Graduate Research: What Causes Civil Wars?

by Lottie Greenhaf on 4 September 2014


I am currently studying for an MPhil in Environment, Society and Development in the Department of Geography. Prior to coming to Cambridge my academic background was in geology, so I have made the leap to social science here. I completed two years of my undergraduate degree at Cardiff University followed by an international final year at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Once I have finished the MPhil I will be taking a Graduate Diploma in Law and have a job with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. My aim is to use my BSc and MPhil to focus on mining and environmental law.

My MPhil research is on a theory called the Feasibility Hypothesis, concerning the factors that lead to the outbreak of civil war. I became interested in it whilst writing an essay on the resource curse for one of my taught modules. The Feasibility Hypothesis has been proposed by Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, and Dominic Rohner. Collier and Hoeffler have completed groundbreaking work on the resource curse over the past ten years and are strong proponents of the idea that greed (not grievance) motivates civil war. The Feasibility Hypothesis is their most recent and developed theory on this topic.

The Feasibility Hypothesis states that where civil war is financially and militarily feasible, it will occur. The paper proposing the Feasibility Hypothesis has been cited in more than 400 articles and yet only one article, written by an undergraduate at Duke University, has focussed on evaluating and testing its merits. Given Collier’s status within the field and the influence of his work on policy choices, it seems necessary to address this imbalance; my research, therefore, explores whether the Feasibility Hypothesis remains convincing as a theory.

The Feasibility Hypothesis arose from empirical study work. In the original study, data was collected for a range of variables that it was thought could have an impact on civil war outbreak, across two five-year periods (1965-1969 and 2000-2004). These included the level, growth and structure of income, the proportion of young males in the population, and the nature of the terrain.

Logistical regression analysis was carried out on all the variables and a core model of nine variables that were found to be statistically significant in causing civil war resulted, leading to the proposition of the Feasibility Hypothesis. I felt that this model deserved critical re-examination, particularly given the fact that many of the factors involved had alternative functions, or effects, than simply contributing to the feasibility of civil war.

In order to test how convincing the Feasibility Hypothesis is, my research involves replicating as closely as possible the empirical work of the original study, but for the most recent time period for which data is available: 2003-2012. If the same variables are found to be significant for a different time period, then it follows that the Feasibility Hypothesis is empirically robust. I am also revisiting the theoretical component of the Feasibility Hypothesis, in order to ascertain whether the Feasibility Hypothesis is convincing from a non-empirical perspective.

The most challenging part of my research has been obtaining data from the sources that were used in the original study. Collier and Hoeffler have been particularly helpful in providing advice on factors for which indexes are no longer collected. Given the lack of previous work on the topic, I sometimes feel that I am ‘clutching at fog’. I have also identified a number of discrepancies, both empirical and theoretical, in the course of the research, and this has added a further layer of complexity in producing and interpreting results.

The research is important, however, because the manner in which conflict is characterized, in this case by the Feasibility Hypothesis, has the potential to influence policy choices for conflict management. I also believe that as a research community it is essential that we consider publications critically rather than accepting the findings as fact. It is only through challenging observations that progress and further understanding is gained. It is in this spirit that my MPhil thesis has been written. I wish to contribute, in some small way, to the manner in which we characterise and view the outbreak of civil wars, which are the most prevalent form of violence worldwide.