Recently, in my piece about Sykes-Picot, I challenged the idea that the creation of artificial borders significantly impacts sectarian tensions. However, upon further reading, I have realized that my previous post did not go far enough. Not only do borders have a negligible impact on relations between ethnic groups, but there is also little evidence suggesting that ethnic diversity has much causal effect on the outbreak of civil conflict at all. As Francis Fukuyama summarizes in Political Order and Political Decay, “when one controls for the strength of institutions, any link between ethnic diversity and conflict disappears.” After all, he explains, “Switzerland… is divided among three linguistic groups and yet has been stable since the middle of the nineteenth century because of its strong institutions.”
In making this claim, Fukuyama cites three scholars in particular: William Easterly, James Fearon, and David Laitin. Therefore, I thought I would read their studies in order to better understand the relationship between ethnic heterogeneity and civil conflict. I’ve summarized their findings below for your convenience.
Easterly, an economist out of NYU, primarily argues that institutional development and economic growth represent better predictors of intrastate violence and stability than ethnic heterogeneity. In The Middle Class Consensus and Economic Development, he finds that the primary explanation for why ethnic diversity inhibits domestic cooperation – that “an ethnically distinct group in power is reluctant to invest in public services for the other ethnic groups for fear that the other ethnic groups will be enabled to displace the first group from power” – persuasive but insufficient. Easterly does believe that ethnic fragmentation can contribute to deleterious outcomes like poor growth, low trust, and bloated government. Indeed, he has authored pioneering work on the linkage between ethnic diversity and stunted economic and political development with Ross Levine. However, he offers a more nuanced explanation of development based on the strength and size of a state’s middle class in The Middle Class Consensus and Economic Development. In particular, he argues that states with a developed middle class are able to check back against the oligopolistic tendencies of highly unequal societies in which the ruling elite can disproportionately control the allocation of state resources. Easterly also finds that “A large and homogeneous middle class would not have anything to lose in a democracy and so would be more likely to grant universal suffrage.”
In the quantitative section of his report, Easterly breaks down the relative explanatory power of ethnic diversity and economic inequality on state stability and development. He finds that while ethnic heterogeneity has a negative and statistically significant causal impact on state stability, the existence of a strong middle class is a much more potent variable in predicting internal conflict within a state. His analysis specifically finds that “A one standard deviation increase in the middle class share (7 percentage points) is associated with an enormous movement of 1.2 standard deviations in log per capita income (equivalent to an income increase by a factor of 3.4). The effect of ethnic diversity is not as strong but still important: a one standard deviation increase in ethnic diversity lowers log income by one quarter of a standard deviation.”
In “Can Institutions Resolve Ethnic Conflict?,” Easterly goes a step further and examines whether strong and capable political institutions are able to overcome the problems associated with ethnic divisions. He finds that they can, and hypothesizes that the reason that certain ethnically diverse countries like Iraq and Nigeria are so much more violent that others like the U.S. and Switzerland is due in part to the latter’s effective and developed institutions. Specifically, he argues that “Institutions that give legal protection to minorities, guarantee freedom from expropriation, grant freedom from repudiation of contracts, and facilitate cooperation for public services would constrain the amount of damage that one ethnic group could do to another… Good institutions would thus plausibly make a given amount of ethnic fractionalization less damaging for development.” In short, there is a reason to be optimistic. Properly designed institutions, when empowered to effectively execute their mission, will often be able to check the insidious forces of racial and ethnic tension. Unfortunately, creating these institutions is challenging. If there are multiple languages, one must decide which language will be used in official proceedings and documents. If there is a small but influential ethnic minority, one must balance their rights and liberties against the desires of the majority population. Fortunately, the relative success of countries like Switzerland demonstrates that effective institutional measures can be implemented when properly designed and resourced.
James Fearon and James Laitin
Fearon and Laitin also tackle the salience of ethnic diversity on civil conflict relative to institutional strength. Much like Easterly, they find that institutions and governance play a much larger role in explaining the outbreak of civil war than sectarian variables. Fearon and Laitin contend that while ethnic cleavages might exacerbate tensions within a country or region, they are an insufficient explanation for why certain countries are more prone to civil conflict than others. The reason they arrive at this conclusion is because “these factors [cultural differences and ethnic grievances] are far too common to reliably distinguish the relatively small number of cases where civil war breaks out.”
Fearon and Laitin argue that institutions play a far more important role in explaining the outbreak of civil conflicts than ethnic diversity. This is certainly a compelling argument, for if we look at countries with recent civil conflicts in the Middle East – a region with similar ethnic and sectarian cleavages – relative to more stable Middle Eastern countries, we find that the main difference is governance. Civil wars and insurgencies are only able to metastasize when the central government is too weak or corrupt to effectively suppress rebel groups (for examples, look at Libya, Syria, and Iraq). In some cases, central states lack the resources to track and pursue insurgent networks. In other cases, the military is so corrupt and ill-prepared that it is unable to effectively execute its counterterrorism mission. Without a strong central government capable of maintaining a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, it is far easier for rebel groups to successfully resist government power. Conversely, when the central government is strong, it doesn’t matter how passionate or energized insurgent groups are because they simply lack the ability to fight effectively against the overwhelming power of the state.
Furthermore, much like Easterly, Fearon and Laitin find that greater per capita GDP has a strong and negative correlation with the outbreak of civil conflict. Indeed, they find a stark linkage between wealth and stability, “estimate[ing] that each additional $1,000 of per capita income is associated with 35% lower odds of civil war onset in any given year.” Obviously, then, when one controls for economic development and state capacity, the linkage between ethnic diversity and civil conflict appears to be relatively insignificant.
This post is not meant to suggest that racial, ethnic, and religious tensions play no role in generating animosity and conflict withing heterogeneous countries. That would be an indefensible position that ignores vast amounts of empirical evidence (see here, here, and here) in developing countries as well as the self-segregation between ethnic groups within the United States. However, this post is meant to make people think more deeply about the role sectarian and ethnic tensions play in generating broader conflicts at the sub-state level. Ultimately, I think this research is a cause for optimism because it means that despite the significant obstacles we face in creating peace and understanding between different peoples, there are clear and impactful policies that can ameliorate and suppress inter-ethnic tensions. By creating policies that generate solid and equal economic growth and by designing effective and representative governments, we can successfully combat the plague of sectarian violence devastating so many parts of the world. The world is a rich and diverse place, and that is something we will never be able to change. Nor should we seek to. However, we can combat the negative side effects of ethnic and sectarian animosity through smart policy choices. For that, we should all rejoice.