Five Myths About Research on Violent Conflict

A forthcoming review article in a special issue of the Journal of Development Economics reviews the economics literature on violent conflict since the review of Blattman and Miguel (2010). If you do research in this area or teach development economics, the entire article is worth a read. Of more broad application, however, is the author’s listing of five myths about the microeconomics of violent conflict.

Myth 1: It is impossible to do rigorous and ethical research in conflict zones

One reason why research on violent conflict is still a relatively new area of inquiry is researchers historically could not (or thought they could not) conduct save, ethical, and credible research on populations experiencing active conflict. The mounting literature in this sub-field of development economics now shows that this idea is a myth. Not only have researchers collected their own primary data within conflict zones but the availability of new technology and computational methods allow for innovative remote sensing data collection efforts.

Myth 2: Violent behavior is irrational

It may seem natural to write-off violent behavior as simply being senseless behavior that cannot be understood using theoretical economic models of rational decision making. Although this may be true in some cases, this obscures the reality that in many cases the actions of those who perpetrate violent conflict are motivated by comparative advantage, resource constraints, and a desire to achieve desirable outcomes. It is through understanding these motives that effective policies can be implemented to reduce violent conflict in the future.

Myth 3: War stops markets and governance 

Although it is true that violent conflict can prevent normal market functioning and the usual administration of governance, markets and governance systems do not entirely disappear. Markets might look much different when violent conflict persists (e.g. transaction costs may increase and informal mechanisms of insurance or credit may become more viable), but market activity does persist. The same can be said for systems of governance.

Myth 4: Conflict is a problem of poverty and the poor

This is a tricky topic. It is true that an increasing share of the “global poor” live in countries that are affected by violent conflict (see the new JEL paper by Page and Pande) and the poor obviously have fewer resources available to help shield themselves from suffering directly from conflict, but violent conflict affects the relatively well-off as well as the poor. Additionally, the authors argue that although there is an association between poverty and violent conflict there is little evidence to suggest that “poverty breeds violence”.

Myth 5: The post-war economy should be reconstructed

Many times when a war of violent conflict ends, there is an implicit assumption that the economy needs to be restructured. This is because allowing the social, economic, and political systems that produced war as an outcome to persist may seem unwise. However, it is difficult to find clear examples where restructuring leads to better and more peaceful outcomes. The authors suggest a more context-specific approach that considers the dynamics of the local social, political, and economic systems.

The paper goes on to review the contributions research on violent conflict has made to the broader discipline of development economics. I look forward to reading the other articles in the JDE special issue on the microeconomics of violent conflict.

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