Monday, April 14, 2008

The real cause of civil wars

A reader asks: "Do you think it is possible that these characteristics are more inherent to instability and ineffective government and those the real cause of civil war? Most of the countries we looked at were African nations which have been riddled with unstable conditions for many years now. To me the relatively young and uneducated populations in these countries seem more the result of the chaos stemming from civil war rather than a cause of it. Is this different than an observer noting that an ice cream shop sold more sundaes on a hot day, therefore ice cream sales affect warmer weather?"

If I read your question correctly, you are asking if it is possible that civil war is symptom of dysfunctional governance, just as are the youth bulge and illiteracy. I think there are two responses to this: 1) Civil war is exacerbated by surplus manpower. To illustrate this point requires an examination of the youth bulge.

The youth bulge is caused when medical advances allow more people to live longer lives and also decrease infant mortality. When these medical advances occur before a society transitions from a preference for large family sizes, there develops a sizeable cohort of youth for whom there is little to do and little upward mobility. Longer life spans for older men allows older men to stay in their professions or retain their wealth longer before passing it on to their children. In polygamous societies, older men with more wealth make better marriage partners for younger women who might otherwise be available to men nearer their own age. As a consequence, these types of societies must deal with populations of young men who do not have women, and who do not have any viable means for getting ahead in society except through glory in battle. Opportunistic leaders eager to assert power and/or seize resources or wealth find it easy to recruit armies from these young men. Opportunistic leaders with armies will inevitably clash for supremacy. (Cincotta)

I think the causation looks like this: A developing nation in any economic condition experiences an increase in lifespan at the same time experiencing a decrease in infant mortality. The society begins to destabilize as young, rootless men compete violently for dwindling supplies of available wealth and wives. Opportunistic leaders recruit armies from these men. Civil war results.

An alternate answer to your question is: 2) It just doesn’t matter which came first, the chicken or the egg or, if you prefer, the hot day or the sundae. Collier has identified the ingredients that, when present, indicate a country is in or will shortly be in civil war. How those ingredients came to be present is not particularly important. The fact that these characteristics are present means that the same prescription applies; free trade, energetic peacekeeping and tutorials on government. As Collier puts it: “Our utter neglect of trade, security and governance policies for the bottom billion is a scandal -- and an opportunity. Properly used, these policies have real power, which is why they were employed for the recovery of Europe.” (Collier)


Cincotta, Richard. “State of the World 2005 Global Security Brief #2: Youth Bulge, Underemployment Raise Risks of Civil Conflict” Worldwatch Institute website March 1, 2005 at accessed 28 March 2008.

Collier, Paul. “Will the Bottom Billion Ever Catch Up?” Washington Post online 21 Oct 07 at accessed 28 MAr 08.