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POLITICS: Is Democracy Dangerous in Multi-ethnic Society?

Global Geopolitics Net / IPS
Saturday, June 28, 2008

All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service, 2008.

Interview with Frances Stewart, Oxford University Professor of Development Economics

OXFORD, Jun 26 (IPS) - The Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE) would seem to have its work cut out for it in a world racked by brutal and enduring conflict. The centre's goal is to explore the links between ethnicity, inequality and conflict in order to identify policies that could lead to more inclusive multi-ethnic societies.

A first book-length publication 'Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict: Understanding Group Violence in Multi-Ethnic Societies' from CRISE is slated for a July release, the fruit of the institution's recent years of research into conflict and its causes.

To find out more about that research, IPS correspondent Michael Deibert spoke to CRISE Director Frances Stewart.

IPS: Can you explain the concept of horizontal inequalities?

Frances Stewart: Horizontal inequalities put people into groups and look at how unequal those groups are.

For example, black and white in the United States, or ethnic groups such as the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda, religious groups such as Muslims and Christians in many countries. Essentially, these groups are ways in which people see themselves, ways which are very important to people.

As a result, if there are big inequalities between the groups, for example between Muslims and Christians in a country like Nigeria, this can be very politically powerful because people mobilize behind. This mobilization can sometimes take a political, peaceful form, but it can sometimes take a violent form.

The other point to be made about horizontal inequalities is that they are multi-dimensional... This should be true of all measures of inequality, but most measures of inequality are confined to income, or perhaps consumption.

Horizontal inequalities have political, economic, social and cultural dimensions... Inequalities in political power, which are very important, where one group may have total dominance of the political system, and another group does not have any access, which is the situation more or less in Sri Lanka.

Then you have inequalities in religious or cultural status, so one group may have its religion or its language recognized and another group's may not be recognized. Then of course there are the obvious economic differences in land and assets, and there are differences to social access, education and so on.

So essentially, horizontal inequalities are inequalities between culturally defined groups, and they are multi-dimensional.

IPS: The book covers a fairly wide geographic range -- from Asia to Africa to Latin America -- and I was wondering what were some of the similarities that were found that existed in the situations in these regions?

FS: There are obviously differences in the way people view themselves. For example, in Africa we have ethnic groups, sometimes called tribes, being a very important difference among people, and also religion. Interestingly, Indonesia is very similar in that respect to Nigeria, which also has many ethnicities and in addition has the religious divide between Muslims and Christians.

But in contrast, if we think about Latin America, in the countries that we looked at, the big difference is between the indigenous people and the white settlers, and of course the big mixed population.

This is rather different from the ethnic divisions that you find in Africa. Though within the indigenous communities themselves there are quite a number of groups with different languages and so on.

Then, if we turn to Malaysia, which is another country we were looking at, the racial divide is the big divide: Chinese, local Malays and then Indians and a religious difference, as well...

In each case, these horizontal inequalities are extremely important, thought not always recognized to be as important as they are. They are more explicit in some areas than in others.

IPS: It seems like the incidence of conflict in poor countries remain high. Is that a fair assessment?

FS: It is certainly fair. It's certainly true that the incidence of conflict within countries -- civil wars -- is significantly higher in poor countries than it is in middle-income or rich countries.

Still we should note that it has been declining recently. It rose quite sharply when the Cold War ended, but recently there has been some decline. But it does remain a significant problem. Probably the majority of very poor countries have experienced some sort of conflict over the last quarter of a century.

IPS: Does the spike in conflicts that we saw after the Cold War now seem to be stabilizing?

FS: Definitely, there has been some reduction, and people have different explanations for that. Partly, there was an explosion after the Cold War because there was a transition, people were sorting out exactly how they wanted to live and with whom and so on à There had been conflicts before but they had been suppressed, by the Russians, in particular...

Why have they declined? Some people would say that the active intervention of the international community, and the United Nations in particular, has been quite important, but obviously not all of them...

In Afghanistan, the war is raging, the war is raging in Iraq, very serious wars still continue... The Congo war isn't really over, there's conflict going on in Niger. But I think the level is a little bit less than it was 10 years ago.

IPS: After reviewing this research, what steps can be taken by governments and international institutions to address these inequalities and prevent conflict in the future?

FS: This issue has been surpassingly neglected by the international community. If you look at the normal policies that we advocate, such as democracy, saying that countries have to be democratic and they have to have many parties, we don't think about the implications between groups.

Democracy can lead to quite a dangerous situation in a multi-ethnic society unless you accompany it with policies to protect groups. If you have one group that is in a majority, they can really suppress the freedoms of a minority group.

On the political side, what it requires is recognition of the importance of distributing power across groups and not having exclusive power.

That means all sorts of constraints on the democratic system. Some of these are already in place in some countries. It could mean that political parties cannot be mono-ethnic and only located in one part of the country... There are restrictions on political parties in Ghana and Nigeria of that sort, to try and induce multi-ethnic political parties. There is a big tendency in multi-ethnic countries for political parties to become single ethnic parties.

You can also have restrictions on the political system at many other levels so that you must have representation from different groups in all sorts of politically important positions. Sometimes these restrictions can be formal, such as in Nigeria, or they can be informal... What one needs is a recognition on the political side of the need for incorporation of all major groups in the political power and then a variety of ways in which one might do it.

On economics, the issue has also been greatly neglected in the international arena. Most of the World Bank policies, for example -- macroeconomic adjustment policies, strategy papers -- simply ignore the issue...

What you need is an explicit recognition that you need fair distribution of economic and social resources. You need to have systems of monitoring it... Incorporate it into a variety of economic policies, for example public expenditure policies, tax policies, government employment policies and so on.

Although the international bodies have neglected this, national policy makers in multi-ethnic societies often recognise this because they have to live with the consequences...

We didn't have to invent the new policies, we could simply look around the countries that had put them into effect.





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