Inequality as a Predictor of Civil War

As the gap grows between rich and poor, so do the chances for violent conflicts 

Source:University of Tübingen  published on   World Future Society

Author: Keturah Hetrick

Ethnic and religious schisms, poverty, political extremism…. There are many factors that can be used to predict the likelihood of a country’s descent into civil war. Researchers at Germany’s University of Tübingen now add income inequality to the list of early signals.

Lack of reliable data during certain periods in history, as well as in developing countries (which are more prone to civil war), has made it difficult to assess a possible correlation between civil war and income inequality. To compensate for missing or inadequate data, University of Tübingen professors Jörg Baten and Christina Mumme estimated Gini coefficients by supplementing established economic datasets with other types of information.

The Gini coefficient is commonly used to measure and compare income inequality on a scale from zero to one. A score of zero represents total economic equality (a society in which each person has exactly the same amount of money), while a score of one represents total inequality (a society in which all wealth belongs to one person). Most countries’ scores fall between 0.30 and 0.60.
Baten and Mumme first looked at changes to the relationship between GDP per capita and wages of unskilled laborers.

“If wages lag behind income per capita, inequality is probably increasing,” they reason. “Conversely, if wages grow faster than GDP per capita, this points to a decline in income inequality.”

While GDP per capita and other economic information provided the researchers with sufficient data in most cases, the study compensated for data scarcity by calculating a less conventional measure of equality: adult male height. A population’s height distribution correlates to its food and health-care access. Lower heights tend to signal greater health inequality, used by the researchers as a proxy for economic inequality.

The researchers examined the Gini coefficients (both commonly accepted and estimated) from 30 diverse countries over a 200-year span. They considered only civil wars that were fought against a state’s government and that also had at least 1,000 battle-related casualties.

Regardless of actual income and poverty levels, higher inequality corresponds to increased risk for civil war, the study found. High inequality in sub-Saharan Africa corresponds to a spate of uprisings in the 1960s through 1980s. Meanwhile, civil war prevalence and inequality have remained relatively low in Asian countries and high in Latin American countries.

Inequality in western and eastern Europe and in North America gradually decreased until about 1990. While equality remains relatively high in western Europe, inequality has recently increased across eastern Europe and North America, suggesting that civil trouble may be ahead.

While the study shows a correlation between wealth and conflict, it’s unproven that income inequality causes civil war. High inequality can be a symptom of or coexist with discriminatory government policies, oppressive institutions, or other factors that increase the likelihood of civil conflict.
Nonetheless, growing income inequality in the United States could be cause for concern—and this time, the results could bring more violence than 2011’s Occupy Wall Street protests.

“If this development continues for a long time, it could provide fertile ground for conflict,” warns Baten.


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