Published on Development for Peace

What do people fight over? The answers are simpler than you might think.

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The history of humankind is filled with violence. People have been hurting and killing one another practically since they stood up and walked on two legs. And while each battle claims a unique call-to-arms, at the end of the day, the rallying cries are always strikingly similar. Human beings prefer to remain peaceful, except when their lives or livelihoods are threatened.

In the study Pathways for Peace, we examined conflicts throughout history, across the world, and found that while every violent conflict has unique characteristics, conflict tends to play out in a handful of critical spaces that pertain to safety, livelihoods, and well-being. These spaces, or “arenas,” involve power and governance; access to land and natural resources; delivery of services; and justice and security. 

Because each arena is essential to livelihoods and well-being, exclusion from any one of them can quite literally be a matter of life or death. For example:

Competition for power has marked conflicts for time eternal. Who sits at the table where decisions are made? Who gets to make or change the rules? Who has the power to exclude others? The answers to these questions fundamentally determine a society’s organization and health. The more inclusive and representative a society is vis-à-vis power sharing, the greater the chances for avoiding violence. One way to manage conflicts over political power that risk becoming violent is through political settlement, which can be either explicit or implicit. Power-sharing agreements are an important aspect of political settlements, and help to allocate a share of power to various groups within society. These arrangements also come with their own risks—and in turn need to be managed. Violence can also flare up around elections, as they by definition produce winners and losers and can bring forth demands, grievances, and expectations.

By extension, political power translates into having power over land and natural resources. Just like the children’s game of “capture the flag,” the team with the most territory wins. Today, this arena faces enormous pressure from the impacts of climate change, population growth, urbanization, and the expansion of large-scale agriculture. Violent conflict around land is typically stoked by grievances related to land scarcity, insecurity of tenure, and historical injustices, which can play out individually or in combination. Access to water (described as the “petroleum of the next century”) can act as a risk factor in both intra- and interstate conflict, while failure to achieve water security can act as a risk multiplier. The potential for extractive resources to fuel instability and conflict is well documented—although they also can confer significant benefits onto populations and improve development outcomes.

Service delivery, too, represents an arena of contention. How services are delivered, whether access is perceived as fair or even, and whether there are means of recourse for unfair outcomes all matter. Indeed, in terms of state legitimacy, perceptions of fairness and inclusion regarding service delivery matter as much, if not more, than the quality of the services or who delivers them. Because the state is ultimately responsible for ensuring service delivery—even if it may not be the provider, in all cases—perceptions in this arena affect overall state legitimacy.

Finally, and fundamentally, grievances around access to basic security and justice drive many of today’s violent conflicts, just as they have throughout history. In particular, law enforcement practices that are seen as targeting particular groups—youth, members of marginalized minorities—are one of today’s leading sources of grievance that push young people to join armed groups, including violent extremist groups.

In all these arenas, inclusiveness and perceptions of fairness matter as much, and perhaps more, than inequality in outcomes.

Because they are so contentious, these arenas can be highly resistant to reform. This is not helped by the fact that those with the power to expand access tend to be those with the most to lose from that expansion. It is those actors who are already at the table who must agree to change the rules and redefine the power balance in the arenas, and they may see little benefit in altering the status quo.
While the extent to which these arenas factor into different conflicts today varies, it is clear that no country has emerged from violent conflict, or pulled back from the brink of violent conflict, without somehow addressing conflict in these arenas.  For example, land reform is a pillar of Colombia’s peace agreement and its implementation. Likewise, Niger’s Renaissance Project attempts to address social and economic grievances that could translate into conflict risks by reducing poverty across groups.
The message is clear: sooner or later, countries will need to address conflict in these critical arenas. They will need adequate support to do so, or we can expect conflict to continue. 


Alys Willman

Former Senior Social Development Specialist, Fragility, Conflict & Violence Group

Neelam Verjee

Social Development Specialist, Fragility, Conflict & Violence Group

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