The political economy of conflict: greed versus grievance argument

Have all conflicts a primarily material basis?

Part of scene 52 of the Bayeux Tapestry. This depicts mounted Normans attacking the Anglo-Saxon infantry.
Part of scene 52 of the Bayeux Tapestry. This depicts mounted Normans attacking the Anglo-Saxon infantry.
11th century unknown — Lucien Musset, “The Bayeux Tapestry”, 2005, Boydell Press, ISBN 1–84383–163–5, p. 237

Methodological issues

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Photo by Antoine Dautry on Unsplash

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:

  1. the lack of empirical fieldwork,
  2. & the pretension to establish universal laws to predict the outbreak of civil wars.

Historical problems

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Photo by British Library on Unsplash

“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).


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.

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