major security concern relates to the future of the ‘comzones’, which is the name given to rebel officers who have been ruling the northern territories for almost a decade and who commanded the troops which ultimately dislodged Gbagbo. The comzones are important for at least two reasons: because of their ability to mobilise militarily and because of their hold on informal economic and political networks which buttress the forms of governance dominant in the north. Therefore, the comzones’ expectations in the post-Gbagbo era are not only related to their contribution to Ouattara’s rise to power; they also depend on the opportunity cost of relinquishing the advantages they derive from their northern fiefdoms. The popular legitimacy of the newly nominated préfets and the fulfilment of Ouattara’s promises of decentralization will be key assets permitting political and economic transition and the dismantling of comzones’ influence in the north.

On a personal level, the comzones’ ambitions vary. Some have already expressed their intention to quit the army. Others hope to move up the military hierarchy. The man holding the key role in the shaping of the comzones’ future is Guillaume Soro, Ouattara’s current Prime Minister, whose trajectory so far has been questionable. Crimes that were perpetrated by the ‘New Forces’ under his command expose him to international prosecution and the recent killing of his old rival Ibrahim Coulibaly in Abidjan shows that interpersonal vendettas among ex-rebels are not over. Soro is due to leave office as part of an electoral deal between Ouattara and his circumstantial ally Henri Konan Bédié. Soro’s resignation will be a welcome signal that power now belongs to civil authorities.

A third yardstick in Ivorian security politics concerns the demobilization of thousands of combatants from all sides. Most pro-Ouattara combatants expect some kind of compensation for what they perceive as a sacrifice for the cause while pro-Gbagbo militias may still trade their surrender. Reintegration programs plan to offer mostly economic reward to those returning to civilian life, and fresh flows of funding should satisfy the most pressing demands. In the longer term however, the dangerous effects on people’s lives of years of socialization through the gun will have to be addressed.

The window of opportunity to restore Republican behaviour among reconfigured Ivorian security forces is narrow. The resolve shown by Ivorian authorities to introduce positive changes will be the best indicator for Ivoirians that impunity and arbitrariness inherited from the war are over.

Feminist Curiosity: Taking a critical view of wars and violence


Posted by Colette Harris

Cynthia Enloe, that superb analyst of gender and international conflict, constantly reminds us of the importance of using a feminist curiosity. She defines this as a kind of curiosity that refuses to be lazy about the uncritical acceptance of ‘naturalised’ expressions – ‘peace activists’, ‘child soldiers’, or ‘occupation authorities’, for instance – and instead insists on taking them to pieces to examine how they work. By this she means examining the work they do in concealing hegemonic power relations.

I use hegemonic here in the Gramscian sense of naturalised and thus concealed power in the form of ideology created by elites for the very purpose of preventing the rest of us from even having this kind of curiosity in the first place, let alone doing anything with it. A feminist curiosity then can be interpreted as one that takes women’s lives seriously, not because women merit greater attention than men but rather because the significant amount of political manoeuvring that goes on to make them seem unimportant suggests something crucial is being concealed here that we need to examine in order to understand the functioning of politics more generally. [1]

A feminist curiosity can further be of use in examining and unpacking the power system enshrined in that political category termed ‘gender’, in which male/female symbolises an intrinsic relationship of inequality. Here, I want to move the discussion beyond personal relationships to the issue of masculinism – that is, to a way of doing/thinking/conceptualising/articulating infused with an outlook resulting from a hegemonic view of the world deriving from privileging traits associated with middle-class white masculinity, while those associated with femininity are correspondingly devalued.

 Commonly associated traits include:

Masculine = strong, prudent, responsible, objective, and willing to fight, rational and a strategic, global thinker

Feminine = weak, emotional, irrational, passive, nurturing, needing protection from violence, localised thinking, limited to domestic horizons

In this way masculinism supports multiple hierarchisations of human society – including racism as well as sexism. [2]
Indeed, masculinism has long been used to devalue men of the global south, portrayed as effeminate or hypermasculine, both negative terms used in comparison with the ideal white middle-class European male, as well as lower-class white men. [3]

It has further been shown that masculinist language is routinely used by those encouraging involvement in violence. This ranges from Carol Cohn’s [4] and Myriam Miedzian‘s [5] studies of rhetoric used at the top levels of the US government including by presidents, to my own studies of men on the ground being incited to participate in violence in African and Asian wars.

Masculinism is further intrinsically involved in the language of militarism, with phrases that practically cry out for dissection, such as ‘collateral damage’, ‘friendly fire’ and ‘failed states’. Thus, the effects of the binary divisions discussed above go far beyond the meanings ascribed to male and female bodies and the resulting power inequalities, to the way gender ‘functions as a symbolic system: our ideas about gender permeate and shape our ideas about … politics, weapons, and warfare’.

The work of Enloe, Cohn and many others shows us the importance of exercising our own curiosity as we watch on our television sets, read in our newspapers or listen on the wireless to accounts by journalists, politicians and analysts presenting issues around violent conflict. We need to apply such curiosity to documentaries such as John Pilger’s latest (The war you don’t see [6]) in which he interviews the heads of the BBC and ITV news services, as well as well-known print journalists, about why they had not been more curious about the stories governments were telling them about their reasons for invading Iraq.

We need to apply our curiosity in fact to every war story we hear and similarly ask why it is being reported in this way, who benefits from its being reported like this, whether it matters if we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked and how we can prevent this.

One way we can do this is to cultivate tools for applying our feminist curiosity through studying the works of the above authors and others who apply a similar curiosity to their own political analyses. We need to understand that not only is it important to be critical about what is said but also about the very criteria selected for analysis. True curiosity will find us burrowing deep beneath the surface to tease out the links that have been obscured perhaps deliberately in order to prevent our understanding them.

Many of Enloe’s lectures are available on Youtube. I particularly recommend her ‘Women and Men in the Iraq War: What Can Feminist Curiosity Reveal?’ even for those of you not from the United States as it tells us so much we hadn’t even thought of about militarism and the costs of war both in human and economic terms. While on the surface Enloe mainly focuses on women, careful listening will reveal the fact that what she is actually doing is to pull apart the platitudes that hide from us what the politicians and other elites don’t want us to know about the mechanisms by which they deliberately manipulate the public into supporting their wars, while quietly ensuring the costs are born by individuals and their families.

Other videos available on YouTube and elsewhere help us cultivate if not a feminist curiosity then at least a highly critical political one. The documentaries of Adam Curtis and John Pilger, the lectures of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, all of these help us cultivate our curiosity in useful directions that can help us understand more about the militarism and war culture in which our nations and with them we ourselves are embedded.

Cynthia Enloe (2004) The curious feminist, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

 Cynthia Enloe (2007) Globalization and militarism: feminists make the link, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield

Kimberly Hutchings (2008) Cognitive short cuts, in Jane Parpart and Marysia Zalewski (eds), Rethinking the Man Question: Sex, Gender and Violence in International Relations, London: Zed, 23-46.

Charlotte Hooper (1998) Masculinist Practices and Gender Politics: The Operation of Multiple Masculinities in International Relations, in Marysia Zalewski and Jane Parpart (eds), The “Man“ Question in International Relations, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 28-53.

Mrinalini Sinha (1997) Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali‘ in the late nineteenth century, New Delhi: Kali for Women.

E.g. Carol Cohn (1993),Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking gender and thinking war, in Gendering War Talk, Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott (editors) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 225-246.

Myriam Miedzian (1992) Boys will be boys: breaking the link between masculinity and violence, London: Virago.

Broadcast in the UK on ITV1 on 14th December 2010, it is now available in segments at: Pilger’s The invisible government is also well worth watching

Conflict Traps: How does poverty cause war, and how does war cause poverty?

Posted by Patricia Justino

This year’s World Development Report, published a couple of weeks ago, emphasises the fact that one of the biggest drivers of poverty in the developing world is violent conflict. One of the biggest risks for developing countries, it argues, is that of being caught in a conflict trap – a vicious circle whereby poverty stokes conflict, and conflict in turn increases poverty.

Over the past few years, one of MICROCON’s main aims has been to unpack the interaction between poverty and conflict at the micro-level, in order to uncover the role of dynamic local processes in the outbreak and duration of civil wars, and the impact of armed conflicts on the livelihoods of individuals and households affected by violence.

I would like to use this blog post to briefly summarise some of our main findings about the main channels that link poverty and conflict, as well as the findings from a related research network, the Households in Conflict Network.

I will start with the impacts of war on poverty. Research to date tells us this impact operates through several channels. The first two of these are ‘physical capital’ and ‘human capital’. Physical capital refers mainly to assets such as houses, land, labour, cattle and other productive assets. These are often destroyed or looted during wars, which deprives households of important sources of livelihood, although other households may benefit from looting and the redistribution of assets.

Human capital refers to the characteristics of households which allow them to perform labour and so to earn a living. Such capital can be lost through the deaths of, and injuries to, household members, as well as through psychological trauma, malnutrition and the denial of education. Such losses can severely impair households’ earning ability.

The nature and extent of the impact of these types of war-induced shocks is determined to a large extent by the way in which different individuals and households respond to war-induced shocks. There is currently little understanding about how war-time and post-war coping strategies differ, but it seems clear that people adopt a complex set of strategies such as diversification of land holdings and crop cultivation, storage of grain, resorting to sales of assets, and migration – and such strategies may also include fighting, looting, support for armed groups and participation in illegal activities.

One of the most under-researched areas in looking at the impact of war on poverty is that of institutional change. Institutional change can have a considerable impact on the level and dynamics of poverty in wartime, because they affect the nature, organisation and use of violence in civil wars. Two areas of institutional change remain particularly under-researched.

First, is the way in which war changes social cohesion and norms of cooperation. The impact of these changes on individual and household poverty levels and dynamics can be significant because these changes affect people’s ability to rely on community relations in times of difficulty, including accessing particular employment or credit arrangements. These effects are largely determined by changes in household composition and the displacement and migration of households to safer areas. They are also caused by the dynamics of the conflict itself, such as people denouncing each other, different groups turning against each other and changes in levels of trust.

Conversely, some studies have found that there can be some positive effects of exposure to violence, especially through increased political participation of those affected. However, evidence on both positive and negative effects is still scarce, and there is a need for more studies that combine in-depth social analysis with larger quantitative studies.

Second, is the effect of war on political institutions and local governance. These effects are likely to be important in contexts of civil war because during such wars property rights are insecure and often cannot be enforced because the state has lost the monopoly of violence and the rule of law does not operate.

There is also likely to be profound institutional transformation during violent conflict. The type of institutions that emerge during violent conflict determines the access of households to education opportunities, to buy land and other assets, to borrow funds and invest them in productive activities and to have a voice in socio-political decisions in their communities.

The reverse chain of causation – from poverty to war – has been the subject of a significant body of work over the past decade. An influential body of cross-national empirical work has yielded some important findings, most famously that civil wars are more likely to take place in poor countries. However, the cross-country work gives us only limited accounts of the mechanisms through which low incomes amongst a large portion of society affect the outbreak of civil war.

Why would those living under precarious economic conditions participate in and support civil wars? Traditional political science literature attributes participation in violence to the presence of material incentives, and many studies have supported this view. A related view has also been supported, that it may be too costly for people not to participate, due for instance to the danger of being associated with the other side of the conflict.

In addition, many other studies have shown that many people may become soldiers for less directly material reasons, from misery and a lack of voice, to a whole range of socio-emotional motivations such as grief, anger, pride in participation, or to gain a new sense of hope and dignity.

Literature on the role of poverty in collective mobilisation is contradictory, with some emphasising the role of ‘greed’ in mobilisation, whilst others present evidence for the role of inequalities and grievances conceptualised in a variety of ways. How can we account for these seemingly contradictory findings? While poverty, inequality, social exclusion, discrimination and other sources of grievances exist in most societies, only a handful of countries have experienced civil wars because not all countries have in place appropriate structures and institutions that allow the translation of grievances into acts of violence and rebellion.

In addition, armed conflict cannot be sustained without material and financial support. Therefore, poverty per se is unlikely to be a sufficient condition to trigger civil war, but may be instrumental to the organisation of collective violence when other conditions are in place.

In spite of considerable progress in our understanding of the channels linking poverty and war over the past decade, our knowledge is still quite limited. It is vital that progress continues to be made towards better estimation of the effects of civil wars on individual and household poverty levels and dynamics, and more systematic theorisation of channels whereby warfare affects poverty. This will contribute towards more realistic post-conflict social policies to reduce poverty and increase economic resilience amongst those living with violence. It will also have important implications for the sustainability of peace as protection strategies adopted by individuals and households in conflict areas have a considerable impact on the organisation and duration of warfare.

You can find a more detailed analysis of these issues in my MICROCON paper ‘War and Poverty’.

Introducing a New MICROCON Book: ‘The European Union, Civil Society and Conflict’

Posted by Nathalie Tocci and Nona Mikhelidze


The European Union considers conflict resolution as a cardinal objective of its foreign policy. It makes use of a number of foreign policy instruments to promote peace abroad, which cover a range of sectors affecting the conditions and incentives underpinning conflicts at macro and micro levels. Particularly when it comes to influencing the micro conditions of conflict, the EU has started recognizing the importance of engaging with civil society, especially civil society organizations (CSOs) that are present and active at the local level in conflict countries.

Engaging with local civil societies can both represent a goal in itself as well as a means to enhance the effectiveness of EU peace policies in conflict contexts. Yet the precise interrelationships between the EU, civil society and conflicts in the Union’s southern and eastern neighbourhoods has never been examined and the potential complementarity between civil society and EU actors in conflict contexts has never been explored.

Up until recently, the EU tended to view and tackle violent mass conflicts exclusively in a top-down fashion. It interacted with, presented incentives to and attempted to mediate between conflict leaders and powerful external actors. Yet particularly in those conflicts commonly defined as protracted and in which peace processes are “frozen”, the EU has increasingly appreciated the need to engage, work with and influence mid-level and grassroots civil society actors, who in turn impact upon the evolution of societies on the ground.

As civil society actors themselves have recognized for many years, particularly when top-level peace settlements prove elusive, acting at the grassroots level can represent the only feasible and effective peace strategy. Moreover, in view of the EU’s own sui generis internal nature, EU actors are prone in principle to viewing and intervening in conflicts in a bottom-up and structural manner.

Many EU foreign policy instruments, particularly those available in the neighbourhood, hold the potential of affecting the conditions and incentives playing out at the mid or micro levels of conflict. In particular, the European Neighbourhood Policy alongside complementary initiatives such as the Union for the Mediterranean and the Eastern Partnership, building upon existing EU contractual ties with neighbouring countries (e.g., the Association Agreements with the southern Mediterranean countries and the Partnership and Cooperation Agreements with the former Soviet countries), hold the promise of enhancing the depth and breadth of EU involvement in neighbourhood conflicts.

Not only does the ENP consider conflict resolution as one of its key priorities. But the manner in which the ENP is structured and developed raises the scope for the EU’s micro and mid-level involvement in conflicts. The ENP with its focus on civil society alongside governments could change the incentives and actions of mid- and micro-level players in conflicts, including NGOs, research centres, community-based groups, student and women groups, social movements, charities and foundations, media actors, and business and professional associations.  

With this context in mind, the aim of a new book published recently by MICROCON, entitled ‘The European Union, Civil Society and Conflict’ is to explore the role of the EU in conflicts at the mid- and micro-levels by engaging with local civil societies, as well as to identify how the complementarity between the EU and local civil societies could be strengthened at the service of conflict transformation. This book aims further to advance the current scholarly debate regarding the role of civil society in conflict and conflict transformation. These questions are tackled by analysing five case studies in the European eastern and southern neighbourhoods: Georgia/Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Israel/Palestine and Western Sahara. Through the comparative examination of these cases, this volume draws policy guidelines tailored to governmental and non-governmental action.

Over the course of 2007-2010, the project unfolded in three main phases (1- elaboration of a theoretical framework, 2- case studies in five conflict areas, and 3- comparative analysis). The results gathered in this volume have been intensely discussed both within the research project and with external audiences, and in particular with academics and civil society representatives in two conferences in Sofia (June 2008) and Berlin (July 2009) and one workshop in Rome (May 2009).

By exploring the nexus linking the EU, conflict and civil society the book is unique in the present market by contributing concomitantly to the literatures on European Union foreign policy, conflict resolution and civil society.