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Spatial poverty traps and ethnic conflict traps: lessons from Northern Ghana's 'Blood Yams'

Working papers

This paper considers linkages between the spatial dimensions of poverty and war in the conflict-prone Northern areas of Ghana. More specifically, the paper focuses on the Northern Region proper. The investigation centres upon one specific conflict, the ‘Guinea Fowl War’ of 1994, which was the most violent episode in the country’s history. The work examines how this conflict relates to changes in the region’s poverty profile. It does so by paying particular attention to agricultural production, consumption poverty and infrastructure accessibility in the Northern Region under economic reforms. The paper produces a counterintuitive conclusion about the relationship between changes in poverty, interethnic inequality and warfare in this region. Many existing arguments about the relationship between remoteness, poverty and insecurity established in the conflict and spatial poverty literature are valid. However, in contradistinction to most analyses, the evidence presented here indicates that the war in question was not caused primarily by the increasing marginalisation of economic agents in the region but rather by pressures related to increasing opportunities for income generation, poverty reduction and national integration under economic reform. These gains created friction in the region’s ranked ethnic system and put local exclusionary tenure and politico-institutional arrangements under strain. 

The analysis has important implications for strategies to escape from spatial poverty traps because it finds that the most effective route for escaping poverty – the participation in agriculture markets – also generates conflict. Conflict in turn generates poverty and reverses economic gains. This fact is particularly worrisome because the crop in question in this instance, the yam, is both traded and locally consumed. This crop is thus understood to be an especially valuable vehicle of pro-poor growth. 

Notwithstanding the fact that the paper can be interpreted as dismal in its outlook, the analysis holds out useful lessons for stakeholders. Five general recommendations are made here based on the findings laid out in this work. These are cast at a broad level of generality but can direct donor agendas.

1.       The literature on pro-poor growth has identified the improvement of land-related property rights and more transparent land markets as critical to pro-poor growth and the diversification of rural incomes. The evidence from Northern Ghana on the relationship of war to issues of land tenure suggests that addressing this issue must be the first priority for stakeholders in the Northern Region. I cannot prescribe here how these conflicts and tenure arrangements can be resolved. It is worth noting, however, that standard notions of private property do considerable violence to traditional tenure arrangements. Simultaneously, the statement that land reforms and titling schemes should respect tradition (e.g. Cord, 2007) is also deeply problematic, given the extent to which exclusion and violence are implicated in ‘tradition’. As a first step, it will be necessary to have a more detailed study of how land markets actually function in practice.

2.      A related observation concerns power asymmetries between central governments and remote rural areas. The government’s mixed signals about its intentions for the region played a key role as a driver of conflict, inflaming the aspirations and expectations of acephalous groups, while generating resistance and anger from chiefs to whom the government was ultimately beholden. This observation holds important implications for those concerned with remote areas. It is fair to say that such regions require greater influence to leverage in investment and attention from the centre. At the same time, an important lesson from this case might also be that, in patrimonial states, the centre needs greater infrastructural and possibly coercive power to deal with local notables. As such, any approach to tackling spatial poverty must focus on improving infrastructural capacity and also coercive power at the core as well as the periphery of African states.

3.      There is a widespread assumption in the current economics of conflict literature that widening economic inequalities between distinct reference groups cause war (see especially work associated with the Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE). In point of fact, this is a deeply problematic assumption. It is difficult to predict ex ante what the conflict impact widening or decreasing economic inequalities will be. The prescription of directing resources to the most deprived areas for security reasons must be qualified. Assumptions of unit homogeneity should be abandoned and the knowledge that distinct ethnic systems have equally distinct dynamics must inform poverty reduction strategies. Donors must make understanding local ethnic systems a priority in poverty reduction.

4.      The emergence of conflict should not necessarily be viewed as a development failure. The case demonstrates that conflict emerges as a result of development and poverty reduction. This means that stakeholders should anticipate conflict in zones emerging from spatial poverty and, notwithstanding the high costs, should not be unduly discouraged by its emergence. Such conflicts have been a key part of the historical development process. This is not to say that war is inevitable and institutional arrangements cannot be used to prevent and contain violence.

5.   A final lesson to emerge from this case study is the need to have a development strategy that emphasises diverse opportunities for income generation. Even within the same political economic space, distinct groups will respond differently to available opportunities. At the centre of this observation is the understanding that economic actors are also ethno-political actors, and that these are not merely generic individuals pursuing generic preferences but rather different objectives based on divergent historical and institutional backgrounds that have shaped their preferences, orientations and values (Grindle, 2001). A reliance on one crop, for example, may skew benefits towards one group in an ethnic system more disposed, for historical reasons, to success in that endeavour. The search for multiple income-generating activities must be a priority.

Jay Oelbaum