Group Inequality and Conflict: Some Insights for Peacebuilding
Michelle Swearingen

This brief reflects the discussion at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) public event “Will Decreasing Horizontal Inequalities Reduce the Likelihood of Political Violence?” held on February 22, 2010. It featured leading experts on horizontal inequalities: Frances Stewart of Oxford University, S. Tjip Walker and Robert Aten of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Raymond Gilpin, associate vice president of USIP’s Center for Sustainable Economies. Details of this event, including the audio and Stewart’s PowerPoint presentation, are available online:

Political, socioeconomic, or cultural inequalities among defined groups could potentially motivate political violence in societies when groups have strong identities, and grievances mobilize both the group leaders and followers. These differences, which have been termed “horizontal inequalities,” galvanize group action to address actual or perceived inequalities. These dynamics should influence peacebuilding efforts as they reveal underlying motivations for grievance and mobilization, require specific policy action to address the differences among groups, and finally inform sequencing of policy implementation.

Vertical inequality, which measures differences between individuals, often gets more attention; but it is the differences between groups that have been more concretely linked to conflict. The three broad areas of group differences include: political, demonstrated by participation in government and the security sector; socioeconomic, including access to land, private capital and government infrastructure, and levels of income and employment in the private and public sector; and cultural, nationally recognized languages, holidays and cultural or religious sites. Research has shown that political inequalities between groups are most likely to motivate leaders, while socioeconomic inequalities motivate followers. Empirical data suggest that when a strong combination of political and socioeconomic inequalities is present, leaders emerge and disaffected groups choose political violence to address injustice. By more fully incorporating group dynamics into conflict management and peacebuilding strategies, we can more efficiently target the immediate drivers of conflict and defuse threatening situations.

Group Identities

A strong group identity is a vital component of mobilization. Whether group identities are based on ethnicity, religion, race, caste, class, or region, they must have defined and relatively impermeable boundaries. If group’s identities are fluid, they will be less easily mobilized for violence, as group members will maximize their opportunities by switching to the better-off group. This is one explanation for the lack of race riots in Brazil where blacks have been severely disadvantaged compared to their white and “mixed” or “brown” peers. The “mixed” or “brown” category made up 43 percent of the population in 1993, while only 5 percent of the population considered themselves black. The racial categories were fluid, diluting the threat of group mobilization. Black South Africans under apartheid, however, were evaluated and assigned a race by the Race Classifi-cation Board, leaving no opportunity for fluidity between groups. Their organized and widespread rebellion brought down the apartheid regime in the early 1990s.

Mobilizing Factors
The work of Frances Stewart, leading expert on horizontal inequalities, has shown that there are different mobilizing triggers for leaders and followers in rebellion movements. While it is often political inequalities that spur leaders to accentuate and rouse group identities to foster rebellion, it is more often the economic and social inequalities that lead group members to follow. For this reason, mobilization of violent groups is most likely to occur when there is a confluence of political exclusion and economic and social marginalization imposed by one group on another.

Although inequalities in cultural recognition are important, they are not a critical part of the analytical framework for group inequalities and conflict. The conflict in Northern Ireland, which was fought between Catholics and Protestants along religious lines, was laid over serious and long-lasting political and socioeconomic inequalities between the two groups. The policies most effective in ending the conflict were those targeted at reducing political and socioeconomic inequalities between the disadvantaged Catholics and the Protestants, such as strengthening the Fair Employment Act of 1989 and improving equality in housing and education.

Scenarios and Outcomes
Just as groups vary, the results of group dynamics vary and may produce either peaceful or violent outcomes. In some situations the violence manifests in a coup, while in other cases there is rebellion, political violence, riots or increased crime. Most often, group inequalities fit into one of two scenarios. Either one group is both politically and socioeconomically privileged over another group, or one group is politically dominant while the other is socioeconomically advantaged.

One-sided deprivation or simultaneous political and socioeconomic deprivation of one group has been found in Mexico’s Chiapas state, South Africa under apartheid, the United States, Brazil, Northern Ireland, and Sudan. Under apartheid, black South Africans were disadvantaged both politically and socioeconomically. They had one-tenth the per capita income of whites and even less representation in managerial civil service jobs. Their life expectancy and literacy rates were also considerably lower than those of white South Africans. After peaceful protests failed to bring about change, an armed rebellion began in 1976 that persisted until 1990, when changing international dynamics, economic sanctions and the black resistance contributed to the end of the apartheid regime. While blacks continue to be socioeconomically disadvantaged, the conflict ended with political compromise and the South African government continues to work to reduce the socioeconomic inequalities peacefully.

Sudan presents another example of one-sided deprivation. The United Nations Development Program, the agency responsible for measuring the progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), reports that Southern Sudan is drastically worse off than the North. After nearly a decade of working toward attaining the MDGs, 90 percent of the Southern population is categorized as living in poverty, compared to 50 percent in the North. Twenty percent of children in the South are enrolled in primary education, compared with 62 percent in the North, and rates of maternal mortality in Southern Sudan are more than three times as high as in the North. Only after decades of civil war has the government in Khartoum made any steps toward including Southerners in the political institutions of the country.

Shared deprivation with one group that is politically powerful yet socioeconomically deprived has been found in Malaysia, South Africa after apartheid, Uganda, Sri Lanka, and Rwanda. In the case of Malaysia, drastic group inequalities at independence left the majority Bumiputera population with a severely low level of education, economic assets, and opportunities relative to the minority ethnic Chinese population. Yet, the country was able to implement successful policies to reduce violence along with the pervasive inequalities. The position of the Bumiputera as the majority in a country with “broadly democratic institutions” enabled the implementation of policies such as “quotas, target and affirmative action with respect to land ownership, public service employment and ownership of quoted companies.” During this time, Malaysia experienced record growth, allowing the Chinese to succeed as well. The balance of inequalities between the two groups encouraged a cooperative approach to resolving the issue nonviolently.

Policy Categories

If addressed conscientiously, group inequalities as well as the conflict they trigger can be mitigated. Stewart proposes three types of policy interventions to reduce group inequalities: direct, indirect, and integrationist. Direct policies include affirmative action and quotas. These policies are attractive, as they immediately target the disadvantaged population. They are most effective in the short term but, if incorporated into long-term strategy, can serve to calcify group identities, leading to further conflict in the future. Indirect policies include progressive taxation and antidiscrimination legislation. They work well over the long term and ultimately are more likely to reduce a strong sense of identity differences. However, these policies are less precise. Finally, integrationist policies that work to dissolve group boundaries are theoretically attractive, but often lead to suppression of information about groups and group identities without actually reducing inequalities. Integrationist policies include bans on political parties defined solely by ethnicity or religion and requirements for muliticulturalism in schools or other institutions. As each category of policies has different strengths, weaknesses and timelines, it is critical that peacebuilding approaches seeking to reduce group inequalities include a combination of direct, indirect, and integrationist policies that address the specific political and socioeconomic inequalities that underlie the conflict and could trigger violence.

Strategic Sequencing
To minimize the likelihood of conflict, policies should first address the monopoly on political power and resulting political exclusion that most often mobilizes the leadership of a conflict. This could be done by addressing the monopoly on political power through reservations for under-represented groups in all levels of government and the security sector, citizenship expansion, enactment of human rights legislation, and other measures. This would reduce the immediacy of conflict and allow for work on the next step: addressing socioeconomic inequalities between groups. Socioeconomic inequalities can be addressed through any of the approaches outlined above, and include policy measures such as employment and education quotas, antidiscrimination legislation, progressive taxation, incentives for inter-group economic activities, and other steps.

Potential Applications
Sudan and Rwanda, two previously conflict-affected states, are once again facing increasing tensions between groups. Sudan’s longstanding civil war between the politically and socioeconomically advantaged North and the poor, yet resource-rich South ended in a peace agreement in 2005. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) addressed political inequalities and bought the country time to address the socioeconomic disparities. However, many of the initial grievances have not been addressed, and now that the CPA is expiring the country faces the threat of renewed conflict.

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, responsible for the death of more than 500,000 people in less than 100 days, arguably resulted from decades of group inequalities. Following the genocide, the regime of Paul Kagame instituted integrationist policies, forcing the suppression of group — in this case, ethnic — identities. Sixteen years later, tensions run high in Rwanda as ethnic violence has increased, along with state suppression. It is not the group identities, or even religious identities (such as the greatly publicized Muslim North and Christian South in Sudan) alone that drive these conflicts. It is the combination of political and socioeconomic exclusion, and the failure to adequately address the group inequalities that led these two countries into conflict initially and threatens to do so again. In order to diffuse these situations effectively, our approaches to development and peacebuilding in countries like Sudan and Rwanda must reflect the power of group inequalities to cause conflict.

1. Increase research into group dynamics: there is a need for increased data and research regarding group dynamics and conflict to complement current work on individuals and conflict.
2. Coordinate international assistance to ensure optimal policy sequencing: the many bilateral, multilateral, and nongovernmental organization actors in a conflict-affected country should coordinate their policies to diffuse the conflict by first targeting the immediate problem of political exclusion and then implementing policies to attack socioeconomic inequality.
3. Integrate equality into foreign assistance programs: equality should be a strong factor in development and humanitarian programs, promoting stronger, more stable and more just societies.
4. Conduct training and sensitization programs on reducing group inequalities: increasing education and awareness about the value of correcting group inequalities will improve policies in and toward conflict-affected countries.

Michelle Swearingen is the moderator for the International Network for Economics and Conflict (INEC). She worked with the US Institute of Peace for one year as program assistant with the Sustainable Economies Center of Innovation before taking on her current role with INEC. She received her MA in Public Policy from Georgetown University in 2009 and a BA in International Studies from Ohio State University in 2004.

This article is available in its entirety, with all endnotes and references, at
The web address for the event is