Does Inequality Cause War?

By Peace News Staff

Newsreader: Brandon Richardson

The top 1% of the world’s richest people own nearly 50% of the planet’s wealth, while many of the world's poorest nations are experiencing war.

Last year, 31 of the world's 38 wars occurred in developing countries. Could strengthening economic equality help build peace?

"Economic development is directly related to the prospects for peaceful outcomes and the reduction of armed conflict," said Dr David Cortright, from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

"There's really overwhelming data showing that - depending on how you measure economic development - the most common indicator is per capita income: As per capita income rises, the risk of armed conflict decline," Dr Cortright said.

However, recently researchers have argued that inequality doesn't just mean a difference in income levels, but often relates to social inequality, and a sense if unfairness.

"This whole question about violence and inequalities has been studied intensely, but over the last few years there's been much more attention to this social dimension, to this horizontal dimension," Dr Cortright said.

"And there's now a great deal of data to confirm that the differences in access to power, and to resources and to economic opportunity, among social groups among a particular social-economic framework can lead to grievances that can lead to armed conflict," he said.

Researchers suggest that political equality isn't just about having representation in government, but about how a population relates to people in power, and how they feel about their right to oppose policies.

"The data shows that when communities are denied human rights, and civil rights, the risk of oppression and violent conflict, is greater," Dr Cortright said.

Peacebuilders are working to address the inequality issues on the ground in conflict zones, but they warn that there's no band-aid solution.

"We really work to address the kind of underlying factors, drivers, that contribute to violence and instability, in different parts of the world, and some of those drivers include things like a lack of opportunity, education, a climate of impunity, an inability to uphold and protect the rights of children and women especially, and young girls," said Dr Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child.

"Whether it's the conflict in Syria, or Eastern Congo, or even in South Sudan, it's really important that we move beyond that emergency strategy where it's constantly about short-term relief, interventions that tend to promote a cycle of dependency,” Dr Nutt said.

“And [more on] the longer term strategies that are needed to ensure that we're addressing the underlying drivers of those conflicts, and what families need to - basically - provide for themselves."

We asked the experts if there are examples of equality reducing conflict.

Dr Cortright pointed to Colombia, where inequalities, especially in the rural areas - in terms of access to land, access to resources, ownership, and wealth - led to the world's longest running conflict. The civil war there ended with a historic peace agreement last year.

"The peace agreement, that's been signed and is starting the implementation process now, has within it a whole range of measures that are designed to try to address those inequalities - to provide more economic development, that's targeted to the poorest regions, where political institutions of government have either been non-existent, or have been denied opportunities for participation, where now the goal is to try to create more participation, and create more opportunities for economic empowerment and political empowerment," Dr Cortright said.

Observers also point other Latin American nations, like Brazil and Peru, where attempts have been made to address inequalities - especially with marginalized groups - and despite some set-backs, has been largely successful, with Colombia's peace accord marking the end of armed conflicts on the continent.

“There's been an end to armed conflicts, political violence, generally, is down,” Dr Cortright said.

“That doesn't mean the societies are completely peaceful, in all respects, but the trends have been positive.”

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