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What Causes Civil War?


There is a powerful conventional wisdom about armed conflict and civil war in developing countries. It has two main elements. One is that the incidence of conflict has increased greatly since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the end of the Cold War. The other is that these conflicts tend to be rooted in ethnic or religious antagonisms. James Fearon and David Laitin, both leading experts in this field, use some impressive data bases and statistical analysis to demonstrate that this conventional wisdom is plain wrong.

First, they show that the actual incidence of internal conflict - the proportion of countries afflicted - has been increasing almost steadily since 1945. There seems to be more conflict because civil wars now last much longer than formerly. There was indeed a small but sharp increase in the early 1990s, but this is more than compensated by an even steeper drop since the mid 1990s.

Second, Fearon and Laitin provide a convincing interpretation, backed by careful and robust statistical analysis, of what factors have and have not led to internal conflict in the world since 1945. Like a number of other recent scholars, they find that the notion that ethnic or religious diversity leads to conflict is an illusion. Once one controls for levels of per capita income, countries that are ethnically or religiously diverse are no more likely than others to suffer civil war. What does account for civil war is rather more prosaic: the existence of conditions that favour the persistence of rural insurgency. These include (a) poverty - that encourages guerrilla recruitment and leaves most states financially and bureaucratically weak, and unable effectively to rule rural areas; (b) political instability; and (c) the kind of mountainous and rough terrain in which insurgents find refuge. Fearon and Laitin explore the ways in which these kinds of factors work to precipitate and perpetuate insurgencies.


This paper is likely to be very influential in part because it does not stand alone. The conclusions are very consistent with a range of other pieces of recent research on conflict. Generally speaking, civil war is not specifically triggered by the routine characteristics of poorer countries: ethnic and religious diversity, or senses of grievance or injustice. These are the reasons that combatants give for their resort to arms, not the factors that actually lead them to take up arms. Those factors are more specific, and lie mainly in the political infrastructure: in weak states, political instability, and the inability of many regimes to control their own armed forces and prevent them from exacerbating conflicts through their predatory behaviour. This is actually very good news. While these problems are not easily fixable, they are fixable. We have experience of the gradual construction of effective, legitimate public authority in situations of political fragility and instability. It is much easier to contemplate such a task in the secure knowledge that poor countries are not destined for civil war just because they happen to be ethnically diverse.

Source: J. D. Fearon and D. D. Laitin "Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War," American Political Science Review, Vol. 97 No. 1, (2003), pp. 75-90. The American Political Science Review is published quarterly by the American Political Science Association (

Keywords: civil war, conflict, ethnicity.

Commentator: Mick Moore, IDS, (April 2003)

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