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Poverty and Conflict by Dr. Ellen Fitzpatrick

It is a pleasure to be here tonight to share some of my perspectives with you and to hopefully start an ongoing conversation. I would like to explore the relationship between poverty and violent conflict and what role we can play in the amelioration of this dual scourge.


In my 25 years of teaching in international development, the question I challenge the class and myself with, is: What are the roots to global poverty why is it so persistent?


Why is there persistent poverty? Why is much of the world hungry and dying of very treatable diseases? From my cynical side – we don’t want to disrupt the status quo, the way things are. We like our morning bananas for 50 cents per pound, while the producer was paid 5 cents. We, the global north, insist on trade policies that nurture the interests of transnational corporations (Cargill/Montsanto) who spread GMOs in the global south at the expense of small producers and genetic diversity. We participate in setting the rules of the game that further marginalize our most vulnerable population. That was a bit edgy, let’s think about how persistent poverty is connected to conflict.


How does conflict contribute to poverty?
In conflict economies the State cannot create economic security and therefore make any advances in economic development. Resources going to domestic security aren’t going to building infrastructure, investing in public health or education – this perpetuates poverty!
Let’s take a look at some of the thinking behind the roots to violent conflict: GRIEVANCE, GREED AND WEAK INSTITUTIONS.


Grievance  incites violent collective action, such as the Arab spring in Tunisia which was catalyzed by high unemployment of the youth and rising food cost and a political opening.


Grievance may also take the form of horizontal inequality, where there is discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, or some historic perception of difference, and one group is treated differently from another. One group is advantaged. Think about the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda, where the difference between those two groups was exacerbated by the Belgians in the attempt to create a wedge to prevent communities from unifying and challenging the colonialists. This artificial differentiation also assured that the colonialists would have a sufficient labor force to work on plantations. Hutus were required to produce coffee. This ethnic difference began in the colonial period and continued to modern Rwanda. We saw a privileged group and a marginalized group, settling the stage for conflict. Other examples would be the Singhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka or the Albanian Christians and Muslims, living in the same country but with different cultural and historical backgrounds. In Latin American there is persistent discrimination of the indigenous by the mestizo.


Greed occurs when the Opportunity Cost of fighting is low, which tends to happen in poor areas. The benefits from looting or receiving some sort of gain from patronage is greater than the cost. For example, you may join a militia to ensure physical and financial security for your family (Congo) or receive a promise from a political elite that if you kill a particular householder, you will get title to their land (Kenya, 2007). It is also being reported that Al Shabaab is recruiting with the promise of permission to poach as a way to secure subsistence. All of this occurs much more readily in an environment of poverty.


Integrated into these two theories of greed and grievance, is the idea of weak institutions – that a weak state and weak laws make violence more likely.


For example, weak institutions may enable corruption, electoral fraud, poverty, or high rates of crime, which in turn enable the escalation of violence (Haiti). Haiti has been unable to run what is believed to be a free and untainted election. I was just there before the holidays, and we had to leave the rural areas earlier than anticipated because roads were being blocked with burning tires. The anger and frustration was palpable. Weak institutions contribute to powerful beliefs of injustice, manifesting in either the ability to manipulate the rules or to be powerless to address grievances. Think of Mexico and the inability of State institutions to assure domestic security.


I would suggest we, the Global North, have some culpability both for the violent conflict and the concomitant persistent poverty that much of the world experiences. Some contributing factors are the legacy of colonialism, our foreign policy, trade policy, and our bungling of the practice of global development.


The legacies of colonialism include the creation of horizontal inequality (artificial divisions among people), the creation of countries with artificial borders (thank you King Leopold), imperial governance structures, and economies formed around resource extraction (tea, coffee, cotton, and banana plantations).


Foreign Policy


How does foreign policy continue these colonial policies – intervening in democratically elected governments or interfering in a sovereign nation’s governance process, whether directly by staging a coup or indirectly by supplying arms? The US is the largest supplier of military equipment in the global market. How do these actions contribute to violent conflict (Chile, Iran), embargo and then political discontent?


Many in the Global North (Americans and Europeans) are very concerned about the activities of Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, and ISIS. There are many contributing factors to the non-state terrorism that we see from these organizations, but let’s uncover some of the roots of Al Qaeda. Remember in the late 70’s when the Soviets supported a regime change in Afghanistan and ultimately sent troops in to the country. Reagan was determine to “bleed the Soviets dry.” Afghanistan was a proxy conflict for the US and the Soviet Union. Under the Reagan administration, the most radically anti-communist Islamists were recruited to form the Mujahideen. He wanted to provide the maximum firepower to the Mujahideen to counter the Soviets. Under US leadership, the region was flooded with all kinds of weapons to the most radical recruits, and all flocked to training grounds in Pakistan where they were ideologically charged with the spark of holy war and trained in guerrilla tactics, sabotage and bombings. These recruits were supported and trained by the CIA. It was in this setting that the US organized the Afghan jihad to unite a billion Muslims in a holy war, a crusade against the Soviet Union on the soil of Afghanistan. When the Soviets left defeated, the Mujahideen fighters return to their countries, with training in the use of violence, a sense of participating in a just war, and a healthy dose of indoctrination from the most radical madrassas (schools) in Pakistan. At home, many found it difficult to reintegrate back into their communities, and thus began an organized, radicalized global organization of Al Qaeda of our own making – our foreign policy sowing the seeds of conflict.


Trade Policy


“Those that set the rules of the game, determine who will be the winners and losers.” Under the World Trade Organization, rules were crafted that reinforced the economic interest of Multinational Corporations at the expense of small farmers who can’t compete with globalized agribusiness. In Mexico, about 80% of rural children are under-nourished (I would contend as a results of the WTO rules and NAFTA). Livestock consume more grain than the entire rural population, and the meat is then exported to the US. Beef consumption has declined in the last three decades in Mexico. In parts of Africa, land that once grew sorghum and corn for local consumption is increasingly owned by multinational agribusiness conglomerates and is planted with cotton and coffee for export. Local households must purchase grain under vacillating international prices, increasing their vulnerability to HUNGER.


The Development Industry


It is not always an industry I am proud to be a part of. We have been rightly accused of using of neo-colonial tactics, playing the role of social engineers, supporting the status quo, and facilitating the economic well-being of those who are already secure.


Example: When I was a faculty member at SUNY, I would take students abroad to study specific challenges in international development. One of these mini-courses was a field visit to Nyararit, Mexico, not far from Guadalajara, where we investigated the environmental and economic impact of a large hydroelectric dam on the Rio Grande Santiago. Our general research question was who benefited and who bore the costs of this dam. We started interviewing community members who were displaced when the river was dammed and the reservoir created. They lost their rich farming lands in the river valley and were relocated on a hillside that rises above the reservoir. Their new homes are on poor soil, they have to pay for the water they draw for domestic use from the reservoir, and they have no electricity. As we continued to follow the river down to the Pacific we found that the change in water levels, the salinity and speed of water flow, had had a serious impact on the local small scale fishing industry not only along the river, but also as the river emptied into the mangrove swamps which serve as the fish and shrimp nurseries for the local community. The end result was that many householders that had previously been able to meet the needs of their families were now unable to produce enough income and food to keep the family going. When we asked how they manage, most told us that they go North, meaning they go to the States, work for part of the year or several years before they return. The electricity from the dam goes to the factories in Guadalajara and provides cheap electricity for the urban middle class. GE won the contract for the dam whose financing was facilitated by USAID and the World Bank. The winners and losers are starkly clear.


Our failure is creating dependencies where we should be supporting local initiatives. All too often, we see poverty as a technical problem – not as one deeply situated in the political and economic milieu we previously discussed.


In my 25 plus of working on development issues, I have seen some positive outcomes from development. These have usually been where the intervening organization NGO saw themselves as a catalyst, not the engineer for social and economic change and paid attention to the aspects of change that were empowering to the community. I have been impressed with the work that Heifer International has done through the world. I came to Heifer as a visiting scholar with a very skeptical attitude, my edgy self, and as I have traveled to conduct evaluative research in many parts of the world, I have seen well-trained and deeply committed country staff, and programs that are designed to catalyze an enabling environment for change. Almost all the projects have an element of “passing on the gift” – usually a goat, dairy cow, guinea pig, coffee seedlings, vegetable seed or fruit trees. This gift is bundled with training in animal management and food production, creating self-help groups that provide women with some autonomy in decision making and connections to local markets.


Now these aren’t radical changes, but they do represent what I think will lead to sustainable improvement in people’s lives. These are changes at the margins, making them a little less poor, more resilient in the face of weather, changing prices, and more confident in their ability to control parts of their lives. Especially women. Development is also a psychological state, it is feeling less vulnerable, more empowered, more hopeful for the future of one’s children. In Malawi, I met an older women, a beneficiary of one of Heifer’s dairy projects. She insisted on showing me her three cows, their shed, what she does with their manure, and her cornfield. And then she took my hands so that I was facing her and she said, “With the milk from these cows I, a widow, have raised my grandchildren, and now my oldest grandchild is going to college!” She put her hands on her chest and with tears in her eyes, and repeated, “My grand child is going to college!” If this process of development can create hope and opportunity, I think this is a step towards diffusing violent conflict due to grievance; perhaps a step toward communities holding their governments accountable for their actions.


So what can we do to facilitate this process, to dampen the spread of violent conflict and to support communities that can envision a more positive future?


Keep informed, hold our government accountable for their actions, educate our fellow citizens, keep the pressure on our government, boycott corporations that exploit and perpetrate violence on the most marginalized, make known to our families and our communities that there is no “other,” that we are bound together by our common humanity (Desmond Tutu).


Robert Kennedy once said: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lives of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy, build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”


We as members of WAND – as active global citizens – we can create that ‘tiny ripple of hope.”