Conflict and climate assertions

I always suspected El Niño had a violent past

So Nature has released a study by researchers from Columbia University purporting a link between the El Niño effect and violent conflict in a subset of countries (those that face large shocks in temperature when El Niño comes knocking).

There are tons of reasons to be skeptical of these results – one thing that made me pause was the complete lack of theory in the paper, and thus there’s no real attempt to discern why El Niño might increase the risk of violence. Even stranger – the results get stronger when the authors control for rainfall and temperature in the affected countries, which really doesn’t leave much of a theoretical channel for the resulting outcome. To make matters worse, the structure of the article makes it nearly unapproachable – which is not the fault of the authors, but the journal itself (why isn’t this appearing in a social science journal? I have a theory).

Edward Carr also stepped in and rightly choked-slammed the results. While I agree with him that the paper is a mess and we shouldn’t make too much of the results, I found some of his complaints to be off the mark:

This design makes sense only if you assume that the random back-and-forth shifting did not trigger adaptive livelihoods decisions that, over time, would have served to mitigate the impact of these state shifts (I am being generous here and assuming the authors do not think that changes in rainfall directly cause people to start attacking one another, though they never really make clear the mechanisms linking climate states and human behavior).  The only way to assume non-adaptive livelihoods is to know next to nothing about how people make livelihoods decisions.  Assuming that these livelihoods are somehow optimized for one state or the other such that a state change would create surprising new conditions that introduced new stresses is more or less to assume that the populations affected by these changes were somehow perpetually surprised by the state change (even though it happened fairly frequently).

Carr seems to be suggesting that, by using run-of-the-mill regression analysis, the authors are implicitly assuming that people in `treated’ countries don’t react in ways to offset future El Niño effects. It seems to me that this approach isn’t making that assumption at all, it’s attempting to measure the average impact on the incidence of conflict. We might expect that the impact to be higher under the assumption of non-adaptive livelihoods than under adaptive livelihoods (unless part of that adaptation is picking up an AK-47), but none of this feeds into the average effect.

Now – it is unclear what that average effect is measuring (and this might be what Carr is getting at), as the impact in year 0 is the impact of El Nino on the unadapted, where the impact in year 0 + T might be the impact on El Nino on the semi-adapted. While this might certainly be an issue for the external validity of the findings (if people have been adapting during the period observed, we’re not likely to see similar effects in the future), it doesn’t affect the researchers’ ability to say “here’s the aggregate impact of El Niño on X over this period.” It’s still a valid statement, if a less interesting one.

I should note this isn’t the first time I’ve taken issue with research on the impact of climate on civil conflict, especially with how this stuff gets reported in the news. The Guardian has already managed to mistakenly conflate the result of increased risk of conflict with direct culpability by claiming that the research “shows 50 of 250 conflicts between 1950 and 2004 were triggered by the El Niño cycle.” This is a common mistake, one I discuss in length here.

The Value of Conflict

Sometimes a good fight is the only way forward.

In the wake of Zanzibar’s recent elections, a friend and I had an argument about the proposed form of the new Government. The two main parties had agreed before the event to create a Government of National Unity, a structure that normally exists only when one party is unable to form a workable Government on its own or (as in the case of Zimbabwe) to forestall serious political conflict. As it happened, the results were such that the incumbent party, CCM, took the Presidency against a stiff challenge from CUF by a margin of a single percentage point – 50.1% to 49.1%. The two parties also divided the Parliamentary seats and representation in the House of Parliament between themselves.

Just to make the point starkly: between them, the two parties accounted for 99.2% of the votes cast for the Presidency, and together account for 100% of the Houses of Representatives and Parliament.

This state of affairs led to the aforementioned argument. My position was that this new Government of National Unity makes a mockery of the democratic system by removing every last vestige of accountability from the political system for the next five years, essentially installing a dictatorship by coalition. The biggest bone of contention for me is that there is literally no opposition at all. The losing Presidential candidate is to be installed as a Vice President and is thus intimately vested in the success and legitimacy of the Government; the Cabinet will involve senior figures from both parties; the ‘Government’ line will now encompass every single member of Parliament and people’s representative. In other words, in the organs of state, there is no-one who by function serves to question the actions of Government.

My friend, a colleague, took a different approach. He argued that the Government of National Unity is a step forward because it heightens the democratic representation of the Government in two major ways. Firstly, the unity Government was a proposal that was put to referendum and carried with a 70% positive vote. Secondly, it also provides a voice to the close to 50% of the population that has traditionally voted for the opposition but has never seen them enter Government (usually due to the underhand flaunting of democratic electoral norms). He pointed out that unity or coalition Governments existed in many other countries, and may have drawbacks, but could not be said to be undemocratic. Secondarily, though an ancillary point, he argued that the historical workings of opposition politics in Zanzibar were incredibly weak: when it has had the chance to ask searching questions of the incumbent Government, the opposition in Zanzibar has never done so. It has never used its role in Parliament to provide scrutiny of the actions of the Government. In this he’s surely correct.

I think both positions have merit, but the reason this concerns me so much is that the value in the democratic system lies only partly in representation. In virtually every country in the world the ‘representativeness’ of Government could be enhanced by coalition even when the ruling party has an absolute majority, since it gives all those who voted for losing or unrepresented parties a more direct line into Government. This doesn’t happen is because democratic systems of Government have proven successful because of the conflict they engender through the process of opposition and accountability. Decisions made by a Government are criticised, publicly scrutinised in Parliament and questioned before voting takes place. When a Government has an absolute majority this accountability may not prevent an action being taken, but it does ensure that the action is scrutinized first. This is one of the most valuable aspects of a democratic system – it promotes transparency, critical thinking and crucially, gives the Government a hard ride every time it tries to take a potentially important decision.

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Motivation, Leadership and Ideology

‘Motivation, Lea-der-ship, I-de-ol-ogy – these are a few of my favourite things’

‘Motivation, Lea-der-ship, I-de-ol-ogy – these are a few of my favourite things’

A lot of modern economic theory aims to provide a theoretical platform from which we can start to understand complex phenomena. Most economists recognise that a platform is still only that, and that there is a lot more to the world than it provides. This is a method that has crept into other social sciences, like sociology and political science, too; with the same caveats.

The approach has merit: it is useful for us to look for patterns in how things work, even if differences between experiences outweigh similarities. However, it can also bias the choice of the factors we analyse towards those with the most uniform properties, suitable for this kind of theorisation (the obvious counterpoint, that all research methods have biases, is true: this is why it is important to draw on research from multiple disciplines). I saw an example of this in a very interesting book I’m reading at the moment: When Things Fell Apart, by Robert H. Bates, a political scientist.

Bates is looking at state failure and conflict in late-20th Century Africa, noting an increase in incidence of civil war and predatory state behaviour. He puts forward a basic resource-based theory: essentially, state predation emerges when the discounted returns from predation on the society and seizing or stealing resource are higher than the discounted returns from taxation revenue. The theory predicts that as the time horizon of the political leaders reduces, so their tendency to predate on society should increase; similarly, if possible tax revenues fall, they will again tend towards becoming predatory.

Obviously, Bates would recognise that this is not the whole story, but his argument is that this is the basic starting point for understanding civil war. His approach is useful: resources are crucial to understand in conflict, though their role can be different in different circumstances. Yet the method can obscure understanding of other issues. To give a minor example, he writes:

I argue that ethnic diversity does not cause violence; rather, ethnicity and violence are joint products of state failure.

This kind of statement bothers me; it betrays far too rigid a conception of the world. Ethnicity is not ‘caused’ by state failure. Ethnic identities exist everywhere. Hong Kong has a dominant ethnic identity of Han Chinese, and many minority ethnic identities. I would be extremely dubious of anyone who claimed Hong Kong was a failed state. Further, in the African context, we could argue that the statement is turned upside down. It may well be far more useful to say ‘unified identity is the product of state success’. The history of African state-formation suggests that examples like Tanzania where national identity supersedes ethnic identity in many contexts are rare, because pre-existing ethnic identities were welded into states, and these identities have continued to evolve over time. On this particular point, this is just nitpicking. His analysis of ethnicity does not undermine his central argument. But I would argue that ethnicity (and identity more generally) is one of the concepts that model-based analyses struggle with, which is not to say that no models using ethnicity are worthwhile. Some other concepts I’d group in this ‘troublesome’ category for economics are leadership, ideology and motivation.

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Hobsbawm on Violence

A few weeks ago I posted some speculations on the nature of violence in conflict situations, and wondered why popular discourse on conflict so rarely examines the role and nature of violence itself.

My holiday reading included a collection of popular essays from the 1960s and 1970s by Eric Hobsbawm, easily my favourite historian to read (though not necessarily the best historian I’ve read). The book is called ‘Revolutionaries’, and one of the chapters is called The Rules of Violence. In it, he answers many of the questions that have formed in my own thinking about the subject and poses many more interesting ones. I quote some of his more interesting points below:

On the plurality of violence:

For the point to grasp about violence, as a social phenomenon, is that it exists only in the plural. There are actions of differing degrees of violence which imply different qualities of violence… It is quite useless… to treat these various types and degrees of violent action as essentially indistinguishable.

On the rules of violence:

Genuinely violent societies are always and acutely aware of [their] rules, just because private violence is essential to their everyday functioning, though we may not be so aware of them, because the normal amount of bloodshed in such societies may seem to us to be so intolerably high. Where, as in the Philippines, the fatal casualties in every election campaign are counted in the hundreds, it seems hardly relevant that, by Filipino standards, some of them are more open to condemnation than others. Yet there are rules. In the highlands of Sardinia they constitute an actual code of customary law, which has been formally described in legal terms by outside observers.

On the changing attitudes to violence as societies develop (equally relevant to societies in crisis):

One of the major dangers of societies in which direct violence no longer plays much part in regulating the everyday relations between people and groups, or in which violence has become depersonalized is that they lose the sense of such distinctions [rules]. In doing so they also dismantle certain social mechanisms for controlling the use of physical force.

On changing forms of violence (his references to anarchism reflect that this was written in 1969; today we can substitute terrorism in this quote):

Most traditional violence… assumes that … violent actions … have a specific and identifiable purpose. But a good deal of contemporary private violence … is non-operational, and public violence is consequently tempted into indiscriminate action. Private violence does not have to or cannot achieve very much against the really big and institutionalized wielders of force… Where it occurs it therefore tends to turn from action into a substitute for action… Some nominally political forms of violence (such as ‘trashing’ or some neo-anarchist bombing) are similarly irrational, since under most circumstances their political effect is either negligible or more usually counter-productive.

On personal realization through violence:

The terrible thing … is that for the disoriented fringe, for the weak and helpless poor, violence and cruelty – sometimes in the most socially ineffective and personalized sexual form – are the surrogate for private success and social power.

It seems to me that the lines of thought he begins to probe on personal realization, on the rules of violence and the changing forms of violence all remain centrally important in understanding violence as it exists in the developing world today. Elections will be held here in about 6 months, and are likely to be attended by various forms of violence. To understand why and how they will arise and can be mitigated should be a major concern of development agencies; but it can only be done if we understand exactly what violence achieves on multiple levels.

Hobsbawm is one of the best writers and most intelligent among modern historians. He is famously Marxist, but is more thoughtful and flexible than the vast majority of Marxist historians, and there have been few better writers on the great social upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries. I would strongly recommend reading almost anything he has written.