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Wars are a major cause of poverty, underdevelopment, and ill health in poor countries
The incidence of war has been rising since 1950, with most wars being within states
Wars often have cultural dimensions related to ethnicity or religion, but there are invariably underlying economic causes too
Major root causes include political, economic, and social inequalities; extreme poverty; economic stagnation; poor government services; high unemployment; environmental degradation; and individual (economic) incentives to fight
To reduce the likelihood of wars it is essential to promote inclusive development; reduce inequalities between groups; tackle unemployment; and, via national and international control over illicit trade, reduce private incentives to fight
Eight out of 10 of the World's poorest countries are suffering, or have recently suffered, from large scale violent conflict. Wars in developing countries have heavy human, economic, and social costs and are a major cause of poverty and underdevelopment. The extra infant deaths caused by the war in Cambodia, for example, were estimated to be 3% of the country's 1990 population. (1) Most current conflicts, such as in the Sudan or the Congo, are within states, although there is often considerable outside intervention, as in Afghanistan. In the past 30 years Africa has been especially badly affected by war (see fig 1).
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This article reviews the evidence on the root causes of conflict and suggests some policy responses that should be adopted to reduce the likelihood of future war.
The cultural dimension of war
Many groups of people who fight together perceive themselves as belonging to a common culture (ethnic or religious), and part of the reason that they are fighting may be to maintain their cultural autonomy. For this reason, there is a tendency to attribute wars to "primordial" ethnic passions, which makes them seem intractable. This view is not correct, however, and diverts attention from important underlying economic and political factors.
Although a person's culture is partly inherited it is also constructed and chosen, and many people have multiple identities. (2) Many of the ethnic identities in Africa that today seem to be so strong were "invented" by the colonial powers for administrative purposes and have only weak origins in precolonial Africa. (3) Their boundaries are generally fluid, and they have rightly been described as "fuzzy sets." (4)
In wars political leaders may deliberately "rework historical memories" to engender or strengthen this identity in the competition for power and resources. For example, in the conflict in Matebeland in post-independence Zimbabwe, Ndebele identity was used to advance political objectives. (5) Other well known examples include the Nazis in Germany, the Hutus in Rwanda (fig 2), and, today, the emphasis on Muslim consciousness by the Taliban and others.
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Economic factors which predispose to war
Four economic hypotheses have been put forward to explain intra-state wars, based on factors related to group motivation, private motivation, failure of the social contract, and environmental degradation.
Group motivation hypothesis--Since intra-state wars mainly consist of fighting between groups, group motives, resentments, and ambitions provide motivation for war. (4 6 7) …