Book Report: Greed and Grievance — Economic Agendas in Civil Wars

Greed and Grievance – Economic Agenda in Civil Wars, edited by Mats Berdal and David M. Malone, copyright 2000.

This book wasn’t on my initial to-read list for my sabbatical, but Sean, one of my colleagues here at UNICEF, suggested it.  The book itself is a collection of papers/essays by individuals who attended a workshop in London on the topic in 1999.  After reading the first few chapters, I wished the book had been written post 9/11, with the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While I suspect much of the analysis holds true still, the world in many ways is a very different place.

This book is not a “popcorn/beach” book.  It requires thought and concentration to read.  It is also in many ways a disturbing book, when one is faced with evidence pointing to the culpability of corporations and countries in funding the continuation of wars that devastate countries, economies and communities.  It is easier to think of some crazy despot responsible for all the tragedy, but the situation is often far more complex.

As a collection of essays, this book works remarkably well, as the various authors cross-reference other works, providing a sense of cohesion that is not always present in such collections.  The authors also shared the same general understanding of the issues at hand, although their focus and their methodology differed.

The chapter by Paul Collier particularly impressed me, leading me to add his more recent book “The Bottom Billion” to my to-read pile.  He uses a statistical/quantitative approach to explore the question of whether “greed” or “grievance” (either with other “tribes” or with the government) is the primary indicator for civil war.  His evidence points quite strongly to the greed position.  One particularly strong indicator for the likelihood of civil war is the presence of extractive natural resources, that provide for a ready stream of cash.  While the reviews of his more recent work indicate he is taking a more nuanced position, his essay is compelling in making his case.

Some particular startling quotes:  From page 81: .

“Conflict linked to transborder trade is different.  Such wars are not necessarily about winning or securing a comprehensive settlement.  Indeed, the suspension of legality due to insecurity is often a necessary precondition of asset realization through parallel and transborder means.”

It is hard to imagine that the parties to a war might not actually want it to end.  Page 84:

“Today’s so-called warlords or failed states may act locally, but to survive they have to think globally.  In this respect, a high level of complicity among international companies, offshore banking facilities, and Northern governments has assisted the development of war economies.  There is a growing symbiotic relationship between zones of stability and instability within the global political economy.”

From Page 97: :

“Inequality, whether measured in terms of income or landownership, has no effect on the risk of conflict according to the data.  This is, of course, surprising given the attention inequality has received as an explanation of conflict.  “

Ah yes, the pesky data.  It would be nice for the world to be the way we want it to be, rather than the way it is.

Some prescriptions for action include, for example, from Page 106:

“If only the international community can change the economic incentives for conflict, it can help substantially reduce their incidence, even in societies riven by long-standing hatreds.”

And finally, and perhaps of even more relevance today as Africa becomes more and more noticed by western businesses (although this particular quote is specific to Angola), from page 170:

“It may be very easy for companies to respond that it is not possible to alter the way in which they do business, but this response, especially when set against the scale of recurring tragedies across the African continent, is no longer acceptable.  In the end any company should determine for itself if it can do business in Angola and remain in accordance with its own policies and ethical code of conduct. “

I find ample support that this sentiment should apply just as much today and to the entire continent.

While a bit challenging to read, I found this book to be well-written, with the conclusions clearly supported by references, clear arguments and sound reasoning, and with the assumptions properly established and noted.  I learned a great deal, even though I found much of the material depressing.  My biggest concern is the extent to which the conclusions either no longer hold (while possibly true in the details, the general theme quite likely still applies) or can be dismissed as being out of date.  Perhaps Collier’s newer work can reassure me on both these points.

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