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Education And Debate

Root causes of violent conflict in developing countriesCommentary: Conflict—from causes to prevention?

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 09 February 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:342
  1. Frances Stewart, director (
  1. Development Studies, Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford OX1 3LA
  2. a Medact, 601 Holloway Road, London N19 4DJ
  3. b Medipaz, Apdo Postal P-191, Managua 2, Nicaragua

    Poverty and political, social, and economic inequalities between groups predispose to conflict; policies to tackle them will reduce this risk

    Eight out of 10 of the world's poorest countries are suffering, or have recently suffered, from large scale violent conflict. Wars in developing countries have heavy human, economic, and social costs and are a major cause of poverty and underdevelopment. The extra infant deaths caused by the war in Cambodia, for example, were estimated to be 3% of the country's 1990 population.1 Most current conflicts, such as in the Sudan or the Congo, are within states, although there is often considerable outside intervention, as in Afghanistan. In the past 30 years Africa has been especially badly affected by war (see fig 1).

    This article reviews the evidence on the root causes of conflict and suggests some policy responses that should be adopted to reduce the likelihood of future war.

    Summary points

    Wars are a major cause of poverty, underdevelopment, and ill health in poor countries

    The incidence of war has been rising since 1950, with most wars being within states

    Wars often have cultural dimensions related to ethnicity or religion, but there are invariably underlying economic causes too

    Major root causes include political, economic, and social inequalities; extreme poverty; economic stagnation; poor government services; high unemployment; environmental degradation; and individual (economic) incentives to fight

    To reduce the likelihood of wars it is essential to promote inclusive development; reduce inequalities between groups; tackle unemployment; and, via national and international control over illicit trade, reduce private incentives to fight

    Fig 1.

    Number of armed conflicts by level, 1946-2000. (Adapted from Gleditsch NP, Wallensteen P, Eriksson M, Sollenberg M, Strand H. Armed conflict 1946-2000: a new dataset.

    The cultural dimension of war

    Many groups of people who fight together perceive themselves as belonging to a common culture (ethnic …

    Correspondence to: D Holdstock

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