Jobs, Unemployment and Violence – Christopher Cramer

Jobs, Unemployment and Violence – Christopher Cramer

there is i think a very very recurrent widely-held idea that unemployment is a really important causal factor in the successful recruitment of members
of insurgent groups of violent gangs and perhaps extremist cells. it has almost the force of common sense
this idea it’s what you might call a
rhetorical commonplace and if you combine that with certain ideas
about youth and the propensity of youth and particularly young men to engage in violence you sometimes
end up in slightly hyperbolic statements the realm of the demographics of danger or the idea of a
sort of inherent risk and this ghastly phrase ‘youth bulge’ that’s the common sense version of the statement but there’s a
formal kind of economic reasoning underpinning that idea so it may be deeper than common
sense this is the argument that unemployed people have a low opportunity cost of engaging in
violence they effectively have little or nothing to lose by joining
violent group participating in violence even more strongly they perhaps have a comparative
advantage in violence and from that perspective where there is high unemployment they will necessarily be very very
low recruitment costs it’s very very easy to
recruit people for rebellion or extremist cell for because they have that low opportunity cost of violence cost violence the same argument reappears in some of the literature on
transitions from war to peace so for example we know it’s
quite common for societies to come out of violent conflict sadly to return to warfare long complete within a few years
sometimes you’ll see a very falsely precise statement of the
percentage of countries that return to war don’t believe those but it’s a serious issue nonetheless it matters we just don’t know very much yet about
why however one of the arguments for why comes back to unemployment and this is
the argument that the single most important influencing factor on civil war
recidivism is the rate of growth of the economy and it is then said added to that this as one person puts it
probably operates through the employment mechanism that means we don’t know but probably it’s a hunch we do know that in societies like
Sierra Leone and Burundi there’s been episodes of post war elections where some parties have
recruited quite easily ex-fighters former combatants to harass and intimidate opponents and so on and so forth so there’s something going on and
there’s a powerful set of ideas but its not really clear yet how much we
really know about this what evidence there is
underpinning this now in one sense I think this attention is a really really good thing given the fact that for decades development economics and policy has if you like neglected employment issues labor markets and
labor relations it’s what the late Alice Amsden called ‘jobs dementia’ in development economics Gary Fields argues that
understanding of labor markets and employment issues now is sort of where we were with poverty about 25-30 years ago so it’s a really good thing if there’s more and more of a focus on employment in this case and its linkages to violence the difficulty
is that the data and analysis haven’t caught up with the
hunch if you like so what may look like common sense I am arguing is exceedingly simplistic and often plain wrong so just to give you a little hint of that the labor market data specifically
let’s say for sub-Saharan Africa are often very very unreliable and then if
you go further and say we want to know something about youth unemployment youth unemployment
statistics for Africa bordering on the useless for any comparative or serious analytical work so even if there
is something going on we’re not in a position really to to get a grip on it at that level which is
very very frustrating so I think what we can say is that certainly at the moment we cannot read off for any given level of employment a certain statistical risk of violent conflict the data just isn’t there there is some
kind of evidence and the interesting thing is it comes from very very different approaches
perspectives and methods and it begins to generate a little bit richer insight and just to give you a couple of brief examples if you look at some of the work that Francisco Gutierrez Sanin has done in Columbia for example looking through poring over
judicial records looking at the data on captured FARC CD-ROMs and drawing on other evidence what seems to be the case is that yes there are some people who joined the FARC or paramilitary groups who are
unemployed but many the people who volunteer willingly
join up were previously not only employed but employed at above average wages so there’s something more complicated going on if you look at Ely Berman and his coauthors they use different kind of evidence they they look at panel data for Iraq and the Philippines investigating exactly
that thing I talked about the opportunity cost and they’re looking at the relationship between
unemployment and political violence and as they put it if there is an
opportunity cost effect it is not dominant in either case it doesn’t seem to be what’s
going on you can look at a parallel kind of
literature not on violent conflicts political
violence but on violent gangs in the USA and there are different authors that use different research methods to get at this one of the ones
that really most intrigues me is Philippe Bourgois’ extraordinary
ethnographic work in East Harlem where he lived amongst violent drug gangs for three years or so and I think what’s important in his work
is it helps you understand how it’s not really employment or
unemployment but structural changes in the labor force combined with issues of identity racial identity and in a context where many poor people in East Harlem experience daily forms of
institutionalized violence from the police and so on and so forth those are the things that matter rather than specifically employment
status and in a way that that echoes what
Francisco Guiterrez writes about in in Columbia there’s a bit of a literature on post-war interventions and employment
schemes the extent to which DDR programs may or
may not be effective in generating employment and in reducing political violence the effectiveness of donor-backed employment schemes that are
supposed to underpin peacebuilding the literature the research evidence thus far on those
things I think it’s fair to say is underwhelming inconclusive and very
very mixed there’s no powerful story emerging again it’s very frustrating so
we’re in a way I think still very much in the
early days trying to get to grips with with these
issues where I think I’d end up is saying that we might be able to
complete with a couple of things firstly where
unemployment does matter I’m quite convinced in some
context it does it’s only very much in combination with
other factors usually political factors and also very
localized agendas in other words there’s no law there’s no automatic law translating levels of unemployment to specific risks of violence that goes for all sorts of forms of violence but I think the second thing I think what’s really really important and what tends to get neglected in this
literature is that what we need to do is look far more not just at whether people have jobs or not but at what kinds of jobs they have that’s the bit that’s been neglected thus far and I think that’s very
very important in the context especially where the ILO for example
claims that work claims more victims around the
world than does war and that where workplace violence is becoming an alarming phenomenon around the world and you put that the conditions of labour in the world in which we live within the
specific political context in many places I think that can be equally explosive as unemployment itself so in short
employment and unemployment are both important the
causal relationships are both important varied and complex and we don’t know enough about them yet

One comment

  1. collecting data points for these other factors you mentioned would probably be as hard if not harder than collecting unemployment data from unstable regions. i guess it will be a long time before we can quantify the causes of political/gang violence

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