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Economic inequality, war and peace

Does economical inequality lead to social conflict?  Is it possible to measure the factors lead drive to conflict? Is it possible to develop tools to avoid or to minimize it? Scientists at the CSIC's Instituto de Análisis Económico (IAE) work to analyze the social factors that increase the probability and severity of social conflicts.

Video sobre polarización, etnicidad y conflicto.Analyzing the social factors that increase the probability and severity of social conflicts. This is the research is developed by the team led by Laura Mayoral and before by Joan Esteban, both scientists at the IAE.

“Traditionally it has been said that income distribution has a relevant role in conflict emergence. But there is not empirical evidence that solely economic inequality leads to conflict”, explains Laura Mayoral. When historical data of civil wars since the Second World War are analyzed, adds this expert, “we see that they can be mostly explained as ethnic wars. Available data doesn't support a direct relationship between economic inequality and conflict”

Looking for a new theory model

One possible explanation for this paradox could be the lack of an appropriate model, points out Joan Esteban: “A hypothesis is that all those former attempts have been done without a proper theory model, a model to indicate what has to be measured and how it has to be considered. Therefore, one of our issues is to develop that model”. In order to make the model, one hypothesis they are working with is that “maybe the indexes of economic inequality used until now are not suitable”, says Laura Mayoral.

The new model is still far off, admits Esteban, but good progress has been made. For example, they have established the polarization concept and have obtained an index to measure it. That work was published in the middle of the 90's by Joan Esteban and Debraj Ray, a scientist at New York University.

Polarization, as Esteban and Ray conceptualized, is the sum of interpersonal “antagonisms” which results from the interplay of the sense of group identification and the sense of alienation with respect to members of other groups. Scientists have seen that polarization explains social conflicts in a better way than the concept of “dispersion” which was used before.The polarization index of well defined and antagonistic groups is a good tool to predict how intense is the social division and the probability of a conflict.

The polarization measure developed by Joan Esteban and Debraj Ray.

Between the years 2004 and 2007, a consortium of 8 research centres, led by Joan Esteban, developed the project “Polarization and Conflict”, funded by the EU. One of the results of this project was a theoretical model to predict the probability of conflict, published in Science (Ethnicity and Conflict: Theory and Facts. Science. Vol. 336.). The authors Joan Esteban, Laura Mayoral and Debraj Ray showed that ethnic diversity and polarization, the existence of resources that can be looted, and the lack of freedom were key factors in conflict emergence. After analyzing data from conflicts in 138 countries between 1960 and 2008, scientists found evidence that, according to that empirical data, a strong ethnic polarization increases up to 70% the probability of conflict.

Scientists explained: “Ethnic diversity is a very different concept than polarization. A country divided into two ethnic groups of the same size is very polarized but has little diversity. When diversity is and when polarization is the decisive characteristic for conflict emergence depends on the nature of the conflict. In other words, it depends on the kind of benefits that are expected to be gained with the conflict”.

“Ethnic confrontation is not something ancestral but instrumental”

In any case, highlight Esteban and Mayoral, “ethnic confrontation is not something ancestral but instrumental”. They also add that “when we speak about ethnic divisions we mean social divisions for non economic reasons, and these reasons can be ethnic but also religious or nationalistic”.

The proposed model, scientists clarify, “doesn't predict if a conflict will arise or not but measures its probability and, if a conflict emerges, its intensity”. Speaking about prevention, the model could be used to avoid conflicts, as the circumstances that increase probability can be analyzed and modified if necessary. 

New hypothesis for the role of economic inequality

¿Have the scientists analyzed already the role of economic inequality in the theory model? In the work published in Science, explains Laura Mayoral, income distribution in relation to conflict emergence was not considered. They are working now on this aspect. And they have one starting point: “we think that what is relevant to the conflict is the economic inequality inside the same group”.

In the case of a society with a high ethnic (or religious or nationalistic) diversity, it is possible to consider two possible economic inequality rates: the first one takes into consideration the inequality inside every ethnic group and the second one the inequality between the groups.

Scientists propose that a higher dispersion of economic income inside a group, a higher the difference between rich and poor will be.  Therefore, “it will be easier to mobilize the most disadvantaged, who will accept low salaries, and more resources will be in the hands of the powerful to fund the cost of a conflict”, explain the scientists. When inequality is small, it will be more difficult to raise the fund necessary to mobilize people. “But”, scientists warn, “this is only an hypothesis that has to be demonstrated with real data”.

Currently, the IAE scientists are working on the project "Social Polarization and Conflict: Models, Estimation, Evidence", funded by the former Spanish Ministery of Science and Innovation.


Instituto de Análisis Económico (IAE-CSIC)

Polarization, fractionalization and conflict, Joan Esteban and Debraj Ray.  Instituto de Estudios Fiscales Polar

Joan Esteban, Laura Mayoral, Debraj Ray. Ethnicity and Conflict: Theory and Facts. Science. Vol. 336.