‘Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing’ and starting a new reading group in CARE

by 31st Jul 2013
‘Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing’ - Christopher Cramer. ‘Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing’ - Christopher Cramer.

Bill Gates claims to read 20-30 books a month. Yet the truth is most of us working in development rarely read a book cover to cover. ‘Book Off’ – is CARE International UK’s (CIUK’s) attempt to tap into the best new ideas without spending a day in the library. My contribution to this month’s rapid fire discussion group was a look at conflict guru Chris Cramer’s seminal book, Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing, from 2006, and the key ideas it contains.

In a nutshell Cramer argues there is nothing new or modern about 21st century wars, no one explanation for violence can fit the diversity of conflict in the world today, and war is not development in reverse but can be quite the opposite. I greatly enjoyed his taking down of several sacred cows many of us have been guilty of quoting by examining the evidence of multiple conflicts over the past several hundred years. Those with more time and inclination might want to look at the positive examples of societies that have emerged without the violence and bloodletting to examine his argument further, but on its own his book gives cause to several lessons worth listening to.

Three Takeaways from Chris Cramer

  • First, violence is inherent in capitalism. Exploitation, population displacement and competition over scarce resources are part and parcel of the economic model. He calls it ‘primitive accumulation.’ If not inevitable, he suggests it is certainly hard to manage in a non-violent way, particularly where states are encouraged to liberalise, privatise, and weaken the strength of the central state and its institutions which might be an otherwise stabilising force.
  • Second, he argues that our urge to understand and prevent conflict leads us down the trap of universal explanations and tropes, for example - ‘the resource curse’ ‘conflict diamonds’. Instead we need to examine how we categorise war (e.g. include organised crime for a start) and undertake a good conflict analysis, which embraces a historical political economy lens and examines each context on its own terms. CIUK’s conflict team has been pushing this same message for the past 10 years, sometimes using tools we developed ourselves such as an institutional analysis, or borrowing those used by others. Among the best is World Vision’s Making Sense of Turbulent Contexts tool which was designed in 2000 with political economy specifically in mind. Conflict analysis really is the bedrock of good programming both for peace-building and conflict sensitive programming of any type.
  • Finally, third war and conflict can indeed be an opportunity for change, or in the new ‘resilience speak’, communities can bounce back better from violence. Although, Cramer notes, we should not make the mistake of thinking of post-conflict reconstruction as being from a blank slate. Non-state actors, such as civil society, can have hope that they can help shape political settlements emerging from conflict, even if their leverage without international support may be small.

Book Off

So why the book review, and why the Book Off? On a recent Duncan Green blog a poll challenged readers to state the last time they finished reading a book on development cover to cover. Most stated it was more than six months ago, and in truth many might not have done so since university. To break through the inertia of being stuck half way through a book and to benefit from the reading of others, Book Off is a fun, rapid fire discussion group where CARE staff bring something they have read and share the key takeaways with each other. Five minutes per book/article with some follow up chat, and the most captivating idea as judged by the attendees winning the presenter a soft drink. Or in other words: “The Juiciest idea wins the Juice”.

If nothing else it spurred me on to the end of the Cramer book, and I also learnt about new ideas in unconditional cash transfers in Uganda and the new class of ‘strugglers’ in Latin America. So hopefully both motivating and labour saving. Book Off returns in August – any suggestions on what I should read next?

Paul-André Wilton

Paul-André was formerly Senior Policy Advisor (Conflict and Humanitarian) for CARE International UK. He led CARE International UK’s policy analysis and advocacy around resilient markets, livelihoods and jobs within the overall humanitarian advocacy area. He also shared responsibility for delivering gender, peace and security humanitarian advocacy on emergencies.

Before CARE he worked for peacebuilding and democratisation organisations, and lived in West and East Africa. Previously he worked in the education sector teaching English for five years to students of all ages in Spain and the UK. He holds an Msc in Global Politics from Birkbeck, University of London.

One good thing I’ve read

I really enjoyed Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson for the fascinating discussion and examples of how fragility and institutions interact over time. I would also recommend The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith as an excellent and necessary sweep through the history since decolonisation and independence on the continent. In one of my first jobs we used to give it to each intern on their departure, as invariably it filled huge gaps in their knowledge, as it had done for me

Twitter: @PA_Wilton