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Review of 'Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict'

by Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan, Berlin, August 24, 2008

Violence is not inescapable fate to be borne with resignation but the product of human attitudes, values and conduct – all of which can be altered. One important cause of conflict is the existence of major Horizontal inequalities (HIs). Horizontal inequalities are inequalities in economic, social or political dimensions or cultural status between culturally defined groups (p. 3)...

Group mobilization takes a violent form when the state is not accommodating; when its structures are rigid and fixed rather than flexible and open to change (p. 20). Violence and separation are resorted to when the state, instead of addressing grievances, answers with force. Where one ethnic group has an overwhelming and permanent majority, other groups may “resort to gunfire because reliance on the ballot box is futile” (p. 25). The tyranny of the majority, that is, of numbers, leads to Herrenvolk (master race) democracy (p. 43).

Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict : Understanding Group Violence in Multiethnic Societies. Palgrave Macmillan, UK & USA, 2008.

Edited by Professor Frances Stewart, this work’s ten contributors focus on three regions of the world: West Africa, Latin-America and Southeast Asia. In what follows, I sketch some of the salient points.

Kofi Annan (Foreword) observes that, due to various historical factors and trends, almost every country in the world today contains a multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups. While the majority of these states have succeeded in establishing conditions for peaceful and stable development, some have descended into group violence, resulting in the loss of lives and livelihoods, in shattered families, forced migration, and a breakdown in relations and trust (p. xv). The question the Editor and researchers address is, given the same “starting-line”, why have some countries gone in the direction of conflict and so damaged themselves? While Bolivia has avoided violence, “terrible” events were witnessed in Peru and Guatemala (p. 243). Cote d’Ivoire has suffered serious violent conflict in recent decades, but Ghana has succeeded in remaining peaceful, as has Malaysia (p. 285), proving that there is nothing inevitable about the violence that plagues certain countries. Violence is not inescapable fate to be borne with resignation but the product of human attitudes, values and conduct – all of which can be altered. One important cause of conflict is the existence of major Horizontal Inequalities (HIs). Horizontal inequalities are inequalities in economic, social or political dimensions or cultural status between culturally defined groups (p. 3).

The parameters of HIs identified are political and economic, social and cultural. These four are inter-connected: for example, political power leads to economic opportunity, and the two to social status. Where there is both political and economic inequality, conflict is likely, though not inevitable. Apart from the human cost – in terms of death and injury; grief and trauma - conflict is a major cause of poverty. An unfortunate irony is that inter-group conflict often occurs in poor countries, in a cruel cycle of poverty and conflict. The cover-photograph shows a man standing before a destroyed building, staring into the distance. He is simply dressed but carries an expensive machine-gun. Weapons are instruments of death and destruction: that money should have gone into construction.

As ideological differences have diminished and “socialism no longer seems to be a serious alternative […] mobilization along group identity lines has become the single most important source of violent conflict” (p. 7. Emphasis added). Group political and religious leaders can emphasise – even invent - ethnic division to secure their own position, achieve their political and economic goals. Ethnicity becomes an instrument serving these ends, and people are made to believe in the essential, fixed and permanent, nature of their group identity, losing sight of the fact that identity is (a) constructed, and (b) changes over time. Where Group A categorizes certain others as belonging to a separate group, what Group A thinks about the others can become more important that even what the others think about themselves. Of course, there must be some basis for differentiation, but what matters is whether these differences are minimised or emphasised, seen as essential or accidental, changeable or unalterable.

Citizenship, while signalling legal membership of a state, should also imply a certain standing. All citizens are deserving of equal respect, along with other members of the polity (p. 26). The democratic inclusion principle demands that all citizens affected by the actions of the state to which they belong must have a share in political decision-making. However, through informal practices, the citizenship of members of another group can be “stunted”. The latter must be distinguished from second-class citizens who “formally lack full standing in society. For example, women in many Middle Eastern countries (or countries under Sharia law) may not vote or pass on citizenship to their children” (p. 27).

What role does culture play in conflict? Samuel Huntington identified (‘The Clash of Civilization’, 1993) cultural difference as the dominant source of conflict. However, different cultures have existed side by side over long periods of time in peaceful co-existence. When conflict then suddenly erupts it is because difference has been excited and used as sufficient grounds for violence by those with a vested interest in violence: Hindu-Moslem violence in India is not natural but produced, manufactured (p. 41). Cultural status inequalities sanctioned by the state creates anxiety: for example, if in a multicultural society, a particular religion or language is privileged over the others. The state should not identify itself exclusively, or even largely, with one cultural group. As for language, the UNDP Human Development Report of 2004 states that recognizing a language means more than its officially sanctioned use. It symbolizes respect for the people who speak it, and their full inclusion in society. Designating a single language as the national language generates unease among minority-language speakers, make them feel symbolically excluded and economically disadvantaged (p. 47).

The state, its structure and nature, policies and practices; in what it minimises, deflects or excites, plays a crucial role. Group mobilization takes a violent form when the state is not accommodating; when its structures are rigid and fixed rather than flexible and open to change (p. 20). Violence and separation are resorted to when the state, instead of addressing grievances, answers with force. Where one ethnic group has an overwhelming and permanent majority, other groups may “resort to gunfire because reliance on the ballot box is futile” (p. 25). The tyranny of the majority, that is, of numbers, leads to Herrenvolk (master race) democracy (p. 43). In a context of multiethnic tension, the Westminster model of parliamentary government (“first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all”: p. 20) is not the answer. Rather, peace and development are to be sought and found in inclusive, power-sharing, government.

Horizontal Inequalities is an important publication because it tries to understand the causes of conflict, so that it may be hindered or, once begun, knowledgeably addressed and effectively ended. The book will be helpful to thoughtful individuals and groups in conflict-plagued multiethnic-societies, and to those outside who are actively concerned about the plight of people in such countries made ugly and unfortunate by violence.