I am a PhD student working on Public Management in sub-Saharan Africa. I also work part-time as an administrator in a charity organisation, and as a researcher, on a voluntary basis, for a youth development NGO. My degree was in Economics with Law, and my Masters degree in International Development. Before embarking on my doctorate I worked as a Technical Assistant on external debt management in East Africa. I have a passion for children and I get involved in a number of activities with them in my spare time, from teaching French at after-school clubs to raising funds for children’s charities. I would love to run a home for vulnerable or deprived children someday, while working as a freelance writer.
Why does conflict occur, and what can be done to prevent or solve it? Critically discuss two conflicting theories.
“The usual pattern seems to be that people give non-violence two weeks to solve their problem… and then decide it has ‘failed’. Then they go on with violence for the next hundred years… and it seems never to ‘fail’ and be rejected.” –Theodore Roszak
Why does conflict occur, and what can be done to prevent or solve it?
This is the crucial question that scholars, peacemakers and other researchers try to answer on conflict resolution and transformation. The first part of the question is what this essay is concerned with: ‘why does conflict occur’ refers to the causes of conflict. The attempt to answer this question has led to several theories being developed.
The general understanding of a conflict is that it is a relationship between two or more parties, whether individuals or groups, who have or think they have incompatible goals. The theories on conflict are traditionally based on the different assumptions, experiences and perceptions that people have about different conflict situations. Although all the theories are different, they are quite inter-related, and all the theories put together may succeed in explaining the conflict. Otherwise, a new theory may have to be developed to completely explain the conflict. It is therefore essential to remember that no one particular theory can completely explain a conflict situation.
For the purpose of this essay, I will be focussing on two baskets of theories, Basic Human Needs theories and Economic theories of conflict, discussing the different individual theories that have been developed in each basket. I intend to illustrate how these theories can, or have been used to, help understand conflict, as well as identify the shortcomings, if any, that the theories may have, and the implications these may have for the theories.
The Basic Human Needs Theories
The Basic Human Needs theories draw largely on the core assumption that there are some needs that human beings have to meet in order to be satisfied, and that, for as long as these needs are not met, humans will continue to try to attain them, using any means possible.
The earliest development in this field was the work of a psychologist, Abraham Mazlow, who argued that humans need certain essentials to survive. Mazlow developed a hierarchy of needs, ranging from the most basic needs, such as food, shelter and so on, to more complex psychological needs such as self-esteem, self-actualisation. The diagram below shows the different needs:
Source: adapted from Theories of Conflict: Causes, Dynamics and Implications.
Mazlow’s theory argues that the needs at the bottom of the hierarchy are the most urgent for individuals and society, and have to be met before those which occur further up the hierarchy can be. Furthermore, Mazlow contends that all these needs have to be satisfied for a person or a community to feel like they have been able to become everything they have the potential to be.
Although it is tempting to agree completely with Mazlow, it is important to realise that some individuals may simply be satisfied with the fulfilment of one particular need which they consider to be more important. For example, an individual who had no sense of belonging or felt that his identity had been eroded may be content with being able to be part of a community, and not necessarily fight for safety or self-esteem. Also, safety and security may naturally arise from a sense of belonging, thus contradicting Mazlow’s hierarchy.
From this angle, Mazlow’s theory can be seen as a basic classification of needs that may lead to conflict if they are not satisfied. He does not allow for flexibility in his theory. In other words, the theory may only hold true in certain situations, where all his assumptions are present. Therefore, in certain parts of the world, where cultural, traditional and religious beliefs are stronger than the need for survival, this theory will easily be falsified. A typical example is the situation with suicide bombers around the world, who show that their need for recognition is stronger than that of survival.
Drawing largely on Mazlow’s findings, John Burton developed his theory of Basic Human Needs which identifies the two general categories of human needs as Identity and Security, with all other needs falling within one of these two categories.
The main difference between Burton’s and Mazlow’s theories is that Burton argues that all needs are of equal significance. He also contradicts the hierarchal relationship that Mazlow developed, arguing that even when the need for food and shelter is absent, the need for identity and recognition may drive communities into conflict. Again, the example of suicide bombers illustrates this.
Reaching the same conclusion as Mazlow, Burton states that: “the failure to satisfy these needs leads to dysfunctional development, frustration and protracted conflict, unless satisfied within the norms of society, they will lead to behaviour outside the legal norms of society” (Barnes, 2005: 24).
Although Burton succeeds, to some extent, in relaxing the strict hierarchy of Mazlow’s system had and making the theory more flexible, his theory also has several shortcomings. For one, he assumes that all parties involved in the conflict are willing to reach an agreement that satisfies their needs. This is not always the case, as there are some parties that benefit from conflict situations and are powerful enough and willing to keep the conflict going.
Another shortcoming of Burton’s theory is the use of Security as a category of needs. To simply argue that security is a basic need that can be negotiated for is too general a statement. Food and shelter, which fall under security, are scarce resources in many, if not all, developing countries, and often may lead to conflict situations. This theory would have fewer loopholes if it did not have such broad categories, but rather broke them down and dealt with each need as equally important.
There are other conflict scholars that have drawn on Mazlow’s theory, one of which is Edward Azar. He tries to use the Basic Human Needs theory to explain large-scale violent conflicts, most of which occur within nation states. He identifies three basic needs. Firstly, he classes the need for food and shelter under security, as Burton does, and includes the need for “bodily integrity” as part of security as well. The second need that he identifies is the need for acceptance, that is, the need to be recognised and respected as an individual and a member of a group with an identity. Last but not the least he points out that communities need to have access to effective participation in political, economic and decision-making institutions.
This theory can be seen as limiting because of the assumptions that underlie it. Azar assumes that large-scale violent conflicts occur in societies in which there is a mix of communities with different identities and where there is active politics. He goes on to assume that in such a society, one community will dominate and be indifferent to the needs of the other communities. There are therefore two limitations to this theory. Firstly, unless the assumptions hold, the theory may be incapable of explaining any conflict situation. Secondly, the theory may not be valid when applied to inter-state conflicts, as his assumptions focus on intra-state conflict situations.
The Economic Theories on Conflict
Several theorists have identified economic reasons for conflict, generally agreeing that conflict ensues when an individual or a community perceives their economic welfare to be jeopardised. The underlying presumption in all the Economic theories is that human behaviour is largely driven by the desire to control or own scarce material resources, whether intra-state or inter-state.
An economist, Paul Collier, arguing that greed and grievances over resources and economic development play a role in breeding conflict, identified some economic root causes of conflict. The existence of economic opportunities, such as primary commodities, may be responsible for conflict, with parties at loggerhead with each other in an attempt to own or control the resources. He also points out that the non-existence of economic opportunities may equally lead to conflict. For instance, communities may rebel against the lack of educational opportunities, or the lack of income in their society. Another reason he identified is that slow economic growth accompanied by large population growth brings about tremendous competition for the scarce resources, and may eventually lead to conflict.
Collier assumes that the conflict situation is violent in nature and that guerrilla or rebel groups are constantly struggling to acquire sufficient material resources and finances in order to keep functioning. Although some of the economic causes thus identified may be relevant in explaining conflict, Collier’s assumptions limit the scope to which the theory can be implemented.
Other scholars have also criticised Collier’s theory on greed and grievance, branding it ‘simplistic and misleading’ (Barnes, 2005: 27). A study commissioned by the International Peace Academy in 2003 concluded, contrary to Collier, that economic incentives and opportunities could not be identified as the primary cause of some armed conflict, although they were important in “creating opportunities to sustain hostilities and had important effects on the duration, intensity and character of the conflict” (Barnes, 2005:27).
Another theorist, Ted Gurr, draws attention to the role that deprivation and discrimination play in conflict. He considers economic discrimination to be a major cause of inter-state conflict, arguing that the lack of economic equity among groups of people or communities means that access to scarce resources is not evenly distributed. This lack of economic equity is demonstrated by the presence of a rich-poor divide, with the richer proportion of the population having access to better education and commercial activities.
Gurr also argues that the more deprived a community feels, the more likely they are to rebel together. In an attempt to explain deprivation, he argues that conflict is more likely to ensue when a group or community perceive a limit in their ability to acquire resources which they feel they are entitled to, therefore leading to frustration and possibly aggression.
The crucial distinction between Gurr’s and Collier’s points of view is that Gurr clearly identifies perception as an important factor in conflict. He points out that the way people perceive grievances is a very important factor in motivating conflict. This makes his theory less rigid than Collier’s, and it can therefore be applied to different conflict situations, considering that individuals have different perceptions borne out of experience and knowledge.
Therefore, it is possible that a community, although being deprived, will not rebel, simply because of the cultural or traditional perception predominant among them. A clear example of this is the situation in Togo. The Military Government had suppressed the natives for so many years that the new generation did not see any reason to rebel, even when it was clear that they were being deprived of resources that were rightfully theirs.
I would say that whether or not economic motives can be regarded as the root cause of the conflict depends on the nature and history of the conflict. However, it is usually the case that economic motives affect human behaviour in conflict situations and hence affect the outcome of the conflict.
How can these theories explain a conflict situation? To illustrate this, I have set out a case study below.
CONFLICT IN THE NIGER DELTA, NIGERIA
The Niger Delta, situated on the eastern coast of Nigeria, has the highest concentration of crude oil in the country. The present misunderstanding and unrest dates back to the late 1950s, following the arrival of The Royal Dutch Company (now Shell). In recent decades, there has been a mixture of violent and non-violent conflicts occurring in the area, triggered by the Land Act and Agreement signed between Shell and the government of Nigeria in 1979. The agreement was that Shell could remain in the country on condition that it turned 60% of all its oil extracts over to the government for the development and maintenance of the Niger Delta and other affected regions. The government has since failed to re-invest the income from oil into these regions, allowing the Niger Delta to remain among the least developed parts of the country. The indigenes of the Niger Delta have attempted to voice their anger to the government in several ways, and have often risked death and imprisonment to make their opinions known. Several activists have been beheaded in the past, including the famous Ken Saro-Wiwa. Recent developments include the sabotage and boycotting of oil pipelines by local rebels and organised representative groups as a way of making their voices heard. These have often been violent, at times resulting in numbers of deaths. On the whole, the aim of such action is to force the suspension of the operations of the oil company until they or the government of Nigeria accept responsibility for the development of the communities in the Niger Delta (adapted from http://www.dawodu.net/Edodelta.htm).
This conflict can to some extent be explained using the needs theory. Following Mazlow, it can be seen that the people have water, food and shelter, but they do not have protection from hazardous exposure, and are therefore lobbying the government and Shell to provide them with this protection.
However, it is not possible to completely explain this particular conflict by using the hierarchy. It is true that all the needs have to be met, but, in this case, the people are seeking some and not all of the needs Mazlow mentions. For example, they desire safety and security and they want a better structure in their community. However, the need for belonging and love is not an issue; the Niger Delta is known for strong communities, thus defying the hierarchal assumption. Lastly, it is possible to argue that their desire for self-esteem and for the recognition and affirmation of their rights as indigenes are causal factors of the conflict.
Burton’s theory of Identity and Security supports Mazlow’s theory in this conflict. The search for security can surely be considered a core cause of the insurgence. However, identity is not exactly an issue in this case. This case study also illustrates how it is possible that all the needs are of equal importance, as developed by Burton.
Azar’s theory also complements the previous two. The desire for access to effective participation in political, economic and decision-making institutions partly contributed to the outcry of the Niger Delta people. The conflict followed the government’s decision to ignore the voices. To some extent, the desire for ‘bodily integrity’ (security) may have been responsible for the ensuing conflict. The indigenes feel that they are not given the respect and treatment that they deserve and so they will continue to make things difficult for the government and Shell until the wrongdoings are rectified.
Economic theories can also be used to explain the events in the Niger Delta to some extent. The locals realise that oil is a scarce resource and thus generates huge income for the oil companies and for the government. Although they do not necessarily want to take control of the resources, the inhabitants of the Delta feel they are being cheated and should have a share in the income. Shell, following the 1979 agreement with the central government, argues that the government, who are responsible for the development of the region, has significantly cut their oil revenues, and they have therefore refused to share any part of their income with the people of the Niger Delta.
Another cause of the unrest is the fact that Shell does not ameliorate the problem of unemployment in the region. The oil company could employ and train local people to fill technical and commercial positions, rather than bringing in foreigners or employing other Nigerian citizens. The high level of unemployment has contributed to unrest in the region.
Last but not the least, environmental degradation in the Niger Delta has also led to conflict. Waste from the oil fields is disposed of in the rivers, causing fish to die, drinking water becomes polluted and livelihoods are damaged, and sometimes even destroyed completely. Several indigenes have died as a result of the pollution from operations in the Delta.
It is possible to use Collier’s theory of greed and grievance to explain why the conflict persists. The oil companies, even after realising the harm that results from their operations, still remain greedy, extracting as much oil as they possibly can, without putting any of what they have taken out back into the community, thus leading to the grievance on the part of the locals who feel that they have been cheated out of what is rightfully theirs.
Gurr’s theory of discrimination and deprivation also explains this conflict from the local people’s point of view. They feel they are being deprived of income that is generated from their home. Also, to some extent, they feel they are experiencing economic discrimination. The income that is generated from the Niger Delta is not invested back into the region, but is instead invested into other regions that barely generate any national income, leaving the Delta less developed and less desirable than those regions.
It is important to point out that perception, as stressed by Gurr, played a very significant role in casing the conflict. The way Shell perceived the grievance felt by the indigenes caused the oil company to toughen its stance and stand its ground even more firmly. The perception that the indigenes had of Shell, a multi-national company affiliated with the central government, made them fight even harder, determined not to give up or be taken for fools.
“A fundamental importance in the practical application of any conflict theory is not what a conflict situation (at any stage of its development) is, but what the actors think it is” (Khutsishvili, 1998:10).
The two baskets of theories that I chosen have been greatly successful in explaining the conflict in the Niger Delta. In order to understand the conflict fully, social, psychological and political theories will have to be explored as well. The Basic Human Needs theories appear to be flexible enough to explain any conflict situation when all the theories under the bracket are applied in conjunction. It can therefore be argued that this the strongest set of theories on the causes of conflict. The Economic theories on conflict, on the other hand, are more limiting, in that they can only be applied to conflicts where material resources are concerned.
The challenge that peacemakers and fieldworkers in conflict situations face is how to use the different theories to better understand the situation they find themselves in. it is possible that the causes of conflict can be misinterpreted when using the different theories, and thereby have a negative impact on the method of resolution and transformation that is adopted. Both peacemakers and fieldworkers have to be aware of this possibility.
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Asatiani, T.: Motivation and Behaviour of a Person in a Conflict Situation, in Khutsishvili, G. (ed) (1998): Understanding Conflict: A Collection of Works, International Centre on Conflict and Negotiations, Nekeri, Georgia, pp 58-60.
Brogan, P. (1992): World Conflict – Why and Where They are Happening, (2nd Ed) Bloomsbury.
Burton, J. and Frank Dukes (1990): Conflict: Practices in Management, Settlement and Resolution, Macmillan Press Ltd.
Fisher, S. et al (2003): Working with Conflict – Skills and Strategies For Action, Responding to Conflict, Zed Books.
Khutsishvili, G.: Instead of Introduction – On Refusing to Understand, in Khutsishvili, G. (ed) (1998): Understanding Conflict: A Collection of Works, International Centre on Conflict and Negotiations, Nekeri, Georgia, pp 7 –10
Khutsishvili, G.: Towards an Inclusive Interpretation of Conflict, in Khutsishvili, G. (ed) (1998): Understanding Conflict: A Collection of Works, International Centre on Conflict and Negotiations, Nekeri, Georgia, pp 11 –25
Conflict Prevention: Strategies to Sustain Peace in the Post-Cold War World. A Report of the Aspen Institute Conference on Peace and Security- July 30 to August 3, 1996. The Aspen Institute, 1997, Aspen, Colorado.
Niger Delta Update:
Shell Genocide in Niger Delta region of Nigeria:
Warri city and the Western Niger Delta Crisis, submission by Urhobo Historical Society: