Media Briefings

GLOBAL INEQUALITY FUELS REVOLUTION: New cross-national evidence of the economic origins of conflict

  • Published Date: March 2016

The further a country’s development falls behind the richest countries, the more likely it is to see protests and even revolutions. That is the central finding of research by Christa Brunnschweiler and Päivi Lujala, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference in Brighton in March 2016.

Their study finds that less developed countries are more likely to have experienced both violent and non-violent calls for regime change and secession. What’s more, this relationship has become stronger over the last few decades. As the gap between the richest and poorest countries widens, people see even better lifestyles than their own and call for changes. The spread of the internet and social media also means that it is easier than ever to aspire to a better status, whereas beforehand people were reliant on migrants, school or TV to tell them how other people lived.

If the ruling classes like the status quo – or are too inept to allow change – these tensions can then erupt into mass protests and even a revolution or civil war. The authors find that economic backwardness also makes violent protest more likely compared to non-violent demonstrations. They conclude:

‘Our evidence suggests that economic development is not only desirable for its own sake, but also because a widening gap between development leaders and laggards poses serious risks for internal stability in the countries left behind.’


Why do revolutions happen in some countries and not in others? Are more economically backward countries more conflict-prone? This study addresses these questions by looking at how economic backwardness has affected the likelihood of mass movements for political regime change, from peaceful demonstrations to civil wars.

The researchers find that, indeed, the greater the development gap with the world economic leader, the more likely a country has experienced non-violent and violent mass demonstrations for regime change and secession, and, to a lesser degree, armed civil conflict. Moreover, the relationship has been strengthening in recent decades.

The study also shows that backwardness causes social unrest, and not vice versa. The results may serve as a warning to governments that missed opportunities for economic development will come at the price of mounting social tension and unrest.

The mechanism that the researchers propose is simple: people make comparisons with other people perceived to be better off and seek to catch up. This status-seeking behaviour has long been observed within countries, but has more recently also been shown to exist at the international level. The spread of the internet and the rise of social media have made international comparisons even easier than they were before, when status aspirations were influenced for example by information gathered from migrants’ experiences, schooling or television.

The trouble is that the ruling elite may have little interest in letting the status quo be threatened by outsiders seeking greater economic opportunities – or it may simply be too inept to allow successful entrepreneurship. Thwarted aspirations in the backward country can then erupt into mass protests against the current regime, or even a revolution or civil war.

The researchers test their hypothesis with a large new dataset on violent and non-violent mass movements for regime change or secession since the Second World War, as well as with well-established data on armed civil conflict. Their measure of economic backwardness captures the gap in income per capita between each country and the world economic leader, which they define as the United States.

The initial results show a very strong relationship between backwardness and violent and non-violent mass movements, and a weaker but still clearly positive one with armed civil conflict. But the crucial question that besets much empirical work on the origins of conflict is whether a relationship is causal.

The researchers are able to answer this question by using novel instruments for economic backwardness that make it possible to isolate the causal effect. They gathered data on mailing times and telegram charges around 1900 and argue that these are strongly linked to economic backwardness not only at the start of the twentieth century, but even today.

The causal impact is substantial. For example, Mexico, which has experienced a series of mainly non-violent, mass political protests, has had an average economic backwardness score. Had it been less backward – say on par with Israel or Singapore – its probability of seeing non-violent protests would have been over two percentage points lower, and 5.6 percentage points lower if it had been as developed as its northern neighbour, the United States!

In South Africa, the richest country in sub-Saharan Africa, the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s often turned violent. Had South Africa been as developed as Spain at the time, it would have been 3.5 percentage points less likely to experience violent social conflict.

In sum, this evidence suggests that economic development is not only desirable for its own sake, but also because a widening gap between development leaders and laggards poses serious risks for internal stability in the countries left behind.


Economic Backwardness and Social Tension
Christa N. Brunnschweiler (UEA) and Päivi Lujala (NTNU)

Christa Brunnschweiler