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Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War | Study Guide

David D. Laitin, James D. Fearon

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Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War | Summary




David D. Laitin and James D. Fearon study the causes and factors that lead to civil war in the years 1945–99. Many scholars believe that the prevalence of civil wars during this time frame was due to the end of the Cold War. Laitin and Fearon prove this to be a misconception.

Civil War

Laitin and Fearon review data sets from the 127 civil wars in the years of 1945–99. These civil wars killed many people and created large numbers of refugees. Laitin and Fearon compare the number of deaths during international wars between foreign nations and with the number of deaths during civil wars and found that civil war killed more people than international wars. Even though civil wars killed more people they do not receive as much attention as international wars.

Factors that Increase Risk of Civil War

Laitin and Fearon found that low per capita income is a significant predictor of the risk of civil war. Poverty leads to weak states that have ineffective, corrupt local police, and corrupt counterinsurgency forces. This corruption makes it easier for rebels to recruit new members. Conditions that also work in favor of the insurgents are difficult terrain, large population, and local knowledge. Laitin and Fearon also found that countries with higher levels of democratic freedom did not have a decreased risk of civil war. Ethnic, religious, and language differences did not increase the risk of civil war either.

Recommendations to International Organizations

Laitin and Fearon conclude by making these recommendations to international organizations. Firstly, they should understand the conditions that create weak countries and high poverty. Then, they should fund programs that promote the legal accountability of the military and police. Lastly, they should only give money to countries if the government uses counterinsurgency tactics, or military efforts, known to discourage recruitment by rebel groups.


International War versus Civil War

Laitin and Fearon open their essay comparing international wars to civil wars. During 1945–99, wars between different countries killed around 3.33 million people. Of these international wars, 25 killed at least 1000 people, and the average duration was less than 3 months. Laitin and Fearon write that according to their data, a conservative estimate of the number of people who died in civil wars during the years 1945–72 was around 16.2 million. Laitin and Fearon remark that they only include civil wars in which at least 1000 people died during 1945–99. They note that 127 civil wars fit this definition of civil war. Laitin and Fearon noted that the average civil war lasted a little over 6 years. Of the 127 civil wars studied, 25 of these wars were still going in 1999. The authors use these statistics to emphasize how civil wars cause more suffering than international wars. Laitin and Fearon note that scholars don't study civil war as much as international conflicts. The authors call for academics to do more research on factors that put a nation at risk for civil war. Laitin and Fearon's analysis seeks to explain the reasons and risk factors for civil wars.

End of the Cold War

Laitin and Fearon note that the 1990s had the largest number of civil wars of any decade. The authors explain a few common assumptions made about civil wars during the 1990s. The most common of these assumptions is that the end of the Cold War caused the increase in civil wars during the 1990s. The other two assumptions are that ethnic and religious differences were the drivers of revolution during the 1990s.

Laitin and Fearon explain that most contemporary civil wars are the result of the buildup of crises that began in the 1950s and 1960s. Decades of resentment caused these civil wars. They are not the result of the end of the Cold War or the sudden changes that accompanied it.

Ethnicity, Religion, and Language

Another commonly believed assumption is that ethnic and religious differences lead to a greater risk of civil war. Laitin and Fearon prove this assumption incorrect using their analysis of civil war data. When controlling other differences, ethnicity, religion, and language were not significant enough to cause a civil war. Rebel groups may form based on ethnicity, religion, and language, but these differences do not make countries more likely to face civil war. The authors find that even when there is income inequality between diverse groups in a country, they are at no greater risk for civil war.

Factors that Increase the Risk of Civil War

According to Laitin and Fearon, the factor that best predicts civil war is a country having a low per capita income or income per person. The authors use data to support this conclusion. Their analysis shows that countries with a per capita income that is less than $1000 have a 41% greater likelihood of civil war each year. This low per capita income creates widespread poverty. Additionally, Laitin and Fearon note that newly created countries and countries with larger populations are at greater risk for civil war.

Laitin and Fearon note that countries with conditions that favor insurgency are more at risk of civil war. Insurgency is a military strategy that uses small groups to engage in guerilla warfare from rural bases.

A successful insurgency can consist of only a few rebels and a small number of local supporters but still be very effective. The authors note that it only takes a small number of people with strong grievances to start an insurgency.

Insurgencies in Action

Laitin and Fearon note that poverty is the leading reason why people join insurgencies. Poverty makes it more likely that a country is politically, structurally, or financially weak. These weak countries often have corrupt or incompetent local police, little or poorly maintained infrastructure, and are less likely to have accurate information at the village or local level. Weak governments have poor centralized bureaucracy and often have little control over villages and rural areas. These weak governments usually lack knowledge of terrain, local issues, and identities of individuals.

The authors hypothesize that weak central governments make insurgency easier and more appealing. Weak governments frequently respond to insurgencies with cruel and haphazard retaliation that harms uninvolved locals. These acts of violence increase support for the insurgency among locals. Laitin and Fearon add that rebels rely on civil war creating intense grievances that increase local support of insurgents.

Laitin and Fearon explain that since government forces outnumber them, insurgencies must be able to hide. They found that difficult terrain increases a country's odds of civil war. Mountains, forests, swamps, and other landforms provide hiding places for insurgents. Laitin and Fearon add that in these terrains, rebels must have superior local knowledge to hide successfully. To survive, insurgents must have better local knowledge than government forces. Rebels often rely on networks of locals for help. Laitin and Fearon explain that insurgencies' knowledge of villages and the identities of locals help them to control individual villagers. Locals are less likely to inform on the insurgents because they fear direct retaliation against themselves or their loved ones by insurgents.


Laitin and Fearon explain that more research into the conditions which lead to civil war is needed.

International organizations must improve their understanding of the conditions that create insurgencies.

They recommend that international organizations provide aid to governments fighting civil war only if the country does not engage in actions known to strengthen insurgencies. They also note that organizations should fund anti-corruption measures and encourage legal accountability within the police and military. Laitin and Fearon's final recommendation is international monitoring of counterinsurgency practices in countries facing an insurgency.

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