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Brookings Trade Forum 2004 (2004) 165-211

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Poverty and the Organization of Political Violence

Yale University
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This paper provides an analytical review of the large literature on poverty and political violence. It offers nonspecialists a perspective on the current state of the debate in that literature and presents some conjectures that might explain unanswered questions.

In this discussion, political violence primarily means civil war, although other forms are also briefly considered.1 And the focus is not on poverty per se—understood as a particularly low level of income (for example, $1 a day)—but rather on the level of income across countries, groups, or individuals and the nature of its association with violence. Thus "poverty" here refers to low levels of economic development or income, consistent with the civil war literature, where countries with very low incomes are considered "poor" countries.2 In addition, I also consider the relationship between economic inequality and education on the one hand and political violence on the other, drawing upon related literatures on poverty and criminal violence to consider any parallels with studies of political violence.

There is an emerging consensus in the literature that a low level of income is a significant or even necessary condition for some forms of political violence, such as civil war or coups. But there is no consensus on the effects of economic inequality and education, and it is not clear that the same relationship between income and civil war applies to other forms of violence, such as terrorism. I examine [End Page 165] more closely the empirical results that support this emerging consensus, drawing both on quantitative and qualitative (case study) analyses, and offer some possible explanations to unanswered questions in the literature.

There is a lot that this paper does not do. It does not offer conclusive new empirical tests or new theories on the effects of globalization on political violence. There is no extensive focus on resource wealth and its linkages to political violence, and there are no answers to the difficult questions about human psychology that inevitably arise when we consider why people use violence to achieve any goal. What it does show is that it is difficult to use currently available empirical results to distinguish among various competing theories of political violence. Statistical analyses of political violence are hampered by endogeneity and selection issues, and measurement of key variables is also difficult. Many variables, such as economic inequality, may have an indirect effect on the risk of political violence.

There are three main components to this discussion. The first is an overview of the theoretical literature. This is followed by a summary of available evidence on the correlation between income per capita, growth, education, and inequality and an analysis of the difficulty of inferring a causal relationship between these variables and political violence. The last component examines within-country variation in civil war onset and extrapolates from macrolevel (aggregate) studies to explore microlevel issues, such as the question of individual recruitment in rebel organizations.

Theorizing about Poverty and Violence

Does poverty increase the risk of violence, and if so, how? Does greater inequality increase the risk of civil war? Does more education reduce the available supply of potential rebels? Various theoretical responses to these and other questions are the focus of the following discussion.

Income, Economic Growth, and Education

Largely influenced by the conflict between countries of the poor "South" and wealthy "North," several theorists in the 1960s through the 1980s argued that political violence is the result of economic modernization. Rapid growth rates and structural changes to the economy accelerate and intensify group competition for scarce resources, particularly in countries where professional specialization and ethnic cleavages overlap. Modernization increases inequality, [End Page 166] which causes conflict and violence.3 The mechanisms through which inequality would lead to violence were not adequately explained in these theories (more on this later), and an empirical critique was put forth by Horowitz, who pointed out that ethnic conflict and violence often occur in countries with very low rates of economic modernization (for...


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pp. 165-211
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Archived 2012
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