Under what conditions does violence erupt in multiethnic communities? Why does conflict break out between groups in some communities but not in others? Such questions are investigated through a study of communal conflicts in Ethiopia, a poor country where local order often breaks down as neighboring groups take up arms to resolve their disputes. By examining patterns of conflict at the district level, this research project aims to explain how institutions of local governance influence tensions produced by social divides and resource scarcity. Specifically, this study examines to what extent the outbreak of violence depends on the representation of different groups in district-level administration and the intensity of weather-related shocks to local crop production or animal rearing.

Ethiopia provides an ideal context for studying how communal conflicts arise through the interaction between institutions, identities, and resources. While the country's districts vary considerably in levels of ethnic diversity and land productivity, decentralizing reforms adopted in the past 15 years have empowered all districts to make decisions over budget expenditures, land use, and agricultural inputs. The distribution of district resources may not affect the welfare of citizens during normal times, but a district's authority over land and water use becomes a critical issue during the prolonged periods of scarcity often confronted in a country that depends on rain-fed agriculture. Whether local groups monopolize or share control of district administration could therefore influence the outbreak of violence between them.

To assess the causes of communal conflict in Ethiopia, this project will develop a dataset of conflicts found in all districts and undertake ethnographic studies of two selected districts over a two-year period. First, the project will draw on government and non-government sources of information to assemble a dataset of local conflicts across Ethiopia's 550 districts between 1995 and 2006. The district-level data will allow for a statistical analysis that tests whether the outbreak of violence can be attributed to institutional, demographic, or economic factors. Second, the project will use the district-level dataset to identify two districts for in-depth ethnographic study. Interviews and focus groups will be organized with members of selected communities to establish how, in practice, administrative authority, demographic pressures, and resource constraints heighten fear or competition between groups. These ethnographic studies will further help to establish how episodes of communal conflict are understood in their local socio-cultural context, overwhelming traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution and possibly creating cycles of recurrent violence.

This project is relevant to the stability of countries in Africa and other developing regions, which share many of Ethiopia's economic and political characteristics. Its research will directly address the impact of decentralizing reforms, which are often promoted as an institutional solution to the competition over resources in multiethnic countries. Yet, it remains to be shown how decentralization affects the outbreak of violence between groups, particularly when those reforms can bring about a realignment of power at the local level. This project's findings will provide a better understanding of how institutional changes interact with demographic and resource pressures in fragile states. The lessons derived from this research will permit scholars and policymakers to craft institutional reforms better suited to preventing communal conflicts that often degenerate into complex humanitarian crises.

Project Report

There remains considerable disagreement in current research over the sources of violent conflict in developing regions like Sub-Saharan Africa. Common explanations for the causes of communal conflicts — mass violence between members of different ethnic, lineage, or religious groups — typically focus on the politicization of social cleavages, the competition induced by economic scarcity, or the influence of particular institutional arrangements. This research project studied the determinants of communal conflicts by focusing on the country of Ethiopia, which encompasses wide internal variation with regards to social diversity and levels of violence. Ethiopia is a strategically important country in the Horn of Africa, where violent conflicts and humanitarian crises often transcend international borders. By providing a systematic analysis of communal conflicts within Ethiopia, the research project’s findings may provide policymakers and scholars with greater insight on the sources of political instability in that country and its neighbors. The principal investigators employed a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to assess several competing hypotheses concerning the outbreak of violent communal conflicts in Ethiopia. First, we conducted interviews with government officials, civil society organizations, and international donor agencies concerning the conditions associated with the outbreak of conflicts in different regions of the country. Second, we trained graduate and undergraduate research assistants at the University of California, Berkeley, Georgetown University, and Addis Ababa University to assist us in assembling an original dataset of communal conflicts based on government documents, case studies, and media reports from both English and Amharic language sources. The dataset includes information on 117 distinct episodes of violent communal conflicts that occurred between 2000 and 2009. Of these conflicts, we find that 44% resulted in population displacement, 79% involved physical injuries, 76% resulted in at least one death, and 52% produced property damage. Third, we undertook statistical analyses that model the outbreak of communal conflicts across Ethiopia’s 550 districts using data on economic, environmental, demographic, sociological, and administrative conditions. The research project’s empirical findings challenge the received wisdom on communal conflict in ways that should inform policymaking for conflict prevention and mitigation. We find, as expected, that Ethiopian districts with greater ethnic diversity are more likely to experience communal conflicts. However, our findings also underscore the importance of administrative capacity and economic development in shaping patterns of communal violence. We find that conflicts are more likely to erupt in geographically remote districts that are difficult to reach from the national capital or regional capitals, suggesting that the delay in the deployment of state security forces to outlying areas may provide more time for tense situations to spiral into violence. Additionally, contrary to conventional expectations, we find that districts with higher levels of economic development (e.g., income, literacy, urbanization, cash crops) are more likely to experience communal violence. By contrast, districts with a larger percentage of the population living below the poverty line are less likely to experience communal violence. Other possible contributing factors, such as a district’s access to public services, a district’s access to water, or a district’s population density, are found to have no systematic effect on the outbreak of communal violence.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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Georgetown University
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