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Poverty: A contributing factor to civil war?

Poverty: A contributing factor to civil war?

Photo credit: Kate Holt/AusAID

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Braithwaite, A., Dasandi, N., & Hudson, D. (2016). Does poverty cause conflict? Isolating the causal origins of the conflict trap. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 33(1), 45-66. 

Talking Points

  • Poverty is strongly associated with the onset of violent civil conflict.
  • A high infant mortality rate is directly related to a country’s likelihood of experiencing violent civil conflict.
  • A country ranked at the bottom 10% on a global poverty scale is six times more likely to see violent civil conflict than a country at the top 10%.


Past research has shown that poverty and conflict are intertwined. In this study, Braithwaite and colleagues suggest a more permanent relationship with research showing the direct link between a country’s level of poverty and a higher chance of violent civil conflict.

The researchers examine the cycle of the ‘conflict trap’ and the difficulty in escaping its negative consequences. The study compares historical data on violent civil conflict (measured by 25 or more battle deaths) with the affected country’s infant mortality rate. This provides the researchers with a yearly evaluation of the conflict-poverty relationship of every country in their database, clearly indicating a link between the two. By applying statistical algorithms to a country’s current and historic international economic rating, the authors are able to determine how violent conflict corresponds to a country’s relative poverty ranking.

International organizations and governments have devoted countless programs to address the conflict trap phenomenon—from the World Bank’s focus on Conflict, Security and Development, to the billions of dollars spent by governments on international stimulus and aid packages. Even with these resources, there has been little progress in developing ways of lifting a trapped country out of social and economic despair.

The examples of Burundi and Angola were used in this study to examine the conflict trap phenomenon. Over the course of multiple violent conflicts from 1991-2002, Angola saw its GDP per capita decrease by nearly 40%. Similarly, Burundi saw its GDP per capita cut in half due to recurring conflict in the 1990s.

The economic status of a country can be measured in many ways. Most experts use either the average income per-citizen or the mortality rate of infants. Recently, the use of infant mortality rates has gained more validity for gauging poverty based on the measurement’s ability to take into account social services (such as quality and accessibility of healthcare). This measure better captures the nature of poverty, in that it goes beyond economic wealth to include opportunities and freedoms.

Past research suggests that poverty can cause civil war by creating an employment void that a rebel group can fill by offering a needed source of income to their recruits (*1). A different argument suggests poverty can cause civil war because of the ‘easy win’ it provides rebel groups against a weakened, impoverished government (*2). For more research regarding this matter see Quality of Life Impacts Individuals’ Willingness to Take Up Arms in Issue 1 or Oil-Rich Dictatorships Will Not Be Overthrown by Armed Rebellions in the first Special Issue of the Peace Science Digest.

In another example the study compared the infant mortality rates of France (top 10% poverty ranking) and Burkina Faso (bottom 10% poverty ranking). Burkina Faso was six times more likely to experience violent civil conflict than France. In sum, this study provides evidence of the conflict trap and its crippling consequences on the world’s poorest countries.

Contemporary Relevance

The results of this complex study not only shed light on the suggested link between poverty and violent conflict, they also provide actual evidence of how violent civil conflict is directly influenced by a country’s low economic status. These findings help us avoid the common, and often overused, pattern of labeling the motivation or cause of conflict as just religious, just ethnic, or just [fill in the blank]. This provides an opportunity to analyze and understand violent conflict through a different lens than those most commonly perpetuated in the media and public debate.

Additionally, an increased focus on addressing poverty can decrease the threat of international violence. The rise of violent extremist organizations, such as ISIS and Boko Haram, have led to growing fears and threats of violence spreading across international borders. This research shows that an increased focus on improving the domestic and international programs and policy addressing poverty, as well as providing access to social services in the areas most affected by these organizations, can contribute to a decrease of the threat of violence.

A recent Conditional Cash-Transfer (CCT) aid project in the Philippines proved to be successful in curbing violent conflict in the assisted region. Research evaluating the effectiveness of the aid project found that when aid distributors are careful to identify the appropriate type of financial aid and the best method of distribution, the added economic benefit can help boost an impoverished community out of conflict. The study found financial assistance from the CCT project led to a substantial decrease in violent conflict in the villages where aid was administered, as well as a decrease in the amount of influence the violent insurgency groups held on the area (*3).

Practical Implications

Most ongoing civil wars and violent conflicts are experienced by some of the world’s poorest nations. To address the deadly conflict trap, practitioners can work to address all sides of the poverty equation. This means that attention should be paid to not only to the economic aspects, but also to the absence of personal freedoms and life-opportunities such as access to employment, education and healthcare (for more information on life-opportunities, see Volume 1 Issue 1 of the Peace Science Digest (*4)). All dimensions of poverty need to be addressed to challenge the poverty-conflict relationship.

Moreover, global trade relationships, in particular the free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), can be examined in terms of contributing to or preventing violent conflict. Considering the results of this study and the presumably unequal trade relationships of the TPP, we can expect an increase in social conflict, unrest and instability in countries affected by the trade partnership. A more effective focus may be the so-called peacekeeping economy with three main principles: (a) established balanced relationships, (b) emphasis on development, and (c) minimizing ecological stress (*5).

Conflict Trap: The notion that once a country experiences conflict, it faces a reversal of economic development, which in turn increases the likelihood of future violent conflict.

Continued Reading

Quartey, K. 2013. Economics by Other Means: War, Poverty, and Conflict Minerals in Africa. Foreign Policy in Focus.

Oyeniyi, A. 2011. Conflict and Violence in Africa: Causes, Sources and Types. Transcend Media Service.

Keywords: poverty, conflict, civil war, development


(*1) Collier, P. & Hoeffler, A. (2002). Greed and grievance in civil wars. Working Paper Series 2002–01, Centre for the Study of African Economies, Oxford

(*2) Fearon, J. & Laitin, D. (2003). Ethnicity, insurgency, and civil war. American Political Science Review 97(1): 75–90.

(*3) Lisa Caracciolo. 2016. Anti-Poverty Program Reduces Violence in Civil Conflicts. Stanford University CISAC. (

(*4) Quality of life impacts individual’s willingness to take up arms. Peace Science Digest. Vol. 1, Issue 1, page 10.

(*5) Dumas, Lloyd J. The Peacekeeping Economy: Using Economic Relationships to Build a More Peaceful, Prosperous, and Secure World. Yale University Press, 2011.

The above analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 2, of the Peace Science Digest.


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