The political economy of conflict: greed versus grievance argument
The political economy of conflict is an interesting area of security studies which aims to analyse the link between money and war. It has several meanings: the fiscal foundations of war, the mobilization for conflict, financing and the motivation/goals of conflict.
The “greed versus grievance” refer to two arguments advanced by scholars to explain the causes of war. Greed stands for the claim that combatants in conflicts are motivated by opportunistic reasons — cost/benefit calculus, alternative income & risk. On the other hand, grievance refers to the idea that people rebel over issues of inequality, discrimination, authoritarianism, etc. Collier-Hoeffler Model (see below the TEDx talk) defends greed over grievance as explanation.
However, we can ask ourselves if this statement is correct and if all conflicts have a primarily material basis.
There are especially two major problems with “greed over grievance” vision.
The greed vs grievance debate fits more broadly in the rationalism vs constructivism debate. Therefore, the two discussions have the same problems. Methodological issues are the most obvious in this case.
Because of missing data and weak statistics, we cannot say that there is sufficient evidence to argue a predominance of the material basis for conflicts.
Proxies used in Collier and Hoeffler study are inaccurate and inappropriate for greed (e.g., The importance of the diaspora is linked to geographical proximity). Generally, they distinguish between methodological individualism and rational action vision for greed and social and ideational method for grievance — as for objects analysed in a rationalist or constructivist vision. However, this distinction is a false one and we can assume that greed and grievance mutually influence each other. Indeed, grievances are also about material things and are not only generated by ideational factors. This point is widely studied and one of the prominent critics of Collier-Hoeffler Model, David Keen, demonstrated it several times. For instance, regarding the conflict in Sudan, he said, “the grievances of northern pastoralists were useful for a government trying to get its hands on oil in areas that famine and militia attacks helped to depopulate; meanwhile, the ‘greed’ of the Arab militias themselves (for labour, cattle and land) was itself intimately linked to their grievances.” (Keen 2008b) It refers us to the same logic present in new wars vs old wars debate where private and public interests/motivations were supposed to be co-constructed (Kalyvas 2003).
Critical realist approach as a solution
Since the logic of grievance is based on ideational factors and interests, one can argue that its contribution to a conflict cannot be assessed by an econometric model. This leads us to the critic advanced by Korf (2006) towards Collier-Hoeffler Model. She says that their model has essentially three methodological and epistemological failures:
- the quantitative rational choice model,
- the lack of empirical fieldwork,
- & the pretension to establish universal laws to predict the outbreak of civil wars.
She proposes the critical realist approach as a solution to analyse conflicts with three important features: the greed and grievance arguments are intertwined, the context is taken into account and the method of participant observation is used. Some might deduce that this methodology can result in a different consequence for “greed vs grievance” debate. A participant observation is better to assess ideational motivations than econometric models.
“Greed and grievance” arguments do not consider the historical context of war in general.
This point is clearly one of the most crucial weaknesses of their argument. One can assert that Collier-Hoeffler model attempts to study causes of war without studying actual conflicts. This critic is present in Korf’s text who puts forward the role of time and space in analysing conflicts’ causes and results. For example, in respect of Steps to War theory by Senese and Vasquez (2008), there is a different logic of doing the analyse. Before advancing their proximate causes of war — territorial dispute, etc. — they studied all armed conflicts between 1816 and 1945 with the Correlates of War project data. This way of working permitted them to have a precise image of wars’ causal mechanisms’ evolution over history — and most importantly the relative importance of their explanatory power’s evolution.
State policy and the context
The historical context is also relevant given that state policy may play a role in shaping the trajectory of a conflict. For instance, in the Colombian case, we can suppose that the government’s attitude towards FARC guerrillas had an impact on changing motivations of combatants to pursue the conflict: sometimes greed was the primary basis, but grievance was also considered on different occasions. Another point related to contextual thoughts is about different types of conflicts which have been existed throughout history. In Complex emergencies, David Keen (2008) demonstrated how a conflict can never be seen as a “greed based” fight. Conflict is such a very complex concept with several meanings. Therefore, scholars need first to differentiate between distinct types of conflicts before starting their research: civil war, genocide, ethnic conflicts, war on terror, etc. Differences amongst a civil war and genocide — or war on terror — are obvious and no one can suppose that they emerged because of same incentives and will have the same consequences. Put otherwise, emphasizing that a civil war started because of material cost/benefit considerations can be justified and sounds reasonable whereas assuming a primarily material basis for genocide is not rational. The text of Andreas (2004) is a good example in which the “greed over grievance” argument is valid because of a specific context — Balkans in the 90s — and a specific type of conflict — ethnic. The conflict perpetuated by Milosevic in Serbia started in a situation favourable for smuggling practices and quasi-private criminal combatants. This kind of a particular time and space combination for a “greed over grievance” is not always present. In fact, the paper of Staniland (2012) is exactly about this idea: material resources have fundamentally different effects depending on the social-organizational context into which they flow. In cohesive organizations, resources enhance fighting power, organizational capacity and internal discipline. On the contrary, in socially divided organizations, resources will lead to unrest and indiscipline within the group and diffusion of power to local units (Staniland 2012).
To sum up, it is not convincing to assume that all conflicts have a primarily material basis ceteris paribus sic stantibus. Even if this factor is present in majority of conflicts, the relative importance of its explanatory power depends on our perspective — rationalism or constructivism — and a given historical context. It is true that if we adopt a rationalist perspective — and attached methodology — , we can more easily justify the “greed over grievance” argument. Nonetheless, scholars need to be cautious about quantitative data analysis because if a person torture the data enough, at the end it will tell her/him what she/he wants to hear.
Andreas, Peter. 2004. The Clandestine Political Economy of War and Peace in Bosnia.
Collier, Paul and Hoeffler Anke. 2004. Greed and grievance in civil war.
Kalyvas, Stathis N. 2003. The Ontology of “Political Violence”: Action and Identity in Civil Wars.
Keen, David. 2008. Complex emergencies.
— — — . 2008b. Complex Emergencies: David Keen Responds.
Korf, Benedikt. 2006. Cargo Cult Science, Armchair Empiricism and the Idea of Violent Conflict.
Senese, Paul Domenic, and John A. Vasquez. 2008. The steps to war: an empirical study.
Staniland, Paul. 2012. Organizing Insurgency: Networks, Resources, and Rebellion in South Asia.