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This paper asks: how can economic development in Global South nations can be better managed, so as to reduce the potential for violent ethnic conflict? To answer this we must pose a prior question: why is economic development so often accompanied by violent ethnic conflict?

Viewing economic development and ethnic conflict as linked problems requires reassessment of two widely accepted schools of thought about the relationship between these phenomena. One school, prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s held that economic development would inevitably reduce the potential for violent conflict, since growth would be rapid and the resulting benefits diffused through all levels of society. Proponents included both mainstream and Marxist development scholars 3. The first decade or so of post colonial independence seemed to confirm this theory, but in the late 1960s, rising ethnic tensions in many new nations, and full-blown ethnic civil wars in some, raised doubts.

A second and more persistent school held that economic development policies and those relevant to “maintaining political stability” could be formulated in separate compartments. World Bank staff members were major proponents. Their views reflected graduate training in economics, plus a charter specifying governments as the Bank’s clients and proscribing “political” involvement. It was not until the 1980s that senior Bank officials began to take an increased interest in public administration — an area they attempted to de-politicize by labeling it “governance.” 4

Political changes from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s proved both views wrong. Even in developing nations that did well economically, economic benefits did not diffuse to all segments of society or all regions. This lead some ethnically diverse states such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka to implement preferential policies that benefited some groups or regions disproportionately. Disagreements over the fruits of development made the accommodations necessary to sustain political order more difficult and contributed to outbreaks of violent conflict.

Increasingly, policy-makers are acknowledging that economic development and conflict management policies cannot be separated 5. A small but growing body of literature focuses on social and political side-effects of economic development programs 6. However conflict management, especially in ethnically diverse societies, has not yet assumed its proper role in development planning. For the scope of development planning to be broadened in this way, the causes of ethnic conflict and how some development strategies can exacerbate ethnic tensions leading to conflict must be better understood.

What Causes Ethnic Conflict?

Violent conflict between rival ethnic groups sometimes breaks out spontaneously, but “ethnic conflict” is mostly a struggle between rival organizations seeking to maintain or gain control of state power. To understand ethnic conflict, we must understand the role ethnicity plays in mobilizing, structuring, and managing such organizations 7. Further, we must understand how leaders use ethnically divisive strategies to mobilize political support.

Proximate causes of ethnic conflicts can be easily identified 8. In typical scenarios, leaders of a dominant ethnic group gain office and then use state institutions to distribute economic and political benefits preferentially to their ethnic brethren. Discrimination against subordinate group members, often portrayed as less deserving human beings, accompanies this preferential treatment. When force is needed to impose discriminatory practices and quell subordinate group resistance, it is exercised by police officers and soldiers recruited almost exclusively from the dominant group, who often view themselves as “ethnic soldiers” 9 In democratic societies, a dominant group that is a majority often uses its voting power to entrench discriminatory practices by legal or quasi legal means. When a dominant group is the minority, it typically imposes discriminatory policies by force although, as in South Africa, cosmetic democratic institutions may legitimize discrimination. Democracy alone cannot ensure ethnic harmony. Instead, it may allow freer expression of ethnic antagonisms and legalized persecution of minorities.

Subordinate group members may endure discrimination for an extended period of time; however a sense of shared deprivation strengthens identification with their group, providing a basis for political mobilization along ethnic lines. Before inter-group relations polarize, “moderate” subordinate group leaders often seek a modus vivendi with their dominant group counterparts. In some nations, notably Malaysia, leaders have been able to work out a relatively stable accommodation, involving trade offs between political and economic power. More typically pleas of subordinate group leaders for accommodation are ignored or judged to be “politically infeasible” by dominant group leaders. The more severe and inflexible the discrimination, the more probable that subordinate group members will become radicalized. As radicalization proceeds, subordinate group members shift support from moderate to militant leaders. Militant leaders form disciplined paramilitary organizations committed to violent force as the only feasible strategy for ending discrimination.

An escalating spiral of violent political conflict, ethnic polarization, social disintegration and economic decline is the most probable outcome. This scenario has been all too prevalent in developing nations and now in former Communist nations. Ethnic conflicts, once they become violent, are exceedingly difficult to resolve 10. Indeed, some observers argue that separating protagonists physically is the only practicable solution 11. Since members of dominant and subordinate groups are often economically interdependent and physically intermingled, however, this “solution” may be impossible or only slightly less tragic than protracted conflict.

It is easy to see why subordinate group members who experience discrimination would use ethnicity as a basis for political mobilization and eventually turn to militant leaders who argue that “we have no choice” but violence. However, protracted ethnic conflict is, more often than not, a negative sum game in which both dominant and subordinate groups lose. Lebanon, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia and the Punjab are just a few recent examples of conflicts where the long-term costs of discriminatory policies to almost all involved far outweighed any conceivable benefits 12. In view of this history, why do dominant group leaders choose to implement discriminatory practices in the first place. Also, why they so often underestimate the probability of a violent subordinate group response, and their capacity to deal with it. This paper contends that typical development policies and the process of development, as they unfold in many developing nations, contribute to such miscalculations.

A supportive climate for this cycle of discrimination and militant response is provided by long standing beliefs and attitudes, held by many ethnic group members in multi-ethnic nations. Most important among these are historical legacies of mistrust, a mentality of victimization, and feelings of shared deprivation. They make group members more receptive to simplistic appeals from extremist leaders and encourage leaders to make such appeals. A myopic view of rival groups and over-optimism about the efficacy of state power may create a “social trap” that, particularly in times of economic stress, tempts leaders to implement discriminatory policies without fully assessing the consequences 13. The role of long standing beliefs and attitudes in multi-ethnic societies and the role leaders play in exploiting them need to be examined more fully.

Historical Legacies of Mistrust

Some years ago, one of this paper’s authors (Richardson) spent an evening at the home of a colleague whom, for purposes of this recounting, we shall call “Amal”. Amal is a sophisticated, multilingual, manager who holds a high position in an international organization. In more than five years of an infrequent but close professional and personal friendship, we had hardly ever discussed his ethnicity. This unusually convivial evening was to be different. There was a fine meal, many glasses of wine, and several hours of conversation, lasting until near midnight. Amal’s wife had left us and we, too, began to think of retiring. As we were about to separate, Amal beckoned: “I want to show you something,” he said. He lead me to a small room in the rear of his house, entirely decorated in red. On one wall, was a map showing the “greater nation” of his ethnic group. Crimson splashes marked locations where, in the process of driving them from their “homeland” more than fifty years before, the armies of a rival group had massacred thousands of Amal’s ethnic brethren. With great emotion, he related the story of those massacres and subsequent diaspora of his family. “Every day I bring my [three year old] son to this room and show him this map,” Amal concluded in a choked voice,” so that he will never forget what they did to us.”

“Recollections” such as this are a part of every ethnic conflict. In the Middle East, ethnic differences are traced to biblical times and to the Christian crusades as well as to the Post World War II era. In Northern Ireland, historic clashes between Protestants and Catholics are relived in annual festivals that often become violent. Sri Lankan school children are told of the Buddha’s pledge that Lanka would be a special haven for Buddhism and reminded of the pivotal clash between Sinhalese Prince Dutugemunu and Tamil King Elaric that reestablished Buddhist-Sinhalese dominance on the island 14. For Serbians and Croatians, the incursions into Europe of Ottoman Sultans are a living reality, along with the ethnically divisive policies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and atrocities instigated by ethnic based regimes and in partisan conflicts during World War II 15.

These historical legacies of mistrust and hatred are not genetically transmitted from one generation to another. Rather, they become a vivid part of current reality through myth, socialization and education. Control of the media, educational institutions and religious instruction facilitates propagation of such legacies, but word of mouth propagation persists even in the face of oppression. While ethnic groups that control state power have a clear advantage in promoting their world view, rival groups fight to maintain control over the socialization of their members. The survival of ethnic nationalism in the face of Soviet repression illustrates the tenacity with which ethnic groups cling to their identities.

“Victim” Mentality

Members and leaders of contending ethnic groups, whether they are presently discriminating against a subordinate group or the object of discrimination, often portray themselves as victims. A “victim” mentality helps unite group members behind their leaders. and justifies present sacrifices. Moreover. members of a victimized group feel justified in victimizing others –being a victim in the past, real or imagined, thus does not ensure humane treatment of rival ethnic groups in the present. Ethnic leaders seek control of state power to ensure their group is never victimized again, to right past wrongs and to avenge past oppression. Two examples – South Africa and Sri Lanka – illustrate this.

In South Africa, white Afrikaners, who were descended from Dutch and French settlers, viewed themselves as victims of British colonialism, even while using Apartheid laws to oppress black South Africans. The Great Trek and the Boer War were potent historical symbols which fuelled this sense of victimization. Afrikaners were God’s chosen people, redeemed by suffering, and destined to rule over the inferior Blacks, Indians and Coloreds (mixed-race people) 16.

Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority also viewed themselves as victims. They resented the favorable treatment given to Tamils under colonial rule and by conservative post-independence governments. They felt discriminated against by government language policies that placed their language, Sinhala, in an inferior position and made it difficult for them to communicate with public officials. They feared the Tamils would make common cause with their ethnic brethren in South India’s populous Tamil Nadu State. Throughout Sri Lanka’s ancient history, Tamil invasions had been either a threat or a reality. In the words of historian K.M. de Silva, the Sinhalese were a “majority group with a minority complex” 17. This attitude fueled political support for Sinhalese nationalist leaders such as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Sirimavo Bandaranaike and J.R. Jayewardene whose policies convinced many Tamils there was no alternative to secession 18.

Relative Deprivation

That their oppressors may have been victims in the past, does little to mitigate the resentment of ethnic group members who are currently being oppressed. In the jargon used by conflict theorist Ted R. Gurr, they are experiencing relative deprivation, a perception that the circumstances of their lives are not providing benefits to which they are justly entitled 19. Feelings of relative deprivation intensify, not only when benefits (including political, religious and language rights, as well as economic well being) decline, but also when expectations increase. When large numbers of an ethnic group experience relative deprivation simultaneously, the potential for spontaneous outbreaks of violence, directed at rival groups, intensifies. Historical legacies of mistrust and a victim mentality make it more likely that feelings of deprivation resulting from declining benefits or unrealized expectations will be interpreted as an ethnically motivated injustice.

Contributing to deprivation is the fact that reestablishing a more equitable social order, following a period of discrimination, is more often a zero sum rather than a positive sum game. Sri Lanka’s pro Sinhalese governments were committed to scaling down the disproportionate role played by Tamils in the nation’s government and economic life. Tamils viewed this as a loss of rights to which they were entitled. Leaders of the Punjab’s Akali Dal movement were committed to greater Sikh self-determination, within the framework of India’s federal system. Punjabi Hindus, who stood to be the losers, viewed this as going “too far” 20. The United Kingdom government would like to defuse the power of the Irish Republican Army by making concessions to Northern Ireland’s Catholic population. Those concessions are viewed as a loss of historically mandated rights by Protestant loyalists.

Leadership Roles

Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Clerk in South Africa have shown how courageous leadership can sometimes reduce ethnic tensions. More often, political and religious leaders play a divisive role, appealing to ethnic-nationalist sentiments and scape-goating rival groups in order to enhance personal political power and, in democratic societies, to win political office. “Ethnic-bashing,” as this leadership strategy is sometimes labeled, serves to reinforce in-group identity, by emphasizing

the common ties that bind group members to each other and by emphasizing the differences that distinguish the group as a whole and its individual members from other groups and their members. The sharpening social cleavages that result from such identifications and tactics based on these identifications lead to greater ethnic tension, as the “middle ground” between groups disappears.

In Sri Lanka, both S.W.R.D. and Sirimavo Bandaranaike won democratic elections by appealing to Buddhist-Sinhalese nationalist sentiments and denigrating the ethnic Tamils. When out of office, many of their principal political opponents did the same. Indira Gandhi frequently courted support in India by appealing to the Muslim vote or, alternatively, the northern Hindu vote. For a time, Indira’s Congress party was even seen as the protector of Muslims 21. In the United States, appealing to white racist sentiments is a staple of political campaigning in racially divided Southern states. Similar tactics are also used by more authoritarian leaders to win support and retain power. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Communist Party Chief of Serbia and General Franjo Tudjman of Croatia won their presidencies by appealing to the most divisive aspects of Serbian and Croatian nationalism.

Political Mobilization and the Formation of Militant Groups

The factors that we have discussed so far – historical legacies, a victim mentality, feelings of deprivation and ethnic bashing leaders – all contribute to a climate that encourages political mobilization along ethnic lines. As ethnic differences begin to polarize a society, the formation of militant groups becomes more probable. Intolerance of compromise and commitment to attaining “ethnic rights” by using violent force distinguish such groups. Young men – and sometimes women – of military age comprise their core membership, often designated by terms such as “soldiers” or “freedom fighters.” Charismatic – even mythical – figures lead them and maintain group cohesion through rigorous, military-style discipline and propaganda that reinforces xenophobic ethnic stereotypes. Leaders of neighboring nations who sympathize with their cause or hope for political advantages may provide sanctuaries, training and arms. Funds may be raised from group members living overseas or from illicit activities such as selling illegal drugs. Examples of such groups include Peru’s Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), Palestine’s Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Northern Ireland’s Irish Republican Army (IRA) and many others.

When militant groups become strong, the task of managing – let alone resolving – ethnic differences is greatly complicated. Redress of grievances that may have provoked political mobilization in the first place is no longer sufficient to move toward a non violent political order. Political polarization and destruction of any middle ground where compromise might be possible typifies militant group tactics for seeking absolute political dominance. For militant leaders, it is “victory or death;” there is no “political solution” other than the triumph of their cause.

To understand why militant demands become more extreme – even millenarian – as a conflict progresses, one needs to view long-lived militant groups as viable social organizations whose survival depends upon delivering tangible benefits to members. Like businesses, government bureaus, research institutes and organized crime “families,” they provide identity, personal fulfillment and a vocation. Since the “business” of militant groups is violent conflict, it is not surprising that group leaders and their followers may be reluctant to abandon that vocation for the more mundane business of day-to-day political leadership. Political leadership, even in authoritarian regimes, involves striving toward complex and ill-defined goals. It involves marshalling support and adjudicating conflicting interests through negotiation and compromise. Political leaders must collect taxes, maintain public order, keep highways repaired, provide education, and see that trash is collected. Small wonder that the simplicity of unquestioning commitment to a militant cause may seem more appealing 22.

Why Does Economic Development Often Intensify Ethnic Cleavages?

Economic development inevitably produces social tensions, even in ethnically homogenous societies under the most favorable conditions. Understanding why this happens owes much to Emile Durkheim’s theories of collective action. Durkheim argued that in times of rapid change, people become alienated from an increasingly turbulent and fragmented society. He labeled this sense of alienation, anomie, and argued that extreme levels of anomie can lead to social tensions resulting in violence. Contemporary scholars have noted that social alienation heightens ethnic consciousness and receptivity to ethnic nationalist appeals 23.

Development is often uneven across sectors and regions, with agriculture generally being the most neglected sector 24. Cities and regions closer to the capital tend to be favored above rural areas, and more distant regions 25. In Spain, we see the neglect of provinces such as the Asturias and the Basque region, both geographically and culturally distant from Madrid, the old Castilian capital. Likewise, Wales, Scotland, and northern Ireland are claimed to suffer “internal colonization” by nationalists in those regions which are far from London. The Cabeza de Goliat (giant’s head) phenomenon of a dominant capital city, has been noted in many Latin American nations. Archipelago nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines, neglect their outer islands. Similar neglect has been the chief complaint of separatist or regional movements in India.

Other inevitable stresses and strains in the development process were first identified in writings on the industrial revolution in Europe: the novels of Charles Dickens, Karl Marx’s political tracts and Karl Polanyi’s writings on political economy. The problems these authors identified sound familiar: the decay of rural infrastructure and institutions, unplanned urbanization, the emergence of new elites and social movements pressing for broader political representation. Polanyi describes the struggles of politicians and reformers to enact policies that would minimize the effects of social disruption (such as the Poor Laws) without fully understanding the causes of disruption 26.

Today, as in the 19th century, it is widely assumed that rapid industrialization is the key to economic growth and that benefits from economic growth will be broadly diffused with resultant improvements in human welfare. Most contemporary economic development models incorporate this view 27. However policies based on these models often produce the problems about which critics of the industrial revolution wrote. Industrialization and urbanization cause tremendous socioeconomic upheavals. As workers move to the cities, they strain existing resources and are better placed to make demands on regional and national governments. A highly urbanized population is usually more literate and better organized. Newly urbanized young men from rural areas who move to the city with unrealistically high expectations may be particularly hostile to some cultural aspects of modernization, and therefore ripe for radicalization 28. Many urban migrants tend to be men; women and children are of-ten left behind in rural areas, reducing the stabilizing influence of family ties. Unattached males provide a pool of supporters for ethnic or rel-gious organizations and they look to those groups for help in finding jobs, medical care, entertainment and a sense of belonging.



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