The Theory of Civil War

Sta. Ana is the Coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Yellow Pad column of the Business World on September 1, 2008,  pages S1/4 to S1/5.

The armed struggle being waged by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is essentially a civil war.  So was the armed resistance of the Moro National Liberation Front, (MNLF), which culminated in a political solution, the creation of a new, expanded regional autonomous government.  The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) likewise describes its nationwide protracted armed struggle as a type of civil war. defines civil war as “a war between political factions or regions within the same country.” The Merriam-Webster’s definition is  “a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country.”

The Geneva conventions apply to “armed conflict not of an international character.”  Why the Geneva Conventions use the aforesaid term, instead of simply saying civil war, is puzzling.  At any rate, the Geneva Conventions’ restrictive definition of  “armed conflict not of an international character” is one which occurs “in the territory of a High Contracting Party between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations.”

Academics generally associate civil war with battle deaths that exceed 1000 annually. Those with annual battle deaths that number at least 25 are called civil conflicts.

A civil war (or civil conflict) is very costly. The armed conflict in Mindanao has resulted in tens of thousands of casualties, destruction of property, incalculable productivity losses, breakdown of essential public services, and irreparable social trauma.  The war in Mindanao has had heavy adverse effects not only for the Moros and other Mindanaoans but for all Filipinos—insecurity and uncertainty, high costs of political transaction, shift of resources from food to guns, and other opportunity costs.

One may thus expect contending parties to avoid war.  Yet, since 1960, more than half of all nations (56 percent) have suffered violent conflict.  Further, since 1960, a fifth of the nations have gone through at least 20 years of civil war. These are some of the startling facts from a paper co-authored by Christopher Blattman and Edward Miguel titled Civil War (for the Journal of Economic Literature, June 2008).

The Philippines has been experiencing a civil conflict for four decades. The re-established CPP launched its armed struggle upon the founding of the New People’s Army in 1969.  The MILF armed struggle immediately intensified upon the imposition of Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law in 1972.

We cannot avoid asking the question: What triggers or causes a civil war or a civil conflict?  Revolutionary groups—the CPP, the MNLF, and the MILF—use abstractions to justify their revolution—to correct historical injustices, fight colonialism, achieve national liberation. But these laudable goals can likewise be achieved though non-armed means.

Other less-abstract factors are at work to explain the causes of civil wars or conflicts. Poverty is typically cited as a leading cause of civil war.  The literature shows a strong, robust relationship between low per capita income and high tendency for armed conflict.  Nicholas Pambanis (Using Case Studies to Expand the Use of the Theory of Civil War, 2003) noted that the average per capita GDP of nations affected by a civil war from the period 1960-1999 was less than half that of nations with no internal armed conflicts.

Of course, the correlation does not establish the direction of the causality.  Poverty creates conditions for armed conflict. But it is also true that the armed conflict impoverishes people, as investments and employment in war-torn areas fall and provision of public goods—health and nutrition, education, infrastructure—is disrupted.

The economic theory of civil war is developed in modeling rational motives and initial conditions that favor conflict.  We know, for example, that poverty and geography (e.g., rugged terrain and wide forest cover) explain the propensity for a nation to engage in civil war.  Economists have likewise modeled the competition for resources, the non-enforcement of contracts and property rights, and the failure of the ballot to explain civil war. Several studies show that civil war tends to occur in countries considered less democratic.

Many of the studies done in this decade cite the celebrated Collier-Hoeffler (CH) model, which is named after Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler. The model explains that the initiation of civil war is based on a rational decision that calculates the opportunity cost and the expected net gain of war.  The benefits can be obtained not only upon achieving victory but even amidst the conflict.

And even if a peaceful resolution is at hand or actually forged, its credible enforcement could still be doubted, for either party or both parties might have the incentive to renege on the commitment.  Indeed, it is common that wars break out again shortly after the initial peace.  The Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain signed by the Philippine government and the MILF is a clear example of how an instrument that ostensibly should have brought peace has only fanned the conflagration.

Blattman and Miguel argue that theory must account for a wider range of causes of internal armed conflict and must lay out the specifications to test the differing interpretations. The Blattman and Miguel paper is but one of many studies written by economists on civil war.  It is very recent, extensively reviews the literature, and inquires into the many remaining gaps that theory must explore.  The challenge includes mining the evidence on the effects of civil war on institutions, technology, and social norms.

Other papers have built on the CH model, which has likewise been criticized for having simplistic explanations.  The model makes a distinction between greed and grievance to explain the onset of a civil war.  Some emphasize the greed factor— branding rebels as bandits or criminals—thus downplaying the role of ideology.

A crucial factor in waging an armed struggle is the capability of the revolutionary movement to organize support, obtain arms and technology, and sustain operations.  In short, financial viability is a most critical condition.  Which in turn can lead to unwelcome behavior like exploitation of natural resources, extortion (or revolutionary taxes depending on which side you support), kidnapping, money laundering, counterfeiting, etc.

Blattman and Miguel propose micro studies be done on the recruitment, organization, and conduct of armed groups, on how rebels and their leaders behave, and why they fight.

Now, will Filipino economists be willing to leave the safe haven that is the academe and do immersion with the CPP and the MILF?  And will Jose Maria Sison or AL-haj Murad Ibrahim graciously host the economists?

No comments yet.