Why We Fight: This Year’s Big Book on Development?

June 24, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Why We Fight, by Chris Blattman, a prof at the University of Chicago, is shaping up to be this year’s Big Book – it’s everywhere on my timeline, the FT book of the summer etc etc. A summary and some thoughts.

Usually I decide early on if I like a book or not, on the basis of a) does it say anything new? and b) is it well written? But on both counts, I found myself veering all over the place while reading Why We Fight.

On the first point, new for whom? Most of the arguments and content seemed familiar from the world of Thinking and Working Politically/adaptive management/systems thinking in which I spend a lot of time – mainly people working on institutional reform, good governance and so on. The difference is that Blattman has arrived there along a different path – conflict and peace-building.

On the second criterion, he is a great story teller who writes with engaging verve about the real world, illustrating his arguments with conflicts from a huge array of time and countries: Chicago gangs, labour strikes, America vs Saddam Hussein, World War 1, Athens v Sparta, Colombia, Northern Ireland, the Cold War, India (Muslim v Hindu) etc. And he’s put in the time on the ground, spending months and years hanging out with gang leaders in Chicago, or people working with ex combatants in Liberia.

But this ace story teller seems to be locked in stylistic combat with a rather dry evidence geek (subspecies: polisci) who feels the need to repeatedly detour into game theory, scatter the text with not-particularly-helpful pie charts, and exhibit a slightly desperate need to find quasi-scientific ‘tests’ for his arguments. Not sure how much any of that adds to his message, but it may help convince sceptics, a bit like Dan Honig’s epic number crunch on adaptive aid.

Blattman does a good job summarizing his main messages in a series of lists – you can almost hear the lecturer setting out his well-honed arguments – and they are excellent (thanks to Oxfam’s Sylvia Brown for summarizing these):

First, war is the exception, not the norm; enemies much prefer to loathe one another in peace and engage in bargaining to prevent costly, outright conflict. However, there are 5 main reasons why group violence does sometimes occur:

  1. Unchecked rulers and interests – unaccountable leaders who might gain from war but bear none of the costs
  2. Intangible incentives – human desire for vengeance, status, freedom or combatting injustice
  3. Uncertainty – calling a bluff
  4. Commitment problems – e.g. pre-emptive strikes on a rising enemy because you don’t trust it not to attack you, so you get in there first before it becomes too strong
  5. Misperceptions – over-confident leaders, mistaken beliefs about the enemy’ weakness or your own strength

Although written before the current conflict, there are echoes of the Ukraine war throughout: Unchecked ruler? Desire for freedom? Calling Nato’s bluff with a pre-emptive strike? Misperceptions of military strength and resolve? Tick, tick, tick. 

Blattman argues that there are a number of ‘false causes’: ‘things like poverty, scarcity, natural resources, climate change, ethnic fragmentation, polarization, injustices and arms’, which may ‘add fuel to the raging fire, but probably do not ignite the fighting in the first place.’ He sees this as a big challenge to NGOs and activists arguing the opposite, but I’m not sure if it matters that much whether a given issue is spark or fuel – it still makes things worse and needs to be dealt with.                                                                                        

The second part of the book explores why some societies remain stable, peaceful and successful. Not because they are free of rivalry and tension (they are ubiquitous), but because (another list) they have learned to manage them by building interdependence between potential rivals, checks and balances, rules and enforcement and interventions. These tackle one or more of the causes of breakdown identified in the first part.

The last third of the book provides some recommendations for peacebuilding, among which he says:

  1. Don’t try to simplify complex problems or ignore political history
  2. Forget big ideas/grand utopian plans – they are riddled with failure
  3. Don’t try to replicate too much, because success is very often context-specific
  4. Go for structured trial and error – try a few pilot ideas in the first couple of years and discard the ideas that don’t work. Then do piecemeal tinkering and constant review to find the best marginal impact. Don’t design a project all at once and then barrel on through with mediocrity (at best)
  5. Push power and accountability down (central state authorities always try to resist this) both because the people at the frontline of conflict know best about how to resolve it, and because central states need strong checks and balances on their power.

As you can see, a lot of this is straight out of the thinking and working politically playbook, but eminently sensible and great to see it applied afresh to a whole new field.

In addition to the stories, there’s lots to love about the way he writes and thinks (here’s my own list!):

The constant reminder to listen to the ‘dogs that don’t bark’ – the wars and conflicts that don’t happen because someone has sorted it out before the shooting starts. ‘It’s difficult to count the bodies of people never killed.’

The surprises (man bites dog, to stick with the dog metaphors): think women rulers are more peaceful? ‘Queens in early modern Europe were 40% more likely to find themselves at war than kings’

The takedowns: Charles Tilly’s famous ‘war made the state and the state made war’ quote turns out to be highly Eurocentric. Lots of states (Ghana, South Korea, Botswana etc) have risen successfully without the need to wage war.

The importance of history and path dependence – ‘Canadians (of which Blattman is one) kill at less than a third of the rate of Americans partly because in the 19th century the Mounties got to the western frontier before the settlers and spared them from having to cultivate a culture of honour.’

His positivity about efforts to reduce conflict ‘there is a mass of evidence showing that specific interventions – sanctions, mediation, peacekeeping – contribute to peace.’

And above all, his intellectual rigour: recognizing and wrestling with the messiness and complexity of reality, while trying to arrive at some general insights and principles that can help save lives through what he puns as ‘peacemeal engineering’ (rather than grand rebuilds).

Highly recommended.

June 24, 2022
Duncan Green