Paul Collier, in The Bottom Billion, identifies four traps that have prevented the poorest nations from emerging to higher standards of living. The first trap is the conflict trap.
Conflict is common to all societies but nations that are home to the bottom billion have in ordinate share of violent internal conflict. Collier estimates that seventy-three percent of these of the bottom billion have recently been through, or are presently experiencing, a civil war. Developed nations have had their civil wars in the past but unlike the poorest nations they have not remained trapped in an endless cycle of violent confrontations.
So what are the factors that tend to breed internal conflict. First, societies with stagnant low-income economies have a greater propensity for war. Collier suggests that if you halve the income of a given society you double the chances for civil war. But one could ask about the direction of causality. Does poverty lead to civil war or does civil war lead to poverty. The answer is that both are true, creating a cycle of destruction
Second, these poorest societies have a substantial number of alienated uneducated young men with no dependents. This means there is an inordinately large supply of potential rebel recruits. The small chance of a big payoff for these men by participating in rebel actions is worth the risk. Collier says that research indicates that people with a sense of grievance are no more likely to engage in violence than those without one. It seems that rebel violence may be more a symptom of insufficient societal restraints on violence, rather than an inevitable expression of seeking justice.
Third, many poor nations are heavily dependent on commodity exports (ex. oil and minerals) and there is a correlation between this type of economy and civil unrest. With so much of the economy confined to a few concentrated enterprises, the ones who can control those enterprises stand to profit a great deal. International buyers of the commodities tend to back whoever is in control of the resources. If rebel forces might render a better economic outcome, then the international players may fund and equip rebels.
These three causes help us understand the trap but Collier gives greater nuance. For example, rebel movements may begin as noble challenges to oppression but they tend to quickly morph into something more sinister. There is always a small percentage of any society that has a thirst for brutality and violence. As a rebel movement grows, it inevitably becomes a draw for these folks. Idealistic visionaries find it virtually impossible to hold the rank and file in line. Eventually, the social justice grievance becomes cover for a thirst for power and violence. Collier writes that, “A flagrant grievance is to a rebel movement what an image is to a business.” (25) The point isn’t that governments who become the objects of rebellion are necessarily just and unworthy of protest. Rather it is an acknowledgement that many of these civil conflicts quickly sink into unjust governments battling unjust and opportunistic rebels.
Collier notes that studies do not support the conclusion the ethnic diversity leads to proneness toward civil war. More correlated are nations that have a majority ethnic group but one or more significantly large minority groups. Most of the poorest nations do not match this criteria, although notable exceptions of poor nations like Rwanda and Burundi that are examples of this dynamic.
Another observation is that countries with the population dispersed around the edges of their territory or with mountainous terrain seem to be more at risk than densely populated flatland nations. Collier speculates this is because it gives rebel forces more places form and hide.
The conflict trap is particularly devastating. While most international conflicts last six months on average, civil wars tend last five years. Then when the war is over, a wave of homicide usually ensues. These wars usually generate significant numbers of refugees. As these weakened and malnourished folks travel about they begin to pick up diseases and spread them with them where ever they go. Collier points out as much as half of the societal cost of civil war accures after the war is over.
Sub-Saharan Africa has a high concentration of nations the are caught in the conflict trap. However, Collier notes that, “Africa does not have more coups because it is Africa; it has more coups because it is poor.” (36) Furthermore, he notes that attempts to establish democratic rights have seemingly little impact on reducing a nations risk coups and civil war. At the end of his discussion on the conflict trap he writes, “I do not wan to claim that only economy matters, but without [economic] growth peace is considerably more difficult." (37)