Violent Conflict, Poverty and Chronic Poverty

49 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2011

Date Written: May 1, 2001


The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of the literatures on chronic poverty and conflict, map out current policy debates and identify areas for future research. It is estimated that one third of the world's population is exposed to armed conflict, and a disproportionate number of conflicts take place in poor countries. These conflicts are not temporary emergencies but have systemic and enduring features. The chronically poor increasingly live in contexts of chronic insecurity. In addition to their direct impacts, violent conflicts have major development costs, and global poverty targets are unlikely to be achieved in a context of growing insecurity. The nature of the links between conflict and poverty are explored by critically examining three propositions. First, conflict causes chronic poverty. The macro and micro impacts of conflict are examined with a particular focus on how rural livelihoods and entitlements are affected. Conflict has a more severe impact than other external shocks because of the deliberate destruction of livelihoods. Chronic insecurity increases chronic poverty, but the impacts vary according to a range of factors including age, ethnicity, gender and region. Classic conceptualisations of vulnerability may not apply; conflict may reverse pre-existing power relations causing new groups to become politically vulnerable. Second, poverty causes conflict. The processes through which chronic poverty generates grievance leading to violent conflict are examined. Chronic poverty by itself is unlikely to lead to conflict - the chronically poor often lack political voice and organisation. However, horizontal inequalities and social exclusion, particularly when they coincide with identity or regional boundaries may increase a society's predisposition towards violent conflict. Such background conditions can be exploited by political entrepreneurs. Chronic poverty may also be a significant factor in sustaining wars as violent crime and predation become the only viable livelihood strategy for the chronically poor. Third, resource wealth causes conflict. The argument that greed rather than grievance causes conflict is briefly examined. High value primary commodities such as diamonds and timber provide opportunities for rebel groups to finance their military activities. It is argued that rebels generate a loud discourse of grievance to hide their real economic motives. The 'greed-grievance' debate merits further examination, but rather than framing the debate in 'either-or' terms, the key seems to be in understanding the interaction and synergies between the two. Finally, three broad alternative policy approaches are mapped out: working around conflict (donors avoid the issue of conflict or treat is as a negative externality); working in conflict (donors recognise the need to be more sensitive to conflict dynamics and adapt policies and programmes accordingly); and working on conflict (a more explicit focus on conflict management and resolution). It is argued that working around conflict is in the long run likely to be counterproductive, and that if chronic poverty is going to be more effectively addressed, donors need to develop approaches for working in and on conflict, drawing upon and adapting rural livelihoods approaches that were developed in more stable contexts.

Keywords: concepts, poverty dynamics, politics, conflict

Suggested Citation

Goodhand, Jonathan, Violent Conflict, Poverty and Chronic Poverty (May 1, 2001). Chronic Poverty Research Centre Working Paper No. 6, Available at SSRN: or

Jonathan Goodhand (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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