Int. Herald Tribune
The greed behind these wars

Philip Bowring

Paris, Monday, June 26, 2000


HONG KONG - The World Bank has performed an unusual service in looking at the causes of civil conflict within nations. Its study points a finger at economic issues, but its conclusions should be cause for reflection by advocacy groups in the West which latch on to many a "freedom struggle" whose motives may owe more to greed than to grievance.

The study also asserts that there is a strong link between civil strife and the existence of large expatriate communities in the West fueling and funding notions of ethnic or religious grievance from the comfort of the rich, open and plural societies in which they now live.

The study, by Paul Collier, makes the oft forgotten point that control of a rich natural resource is often the principal source of civil war or regional rebellion. The greater a nation's economic dependence on a few export commodities, the greater the danger of civil strife.

The most immediate example today is Sierra Leone, where rebels have mainly been financed by their control of diamond mines. The study also cites the bid by Congo's Katanga province for copper-based independence and that of Biafra in Nigeria for an oil-based "freedom" during the 1960s.

Both of those separatist movements found plenty of well-meaning sympathizers in the West. Mr. Collier quotes Lenin's phrase "useful idiots" to describe how smart rebels can readily find ill-informed outsiders to support any cause.

The study mostly uses examples from Africa and Europe. But it notes that Indonesian Aceh's separatism is at least partly driven by its oil wealth.

Acehnese might argue that they are a different case, with an identity which dates back long before oil was discovered. But that is hardly the case with other troublesome, resource-rich Indonesian provinces such as Riau and West Papua (Irian).

Advocates of West Papuan independence may reasonably claim that much of the province's natural wealth ends up outside the province. But, as events in Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and Fiji have all shown, splintered Melanesian societies are ready victims of very localized greed triumphing under the banner of grievance.

Indonesia, with its large territory and commodity riches, may be particularly at risk. But the study also makes the interesting and optimistic assertion that societies which are diverse in terms of religion or ethnicity are safer than homogeneous ones, as diversity makes rebellion more difficult. That is an important conclusion because it sees diversity as strength and identifies economic forces as the main threat to unity of a country like Indonesia.

The study could do with more Asian examples. Logging, drugs and gems have driven and financed much of the conflict that has ravaged Cambodia and Burma. But it would be much harder to argue that the Kashmir or Tamil Tiger or Mindanao conflicts were driven primarily by economic forces, let alone by single commodities.

One way to stop conflict is to deny rebels access to markets for commodities. This is almost impossible in the case of gems, and has proved difficult even with bulky items like timber.

The study argues that countries which have large diasporas in the United States are much more at risk than those whichdo not. It notes the key role of Americans of Irish ancestry, on both religious sides, in fueling the violent conflict in Northern Ireland, and the Czechoslovak diaspora's role in bringing about that state's break into two.

It argues that America would have a better chance of stopping states from harboring terrorists who have killed U.S. citizens if there were "an international policy to set limits on the conduct of diasporas." That is a controversial statement, but, like much else in this report, it deserves a lot more debate.

As Mr. Collier rightly asserts, there is a "profound gap between popular perceptions of the causes of conflict and the results from recent economic analysis."



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