Monday, April 14, 2008

Predicting civil war with the Collier Construct

“The construct by Paul Collier states that: Civil war has nothing much to do with the legacy of colonialism, or income inequality, or the political repression of minorities. Three thing turn out to increase the risk of conflict: a relatively high proportion of young uneducated men; an imbalance between ethnic groups, with one tending to outnumber the rest; and, a supply of natural resources like diamonds or oil which simultaneously encourages and helps to finance rebellion.”

Paul Collier accepts the University of Michigan Correlates of War (COW) definition for Civil Wars. “To be recognized as a civil war, a conflict had to (1) occur within a generally recognized state (2) produce at least 1000 deaths per year (3) involve the national government as an active participant and (4) experience effective resistance from both the rebels and the government.” (Walter, pg 48) Given these assumptions, the Correlations of War Project has identified 213 conflicts since 1816 that meet these definitions. (Sarkees, pg 123-144) Going down the COW list, it is apparent that many of the COW’s civil wars feature Collier’s three increased risks. However, Collier himself points out that his observations are not able to predict which countries will have a civil war. “More fundamentally, our model cannot be used for prediction. It can tell you what structurally are the factors underlying proneness to civil war and what is sometimes more interesting, what seems to not be very important. From that, it can tell you the sort of countries that are most at risk. But it cannot tell you if Sierra Leone will have another civil war next year. That depends on a myriad of short-term events.” (Collier, Bottom, pg 19) Similarly, Collier’s observations do not hold true for every civil war. Take for instance his observation about an imbalance between ethnic groups. “One of the few low-income countries that is completely ethnically pure, Somalia, had a bloody civil war followed by complete and persistent government melt down.” (Collier, Bottom, pg 25)

The table constructed from the UN data seems to bear out Collier’s three factors. The table compared 10 states at-risk for civil war and 2 controls (United States and Great Britain), each measured in four variables: median age, percent of uneducated young men, ethnic balance and presence of natural resources, the “resource curse.” More or less arbitrarily, I grouped those countries with a median age less than 21, a school life expectancy in single digits and/or literacy of less than 51%, a dominant ethnic group that is less than 75% of the population, and the presence of a resource curse. The Sudan and the Ivory Coast meet all those criteria. One observer sees the Ivory Coast as heading towards disaster. “The Ivory Coast, therefore, is not just another little tribal war in the making — but potentially a major catastrophe.” Sudan is mired in a number of conflicts that may have had distinct beginnings, and a North-South orientation, but have devolved into something more general. “…the prospects of ending Sudan's armed conflict seem gloomy, stating that Sudan ‘entered the twenty-first century mired in not one but many civil wars.’” (Ronen)

Collier carefully notes that his factors do not predict when a country will experience civil war. For example, Bhutan, impoverished, land-locked, adjacent to two countries experiencing civil war (Nepal and Tibet), with low literacy could be a potential cite for civil war, but is instead on the verge of elections to replace a benevolent monarch. (CIA) Since Collier has identified broad variables in his construct and because Collier himself has identified the construct’s limitation, the Collier civil war construct is probably correct but required additional refinement to become more of a predictive tool than a descriptive one.


Chirot, Daniel. “Chaos in Ivory Coast: Roots and Consequences” Globalist: Power of Global Ideas website at accessed 25 Mar 08.

CIA. “Bhutan” World Factbook website at accessed 28 Mar 08.

Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2007.

Ronen, Yehudit. “Review of The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars by Douglas H. Johnson” Middle East Quarterly Spring 2004 at accessed 28 March 08.

Sarkees, Meredith Reid (2000). "The Correlates of War Data on War: An Update to 1997," Conflict Management and Peace Science, 18/1: 123-144.

Walter, Barbara F. Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 2002.