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What Drives Conflict Fragile States Greed Or Creed Politics Essay

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Published: 1st Jan 2015 in Politics

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Under what conditions if any can Greed, Grievance and Creed be said to steer conflict in fragile states? The concept of fragile states has become very noticeable and that it is being related first and foremost to the United States national security doctrine of September 2002 and the assumed right to intervene “preemptively” as in Iraq has rightly turned many into skeptics toward this new consensus. It must be said, however, that while there are considerable reasons for that concern, the issues it raises are real. Greed, Grievance and Creed are concepts that seem to be basic in today’s conflict. “With the end of Cold War bipolarity this is a question that has become of significant importance, prompted by the increasingly visible self-financing nature of rebel movements within intrastate conflicts” (Ballentine & Sherman, 2003)

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State failure presents a genuine threat to the international system of globalization, partly, because the system derives its existence based on states and partly, because state failure is the primary cause of armed conflict, civil war, and the everyday threats to the security of people living within the territory of such states. Recent arguments and evidence suggest that fragile states are rooted in causes that reflect a combination of “greed and grievance” (Collier, 2000). The more widely accepted explanations generally focus on the grievance dimension, which assumes some form of resource or political deprivation (eg. Gurr, 1970; 2000). The greed explanation on the other hand assumes that rebels act in pursuit of self-interest material gain. Oil, diamonds, timber, precious stones and other primary commodities form the basis of the contestable resources over which rebels fight their governments. The term “greed”, moreover, serves as a convenient appellation to describe self-interested behaviour and the resources available to pay selective benefits. In effect, a strong resource base serves as a mechanism for mobilization Grievance-based issues are at the core of the process that leads to civil conflict in fragile states, but “greed” becomes salient when the rebel leadership begins to face a difficult task of motivating soldiers. In effect, grievance leads to collective behaviour, but defection is always a problem so rebel leaders resort to selective benefits that tap into self-interested behaviour. That is, since preferences of the leadership and soldiers generally differ, the leaders must pay selective benefits to keep rebel soldiers from defecting. This is made easier when extractable resources are contested and controlled by rebel forces. The most visible instances currently involve Sub-Saharan African countries trading in easily extractable diamonds, but the opiate trade in Asia and South America also reflects this role of exploitable resources as one mechanism for fuelling conflict.

My argument proceeds as follows. First, I would ground this discussion in a general body of literature, for which the greed explanation provides a small but influential component. Next, present a theoretical framework from which to think about the role of self interested versus collective behaviour in conflict of fragile states and also showing other mechanisms affecting greed. I would also discuss the theories of greed and grievance and their effects on fragile states. Greed theorists (Collier 2000; Giuliano 2006) contend that grievances do not affect the probability of conflict as grievances are a constant factor in ethnic conflicts and thus have no explanatory power. So, although this essay offers no direct support of the greed hypothesis they do, indirectly challenge their contention that grievances can be ignored as a contributing factor in explaining the decision of ethnic groups to move to violence to achieve their political goals.


The greed versus grievance dichotomy is a useful entry point into the debate about the causes of conflict in fragile states. In certain instances, where there are substantial quantities of capturable natural resource and wealth present such as alluvial diamonds, oil or drugs, greed may be the dominant factor prolonging conflict, but without group formation (for which some historical grievances are important) violent collective action cannot take place. In short, grievances can be present without greed, but it is difficult to sustain greedy motives without some grievances. Although greed and grievance are regarded as competing views, they may be complementary, as greed may lead to grievances and vice versa. The greed or grievance explanations (or some hybrid form of both) may be necessary for the outbreak of civil war, but arguably they are not sufficient. This is because the causes contribute to the risk of conflict, yet some societies despite having conditions pre-disposing them to civil war, such as horizontal inequality, polarisation and natural resource rents, do not descend into conflict. I argue that for the forces behind either greed or grievance to take the form of large-scale violence there must be other factors at work.


‘Greed generates grievances and rebellion, legitimising further greed’ (Keen 2008: 32) Grievance borne of deprivation is an individual concern that manifests itself collectively. In the context of conflict or rebellion, grievance is sometimes described as a justice-seeking motivation. The discussion in this section on grievances begins with grievance based theories of conflict before moving on to measurement issues.


The grievance approach contends that the probability that an ethnic group will resort to violence can be explained by the level of aggravation/relative deprivation they feel toward their wider society. There are two components to grievance; underlying and proximate. Underlying grievance level is a function of several contextual factors including level of autonomy; conditions compared to those under the previous regime; ability to express anger or dissatisfaction; and satisfaction on other issues. Proximate grievance is a function of the issue triggering the current crisis. Issues that threaten a group’s ability to freely express their identity are theorized to generate greater frustration and thus aggression than issues that are less central, or salient.

Central to grievances are identity and group formation. An individual’s utility may be related to his identity, specifically the relative position of the group he identifies with in the social pecking order; see Akerlof and Kranton (2000). An individual may derive utility from certain normative forms of behaviour appropriate to his identity but considered deviant by other groups, and may even face sanctions from like-minded group members if he deviates from them. This type of behavioural paradigm may be related to solving the collective action problems (Olson, 1965), without which organised large-scale violence is impossible, even if we believe conflict is primarily motivated by greed. As noted earlier, some appropriate definition of ethnicity may be a superior basis for group formation compared to social class in an ethnically homogenous society.

This essay classifies theories of grievance into relative deprivation, polarization and horizontal inequality but focuses on relative deprivation. While it is important to differentiate them, some overlap amongst the three definitions is inevitable.


The notion of relative deprivation dates back to the work of Ted Gurr (1970) who defines it as the discrepancy between what people think they deserve, and what they actually believe they can get; in short the disparity between aspirations and achievements. Thus, educational achievements may raise the aspirations of young people, but they will become frustrated if unemployed, occasionally venting their feelings in mass political violence. Gurr puts forward the following hypothesis, ‘the potential for collective violence varies strongly with the intensity and scope of relative deprivation among members of a collectivity’ (p.24). This lays down the notion of relative deprivation as the micro-foundation for conflict. Relative deprivation is considered to be a major cause of internal conflicts, civil wars as well as sectarian and routine violence. The applications vary across ethno-communal lines, regional boundaries, societal class, or just the feeling of being relatively deprived vis-à-vis the general situation. In the eastern Indonesian province of Maluku, the traditionally privileged Christians group felt relatively deprived against the rising Muslim community economically and politically, which resulted in the bloodiest Muslim-Christian conflict in the country’s history (Tadjoeddin, 2003). Similar statements centring on unemployment could be made about the Catholic-Protestant cleavage in Northern Ireland. In Nepal, the lack of development in remote rural districts of the country fuelled the Maoist insurgency (Murshed and Gates, 2005).

Another type of violence can be described as ‘routine’. Tadjoeddin and Murshed (2007) examine the socio-economic origins of this type of violence in Java, Indonesia. It is centred on vigilante violence/popular justice and inter-group/neighbourhood brawls. Routine violence covers group or collective violence, and it is different from individual violence, domestic violence, or homicide-which can simply be labelled as crime. The theoretical underpinnings for routine violence are similar to those utilised to explain mass political violence short of internal war in Hibbs (1973). Using panel data analysis of count data, Tadjoeddin and Murshed (2007) examine the relationship between routine violence on one hand, and growth, poverty, and level of development (including education) on the other hand. The relationships between violence and the levels of education and income are non-linear in the form of inverted-U-shape curves. The reason for this is as follows: starting from low levels of average income and educational attainment, when this rise slightly there is much to compete over and quarrel about; this tendency, however, declines with further increases in income and education, as there is much more to lose from violence and as such, grievance begins to build up.

Another explanation is the feeling of being relatively deprived since rising education is not automatically followed by rising income. The roots of revolution, conflict and civil war is the misdistribution of resources within society that affects disproportionately particular communities of people. In effect, deprivation writ large borders on a necessary condition for conflict, though deprivation is not a sufficient condition. Lichbach (1994:389) captures this notion of individual motivation by articulating what scholars see as several truths of peasant upheavals:

1) Peasants are unconcerned with broad purposes, philosophical systems, political theories, and the likes;

2) Peasant grievances are specific and well defined, limited and local;

3) Peasant actions are designed to satisfy material self interest, and therefore;

4) Peasants will… participate in collective action when they stand to gain particularistic benefits.

The rebel elite, on the other hand, are willing to risk more, but also portend to gain more if they are successful – even if success entails a compromise outcome. That is, their motivation for leading a rebellion will be more in line with altering the material and political resources of a collective people over self interested accumulation. In effect, in pursuit of this broad goal the rebel elite will organize those for whom the deprivation is personal, and when necessary pay selective benefit to keep rebel soldiers in the fold.

Put differently, grievances are not socially constructed by rebel entrepreneurs (Collier, 2000), but instead lie at the core of the motivation to organize in response to the maldistribution of resources, such as land (Midlarsky, 1988) income (eg. Muller and

Seligison, 1987), or political access. Initially, such involvement brings with it very little cost. However, as the state begins to respond to what it perceives as a threat, costs will be incurred at the individual level (Regan and Henderson, 2002; Gartner and Regan, 1996). As the cost of protest or rebellion increase a rational individual will look to defect from the movement, unless the rebel leader can find a way to counterbalance the costs by way of selective benefits. As the opposition movement germinates the requirements of the selective benefits can be rather low, but as the threat to the state increases, so does the level of repression and subsequently the demands by rebel soldiers for selective side payments. That is, there is a distinction between the onset of protest and the onset of higher levels of civil conflict. Mobilization may be a necessary condition for civil conflict but non-violent protest and violent rebellion are distinct. This is evident in the data on Minorities at Risk (Gurr, 2000). Because initial mobilization may carry minimal cost, grievances may well be sufficient to motivate the disaffected to participate in protest activities. In economic terms the cost of rebel labour is low because the size of the potential labour pool is large. However, the costs associated with full scale conflict or civil war are such that only the provision of selected benefits that outweigh the costs imposed by the state for participation can spur an individual to remain committed to the cause, and protection may be the most important side payment (eg. Heath et al,2000).

Mason (1996; and with Heath et al, 2000) poses the question of when the non-elite will support the rebels or the government. Presumably each individual has the option of whether to lend support to one side or both sides, or neither sides, and that choice is predicted on maximizing their utility for a given level of effort. Three factors usually influence the conditions under which non-elite support a rebel movement: anticipated benefits, costs, and estimates of the likelihood that support for one group would be detected by the other. In the latter instance the costs are incurred when participation is detected. Using a maximization model analogy to the choice between paying or evading taxes, Mason demonstrates that when there are public benefits from rebel participation (ie, non-excludable), then rebel support will be largely a function of the fear of punishment if their support is detected (1996:70). When fear of detection is high the rebel leadership must resort to paying selective benefits (excludable). However, when the rebels control a specific region and rebel soldiers can be adequately protected, selective benefits can be reduced in proportion to the amount of protection offered by the rebels. Protection comes primarily in the form of shielding participants from the political repression meted out by the state, such that as the state increases repression more people will mobilize around the rebel cause in order to avoid the abuse at the hands of the state.

The general arguments present a picture of a group that seeks redress from its absolute or relative level of deprivation, most often a result of formal or informal government policies to channel resources in particular patterns. This distribution of resources – or maldistribution – increases the incentives for the non-elite to support the elite who are organizing an armed challenge to state authority. But rebel soldiers act rationally and only support a movement when they expect to gain materially from participation. Absent a strong philosophical attraction to the rebel movement the soldiers will be motivated most directly by the provision of both excludable and non-excludable benefits. Both the state and the rebel- elite campaign for the support of the masses by providing a mix of protection, punishment and benefits.

My argument suggests that the importance of economic incentives, or at the extreme, greed, depends on two factors: the level of repression a state administers toward suspected rebels, and the amount of protection the rebel movement can provide the individual. When repression is high the individual will be more concerned with protection, thereby decreasing the importance of economic concerns. In effect the excludable good provided by the rebel elite is protection against acts of violence perpetrated by the state. However, as coercion by the government decreases, concerns over protection gives way to those of income with the result that the individual participant must be paid for by means of some other excludable good, which we might think about in terms of income paid for their labour.

The escalation from political protest to civil violence, conflict or war is a function of the actions and reactions of the rebels and the state, and I can argue that, it follows an identifiable sequence (Moore, 2000; 1998). As grievances lead to opposition against state policies, political entrepreneurs begin to mobilize opposition supporters. The state response is to try to minimize mobilization through efforts at coercion or concession (Bayan, 2002; Regan and Henderson, 2002). As the state gets more coercive the rebel entrepreneurs have a greater opportunity to provide protection to potential supporters, possibly in spite of not being able to offer economic incentives comparable to those offered by the state (Heath et al 2000). Initially the opposition may adopt non-violent means, but as the opposition grows it will press for greater demands or concessions from the state, in part because their ability to do so has increased, but also because their constituency will reflect a wider spectrum. As the state responds with increasing repression the level of violence moves from protest to rebellion, and possibly to civil war (Gurr, 2000).

From this framework we articulate a series of testable premises:

1: The greater the level of inequality the higher will be the probability of observing the onset of protest, rebellion, and conflict in fragile states.

Since the ability to provide excludable or non-excludable benefits sufficient to secure the support of the masses will be partially a function of the level of discontent at the status quo position, the lower the level of absolute or relative level of penury – political or material – the greater the marginal utility of each increment of a public or private benefit. Therefore potential rebels can be mobilized more easily when the pre-conflict status quo position provides for a rather low level of utility. This would be reflected in the wealth of the country that is distributable (per capita GDP) and the degree to which it is distributed equitably (GINI).

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2: Higher levels of political repression will decrease the likelihood of the onset of protest, but increase rebellion and civil war. Conflicts in fragile states do not emerge wholly from the wellspring of discontent, but rather move from lower levels of unrest toward large-scale violence and war. Recruitment and mobilization are critical. The ability to recruit and organize rebel soldiers will be a function of the degree of protection that can be provided in return for support, or conversely, the level of random punishment meted out by the government. Initially repression will help to dissuade potential protesters from participation, but people involved in violent forms of rebellion will respond differently to government repression. When the opposition engages in violence high levels of state repression will lead potential rebel supporters to conclude that the probability of punishment is high and approaching certainty. Under these conditions potential supporters will join the movement in pursuit of protection from random punishment by the state.

3: However, given the lower cost for participation in protest activity extractable resources will have no effect on the onset of protest. The ability to pay private selective benefits only to those who participate in the rebel movement is vitally important to a movement’s viability. In general the government will have greater access to resources with which to pay selective benefits, even though they may choose to attempt to stifle participation through repression. In order for the rebel elite to compete with the state in providing private benefits they must obtain access to resources. Localized and easily extractable resources provide the most efficient means to generate income. Once – or if – they acquire access to exploitable resources these can be converted into private benefits that increase the incentives for the soldiers to maintain loyalty. The greater the ability to pay these selective benefits the more loyal the rebel soldiers and the more difficult is the task facing the state in trying to offer its own array of private benefits. The abundance of resources is only one factor highlighted by Collier and Hoeffler. The ability of a rebellion to recruit soldiers also plays a key role in making a conflict a feasible undertaking: ‘other things equal, we might expect that the proportion of young men in a society…aged between 15-24 would be a factor influencing the feasibility of rebellion: the greater the proportion of young men, the easier it would be to recruit rebels’ (Collier 1999: 3). Collier’s later work also emphasised the feasibility or ‘opportunity’ argument over rebel motivations (or grievances), ‘insofar that insurgent movements can only emerge and be sustained when resources are available to finance them’ (Aspinall 2007). Critics of Collier have argued that his position goes some way to reinforcing the World Bank’s mandate (Collier was employed by the World Bank at the time).

As Mark Duffield (2001: 132-134) emphasises, usefully ‘the only grievance of any relevance is rapid economic decline: ‘in other words, poor economic management.


Soysa (2001) noted that Creed-related conflicts seem to be more prevalent in highly homogenous religious settings, particularly within largely Islamic and Catholic countries. If there is a clash of civilizations, it is much likely that it is politics rather than civilization. Zartman (2000) sees Creed itself as a ‘need’ whereby everyone wants to feel some level of identity, through identifying with strong views and/or belief systems. Such needs vary according to the entity and environment, the latter being a social trend of greater significance to the current argument than the former. Individuals have a superior need to know who they are in some circumstances than in others. Three such conditions have a predominantly significant impact on the need for identity: rapid or profound change, breakdown of other identities, and discrimination.

Zartman(2000) also notes that when deprivation sets in, it results in identity based conflict as collective needs for identity turns deprivation into discrimination. In addition to this insecurity sets in and eventually breeds grievance in the group. In other words, Creed is an extension of Grievance. It can be argued that creed-based rebellions may be circumvented by when governments channel resources wealth in such a way as to guarantee equitable distribution of resources or wealth.


Greed in this study is, defined as the predatory aspiration of rebels to grasp material wealth through illegal means short of subjective perceptions of relative deprivation. The greed motivation behind conflict has been popularised by empirical work on the causes of conflicts and war where a cross-section of conflicts in different nations is analyzed together econometrically, and greed is understudied by the availability or abundance of capturable natural resource rents. In Collier and Hoeffler (2004) conflicts stem from the greedy behaviour of a rebel group in organising an insurgency against the government. Greed is about opportunities faced by the rebel group. The opportunities can be disaggregated into three components: financing, recruitment and geography. The most common sources of rebel finance are the appropriation of natural resources, donations from sympathetic Diasporas residing abroad, contributions from foreign states (hostile to the government) or multinational companies interested in the region.

Natural resource wealth is the chief among the three in terms of its relative importance. Recruitment is about the opportunity to induct fighting manpower; something made easier when there is a high proportion of young unemployed males in population, in a setting of endemic poverty and poor education. Geographical situations favourable to rebel groups are mountainous terrain and other safe havens for insurgents. In short, greed simply means the ‘economic opportunity’ to fight, and should be distinguished from socio-political grievances. Collier and Hoeffler’s (2004) empirical findings conclude that the set of variables representing rebel opportunity or greed akin to loot-seeking are the main reasons for civil war. By implication, the alternative hypothesis of grievance (justice-seeking) focusing on ethnic religious divisions, political repression and horizontal inequality is dismissed, although its invalidity is not formally tested for. Natural resource rents constitute ‘booty’ and this fact has been used to emphasise the greed or criminal motivation for conflict in fragile states.

Central to the Collier and Hoeffler’s empirical testing for the greed hypothesis is the role of primary commodities in the economic structure. They measure the dependence on natural resources by the share of primary commodity exports in GDP, and the validity of this metric as well as the statistical robustness of the relationship between resource rents and the risk of conflict has been called into question. Be that as it may, the combined Collier and Hoeffler greed and Fearon and Laitin (2003) messages about greed and state failure causing rebellion, conflict or civil war has had an immense influence in the media and the donor policy community’s thinking about conflict.

Therefore, any theorising about greed must be based on the economic motivations for violence and criminality. Belligerents in the wars of natural-resource rich countries could be acting in ways close to what Olson (1996) referred to as ‘roving bandits’ – who have no encompassing interest in preserving the state or its people but are simply intent on loot-than to ‘stationary’ bandits who take control of the state and seek to maximise their own profit by encouraging stability and growth in their new domain.

Conflict in Fragile States “motivated by the desire to control natural resource rents could also mirror warlord competition, a term that owes its origins to the violent competition between leaders attempting to control economic resources in the context of medieval Europe.” Skaperdas (2002)

In a nutshell, a proper greed-based theory of conflict must relate to the trade-off between production and predation in making a living, where we may view war as theft writ large. Violence is one means of appropriating the resources of others. Note, that armed conflict implies the absence of contractual interaction (Edgeworth, 1881), and is in stark contrast to the alternative method of benefiting from the endowments of others via peaceful and voluntary exchange (trade) between economic agents, groups or nations. This implies that we also need to specify the conditions under which violence becomes a viable or more attractive option relative to other alternatives.

A variety of game theoretic models describing the non-cooperative and conflictive interaction between groups exist, where the object is to capture the rival’s endowment by force. One such model is due to Hirshleifer (1995), where each group has a fixed resource endowment, which can be used to either produce goods for consumption or armaments to fight the other group. Groups exist in a state of non-contractual anarchy vis-à-vis each other; this also implies the absence of enforceable property rights. The object of fighting is to capture some of the rival’s endowment. Success in war is uncertain, and the probability of victory is given by a Tullock (1980) contest success function, where the probability of victory for any group is given by their own military expenditure relative to the total fighting outlay made by all protagonists. Additionally, there is a military effectiveness parameter (akin to what is known as a force multiplier in military establishments); something that raises the effectiveness of each unit of fighting effort. In the absence of increasing returns to scale in military effectiveness, and if a minimum subsistence income is present there will be a Nash non-cooperative equilibrium associated with some fighting. In other words, in the equilibrium both (or all) parties will be engaged in some fighting with each other, as well as some productive activities; unless one side manages to conquer others due to its individual military superiority. Hirshleifer (1995) describes this as a state of anarchy -something akin to primitive tribal warfare. Note, no possibility of trade is permitted between groups.

Skaperdas (1992) outlines a model that is similar because it has a fixed resource endowment which can be devoted to either production or armament. The probability of success in war also depends on a similar contest success function.

Both these models, however, neglect the destructiveness of war (collateral damage), and its capacity to ravage productive capacity, additional to direct military expenditure. These models employ intermediate inputs, and not factors of production, which can be shifted between fighting and production at no cost. Secondly, there is no growth in these models, something which would raise the opportunity costs of war. A similar effect could arise from complementarities in production between groups and/or economies of scale, which would make mergers between groups or cooperation in each group’s self-interest. Thirdly, the possibilities of peaceful exchange need to be limited (absent in Hirshleifer, 1995) in order to rationalise conflict.

Wars can also reflect the absence of institutions which facilitate negotiation and peaceful exchange. Despite these limitations, there is much in these models that can explain the greedy behaviour as analyzed by the empirical exponents of the greed hypothesis. The presence of readily capturable natural resource based rents may make conflict more attractive when compared to peaceful production, as can a shortage of intermediate inputs due to population pressure. These resources are best regarded as a nonproduced ‘prize’ such as oil or diamonds (which apart from extraction costs are like manna from heaven), whose ownership is violently contested. Secondly, contributions from a sympathetic diaspora (or aid from a super-power in the cold war era) can raise the probability of victory of a potential rebel group against the state. Also, the inability of the state to act as a Stackelberg leader in a potentially divided nation may raise the chances of war between groups in a manner similar to the weak state capacity mechanism favoured by some political scientists (like James Fearon). For example, in the Hirshleifer (1995) model where different groups are in a state of anarchy vis-à-vis one another, the ability of one group to behave as a Stackelberg leader reduces equilibrium fighting levels and raises each side’s per-capita income.

The leader, however, gains relatively less compared to followers, creating an incentive for each side to be a follower. If one group is strong and militarily more effective it will dominate other groups, and there will be no fighting in the equilibrium. This may lead to state formation, which may or


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