Recent articles on conflict

Here’s a handful of interesting articles & books that have passed through my huge pile of unsorted PDFs neatly tagged Evernote notebooks recently.  I’ve included links to ungated versions when available; please let me know if you have access to a free version of any of the gated texts.

  • Chris Blattman’s lecture notes on what American political scientists know about the connection between poverty and violence.  A quick, thought-provoking slide deck.
  • Danielle Beswick on the paradoxes of military capacity building in Rwanda (published version appears to be available for free right now).  Nothing new here if you’ve been watching Rwanda and M23 for a while, but the focus on the risks of a strong military is a useful addition to policy discussions of security sector reform.
  • I haven’t read Severine Autesserre’s Peaceland yet, but it’s high on my list.  Another article covering similar territory to Autesserre’s last book is Jens Stilhoff Sörensen’s piece on the failure of statebuilding.  Key quote: “In its aim to secure, I argue, contemporary state-building and global liberal governance contribute to social and spatial fragmentation in different forms, rather than reconciliation and re-integration.They do so by dismantling previously existing frameworks and introducing market relations where the state has few instruments for attracting cross-sectarian loyalty” (p. 49).
  • Michael Gilligan et al. on how conflict affects social cohesion at the community level in Nepal.  Key point: “We find that violence-affected communities exhibit higher levels of prosocial motivation… We find evidence to support two social transformation mechanisms: (1) a purging mechanism by which less social persons disproportionately flee communities plagued by war and (2) a collective coping mechanism by which individuals who have few options to flee band together to cope with threats” (p. 604)

What explains peace?

In case you missed it, Jon Temin had a great article at Foreign Policy last month asking a critically important question: “Why don’t the policymakers and practitioners looking to end the world’s deadliest wars spend more time studying peace?”  This could mean peace at the country level (he compares Niger’s peaceful relationship with its Tuareg minority to the fraught relationship in neighboring Mali), or within a single country (as shown by the surprising stability of the state of Western Equatoria in South Sudan).  At an even more granular level of analysis, one could look at the case of Butembo – a Congolese city which has remained fairly insulated from conflict despite its location in restive North Kivu province.  But the question in any case is the same: why do some places fall into conflict, while others with similar characteristics manage to avoid it?

There’s a large body of literature in political science looking at cases where civil wars have occurred, but much less looking at war’s absence.  Based on my reading of the conflict literature, here are three factors that the study of peace might start exploring.  (Update, 14 July: read the comments, they’re quite good.  I’ve also added a fourth item here based on feedback from Digitaldjeli.)

  • Regional conflict complexes.  Peter Wallensteen (PDF), Idean Salehyan & Kristian Skrede Gleditsch (PDF), and many others have pointed out that many civil wars are not sui generis, but are linked to conflicts in neighboring countries, often through the mechanisms of refugee movements and state support for armed groups next door.  The canonical example is the way that conflicts in Rwanda have spilled over into and exacerbated conflicts in neighboring DRC.  The obvious question here is why some refugee host countries get drawn into the wars of their neighbors, while others (like Ghana, which hosts a number of refugees from Côte d’Ivoire) manage to avoid this.
  • Ideological collective action.  In The Order of Genocide, Scott Straus finds that Rwandan provinces with administrators who belonged to the ruling MRND party acted quickly to start carrying out genocidal killings after the order came down from Kigali, while administrators who belonged to the opposition were sometimes able to delay the start of violence in their area.  The tactics they employed to do this included organizing self-defense militias for vulnerable communities, threatening to punish people who carried out genocidal attacks, and dispersing groups of men who gathered to start hunting victims.  This, of course, touches on the age-old question: why do some groups of people espouse violent ideologies, while others in the same society do not?  And to what degree are peaceful places peaceful because citizens actively worked for peace, as opposed to simply not having the right preconditions for war?
  • Land tenure policies.  Cathy Boone’s recent book Property and Political Order in Africa argues that places where land tenure rights are assigned by the state are more likely to see both violent and non-violent conflicts scale up to become quarrels with the central government.  By comparison, in places where land tenure is administered by tribal leaders or other local groups, conflicts over land tend to stay “bottled up” at the local level, and are less likely to become national political issues.  Boone stops well short of making the claim that systems of land tenure can explain the prevalence of civil war, but I think there are some ideas here that are worth digging into more deeply.  For example, the highly politicized process by which the state granted land use rights in the Kenyan highlands has created lasting and sometimes violent grievances there, while the politicized process of agricultural collectivization in neighboring Tanzania hasn’t led to large-scale violence (as far as I know).  What mitigated against the violent resolution of land access disputes in Tanzania?  And more generally, are places with tribal or other local systems of land allocation less likely to have civil wars?  This would be an interesting counterpoint to the idea that “tribalism” lies behind many conflicts.
  • Stationary bandits.  Digitaldjeli’s point was that “peace” in Butembo looks more like a protection racket, but the idea that protection rackets can grow into (peaceful, Westphalian) states is actually a classic in the American political science literature.  Mancur Olson (PDF) builds on work by people like Charles Tilly (PDF) to argue that the type of mafioso running the racket matters – “stationary bandits” will protect the people and territory under their control so they can continue to tax them in the long run, while “roving bandits” will steal everything they can from people in the short run, and offer no protection.  Put differently, decisions by political elites can matter a lot for the types of violence that occur within a state.  The million dollar question is why some elites are able to look past the short term gains of roving banditry and decide to make longer term investments in protecting their territory.

At this point I’m actually coming up against the precise problem that Temin highlights: the region I’ve studied most thoroughly, central Africa, is comprised exclusively of countries that have had civil wars, and I’m running out of non-war cases to use for comparison.  What other hypotheses or case studies can you think of that might explain instances of peace in regions seemingly predisposed to war?

Rift Valley Institute courses still accepting applications

rvi

The Rift Valley Institute’s summer courses on the Horn of Africa, the Sudans, and the Great Lakes region are starting very soon, but according to their Twitter feed applications are still being accepted.   I’d recommend the courses for anyone who is interested in these regions.  I took the Great Lakes course in 2012, and was very impressed by the group of scholars, journalists and human rights activists from within the region and beyond who led it.

Here are the dates and syllabus (PDF) for each course.

  • Horn of Africa: Nairobi, 31 May – 7 June. Syllabus
  • Sudan & South Sudan: Nairobi, 14 – 20 June.  Syllabus
  • Great Lakes: Bujumbura, 28 June – 5 July.  Syllabus

Trusteeship, weak states and civil war

The current conflict in South Sudan has generated some debate about whether the country should have been placed under a type of UN trusteeship at its inception, or still should be today.  Hank Cohen and G. Pascal Zachary argue for this type of external intervention, noting that new states are likely to have trouble creating and maintaining good institutions on their own.  (This is one reason why new states are so prone to lapse into civil war, because arguments over the distribution of power aren’t constrained by political institutions which all actors view as legitimate.)  Chris Blattman finds support for both sides of this argument, and Ken Opalo feels that trusteeship would only delay conflicts instead of preventing them.

The basic question here is about where durable political institutions come from.  Ken makes the excellent point that “the building of institutions, unlike learning a language or programing, is not something that you are taught and then left on your own to practice.  Institutions only work if they reflect the de facto balance of power, something that trusteeship would necessarily not provide.”  Put otherwise, desirable institutions like democracy or ethnic power-sharing are only viable if all the major political actors in a state agree to them, or if the state or its leaders have the ability to constrain actors who disagree from attempting to overthrow the system.  Both of these conditions are hard to come by, and it’s clear that even sustained international support for states transitioning to new institutions can’t always generate them.

That said, there’s enormous diversity in the ways that institutions are born and become durable, and it’s difficult to predict when domestic political conditions are right for an institution to stick.  The international community pushed Rwanda to end its civil war with a power-sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis in 1993, but the country returned to war and genocide less than a year later.  The international community also pushed Burundi to end its civil war with a power-sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis in 2000, and it’s more or less held up since it was implemented in 2005.  Today, both countries are at peace, albeit with significant political volatility beneath the surface.

Trusteeship is essentially an amplified version of this type of international involvement in the institutional development of post-conflict states.  It’s obviously a larger infringement on the “entrusted” state’s sovereignty, and ought to be considered very skeptically for this reason.  But it seems that rather than seeking to answer whether trusteeship is helpful or harmful on average, we should be trying to answer the same boundary questions we would pose about other types of international intervention, namely under what circumstances we expect them to be successful.  There’s some good research along these lines on other types of international intervention, like Barbara Walter’s work on when peace agreements hold, Page Fortna’s on whether peacekeeping is generally successful, and Monica Toft’s on how security sector reform promotes peace.