Explaining the Development–Civil War Relationship

Peer-reviewed Journal Article

Holtermann, Helge (2012) Explaining the Development–Civil War Relationship, Conflict Management and Peace Science 29(1): 56–78.

The vast majority of civil wars occur in economically less developed countries, as measured by GDP per capita. Two suggested explanations for this are prominent: one emphasizing that poverty facilitates rebel recruitment due to lowered economic opportunity cost of rebelling, and the other highlighting that low state reach and capacity give political and military opportunity for organizing insurgency. I argue that the latter account is more powerful. Low state reach is vital not only to rebel survival; it also enables rebels to obtain control over remote settlements, which facilitates the effective use of persuasion, coercion, organization, and economic rewards for mobilizing recruits and other resources. Although low economic opportunity costs can ease recruitment, it may not be essential if such tools are available. The argument is supported by a quantitative analysis covering 133 countries from 1989 to 2006. Countries experiencing civil war were distinguished more by low state reach (measured by road density, telephone density, and % urban of the population) than by depth of poverty (measured by the mean income of the poorest decile). Moreover, the negative association between GDP per capita and civil war risk disappeared when controlling for state reach, but remained strong controlling for poverty.

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Helge Holtermann

Helge Holtermann

Senior Researcher and Managing Editor, Journal of Peace Research