Peace and Democratic Society
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Part I
Violence and Civil Society

Amartya Sen



The widespread prevalence of terrorism and political violence in the contemporary world has led to many initiatives in recent years aimed at removing the scourge. Military ways for trying to secure peace have sometimes been rapidly deployed, with less informed justification in some cases than in others. And yet group violence through systematic instigation is not exclusively, nor primarily, a military challenge. It is fostered in our divisive world through capturing people’s minds and loyalties, and through exploiting the varying allegiance of those who are wholly or partly persuaded. Some are ‘inspired’ – and prodded – into joining various movements for promoting violent actions against targeted groups, but a much larger number of influenced people do not take part in any violent activities themselves. They can nevertheless hugely contribute to generating a political climate in which the most peaceful of people come to tolerate the most egregious acts of intolerance and brutality, on some hazily perceived grounds of ‘self-defence,’ or ‘just retaliation,’ against the wrong-doing ‘enemy.’
The Commonwealth Commission report called Civil Paths to Peace, which was published in 2007 and presented to the Heads of Commonwealth governments, focused particularly on the causes and ways of preventing terrorism and cultivated violence that has been in ascendancy for some years now and afflict or threaten the lives of nearly two billion people in the Commonwealth countries as well as the rest of the world.2 The report does not dispute that military initiatives can sometimes be of limited use, when they are well informed, well executed, and adequately supplemented by well thought-out civilian measures. But when they are badly informed, or based on faulty reasoning, or inadequately linked to civil measures, they can not only fail to achieve their goals but in fact generate immensely counterproductive results, generating further hostilities. Civil initiatives, at the national as well as global level, are essential for successfully confronting organized violence and terrorism in the world today.
These civil paths are part of the engagement of democracy in the broad sense – that of ‘government by discussion’ – analysed by John Stuart Mill in particular. Democracy is more than a collection of specific institutions, such as balloting and elections – these institutions are important too, but as parts of a bigger engagement involving dialogue, freedom of information, and unrestricted discussion. These are also the central features of civil paths to peace.
The ways and means of pursuing these civil routes make a great many demands on us, but include, very importantly, the need for overcoming confused and flammable readings of the world.3 While we human beings all have many affiliations – related to nationality, language, religion, profession, neighbourhood, social commitments and other connections – the cultivation of group violence proceeds through separating out exactly one affiliation as our only significant identity. Even the gigantic violence of the First World War drew on singularly prioritizing the division of nationalities, ignoring the commonalities that could have united the Germans, the French and the British, rather than inducing them to kill each other. Right now, the divisiveness of a solitarist priority is increasingly based on the championing of religious identity, ignoring all other affiliations, and this gross understanding of humanity is much used by today’s terrorists and other cultivators of group-based violence, who marry the classificatory singularity with aggressive readings of religious divisions. That confrontational outlook receives support, rather than resistance, from the increased popularity in the West of the supposedly unique significance of religious divisions, which is seen as dividing the world into allegedly disparate civilisations, characterized mainly by religion, and this is supplemented by some kind of inevitability of a clash between distinct ‘civilisations.’
It is important to facilitate, rather than hinder, the understanding that human beings, with a variety of concerns and affiliations, need not be constantly at loggerheads with each other. If the institutional changes needed for pursuing civil paths to peace call for clarity of thought, they also demand, as the report discusses, organized policies, programmes and initiatives with the necessary versatility. Breadth of reach is crucial here. Indeed, even the well-meaning but excessively narrow approach of concentrating single-mindedly on expanding the dialogue between religious groups (much championed right now) can seriously undermine other civil engagements, linked with language, literature, cultural functions, social interactions and political commitments. And that can be a serious loss even from the point of view of peace and the overcoming of violence related to religious differences, since these other commitments and concerns help to resist the exploitation of religious differences which begins by downplaying – or dismissing – all other affiliations. The battle for people’s minds cannot be won on the basis of a seriously incomplete understanding of the wealth of social differences that make individual human beings richly diverse in distinct ways. An exclusive focus on religious differences – not only for the purpose of fomenting disaffection but also for the ‘amity of religions’ – tends to characterize people simply in terms of their respective religions, thereby undermining all other affiliations that cut across religious boundaries. The diversity of civil society engagements needs support, not supplanting. For example, Bangladesh’s success in burying religion-based violence as well as in curbing the hold of religious extremism has been helped greatly by focusing on linguistic identity and the richness of Bengali literature, music and culture, in addition to fostering secular politics, rather than holding inter-religious dialogues.
This does not, however, indicate that organized dialogue between different religious groups cannot ever serve any useful purpose. If such dialogues are arranged and understood as discussions on one selected aspect of the multiple identities of human beings, and if they are aimed specifically at eliminating some contemporary sources of tension without denying the unity that is fostered by a fuller recognition of the many different affiliations of human beings, then they can contingently be quite useful in reducing political tensions. This is indeed the approach that has been strongly advanced by Jorge Sampaio, the former President of Portugal who is now the ‘United Nations High Representative of for the Alliance for Civilizations.’ As Sampaio argues, ‘cultural diversity has become a major political issue challenging modern democracies, pluralism, citizenship and social cohesion, as well as peace and stability among nations.’4 It is right to pursue the institutional contribution that appropriately organized dialogues can make in addressing this political challenge. The important thing is to place the contrast of cultures and religions within a broader context of diverse diversities of human beings, which is what Sampaio has advocated. We differ from each other in many different ways, related to language, literature, profession, class, gender, residence and many others, in addition to religion, and while sometimes inter-group conversations on religious differences may help, at other times the differences even of religious backgrounds can be more easily tackled by focusing on other identities that challenge the cultivated prioritiaation of religious differences. There is room for both types of initiatives, but we have to be careful in making sure that in the process of fostering inter-religious amity we do not end up reducing human beings, explicitly or by implication, into one dimension only – in this case the religious dimension.
Cultivation of hostility can also be resisted by the working of the media, of political processes, of educational activities, and other means of generating mutual understanding. As the report discusses, while each government can – and must – do a great deal more to help the spread of information and understanding, and the functioning of inclusive social activities, there is need also for widespread co-operation at the social and political level across the borders of each country.
Civil paths to peace include the removal, to the extent possible, of gross economic inequalities, social humiliations and political disenfranchisement, which can contribute to generating confrontation and hostility. Purely economic measures of inequality, such as the ratio of incomes of top and bottom groups, do not bring out the social dimension of the economic inequality involved. For example, when the people in the lowest income bracket have different non-economic characteristics in terms of race (such as being black rather than white), or immigration status (such as being recent arrivals rather than older residents), then the significance of the economic inequality is substantially magnified by its ‘coupling’ with other non-economic divisions.
Acts of terrorism and homicide are, of course, criminal activities calling for effective security measures, and no serious analysis of group violence can fail to take note of that basic understanding. But the analysis cannot end there, since many social, economic and political initiatives can be undertaken to confront and defeat the appeal on which the fomenters of violence and terrorism draw to get active foot soldiers and passive sympathisers. Central to the work of the Commission has been the Commonwealth’s traditional approach of using multilateralism, making the best possible use of shared commitments, broad dialogues, and the willingness to discuss.


The presence of violence and the fear of it have a huge impact on our lives, our well-being and our freedoms. And yet they are far less studied as social phenomena than many other subjects to which the social sciences have devoted much fuller attention. Questions of human security and its violation have been, to some extent, crowded out by the priority given to other – more expansionist – questions, such as economic growth of countries and regions, social and economic development of different parts of the world, and the demands of educational and cultural progress.
The good news, however, is that the subject of human security is receiving greater attention now than it had until rather recently. The reasons are not always comforting, in particular the increase of insecurities that plague human lives coming from group-based violence and the decline of the peaceful life of towns and human settlements. The need to pay some attention to conservation rather than just expansion is becoming increasingly clearer.
It may be useful to begin by briefly discussing the issues that have to be sorted out in order to have a clearer understanding of insecurity in general and of violence in particular. The Commonwealth Commission that produced the report Civil Paths to Peace focused particularly on causes and ways of preventing the spread of terrorism and cultivated violence that seem to be engulfing the world and which threaten, directly or indirectly, more than 1.8 billion people in Commonwealth countries. Our analyses and recommendations for action might be of some interest, we also hoped, for other parts of the world as well.
In the Commission we were bothered by the fact that the ways and means of dealing with threats of violence have increasingly gone in the direction of military, rather than civil, initiatives. Civil paths to peace have always been and still remain the basic way of successfully confronting violence and terrorism. The Commission concentrated on the ways and means of doing this.
A focus on action is ultimately what we need but there is a prior necessity of understanding why and how we face the adversities that we do face. We also have to separate out what we can clearly understand and what is not entirely clear as our intellectual engagement stands at present. We have to sit back a little and take our time when the problems we face are complex and ill-understood. As Buddha said more than 2,500 years ago, the solution to most problems lies ultimately in clearer understanding, and that demands intellectual engagement, and not merely prompt action.


I begin with two contrasts involving the idea of human security: first, between human security and what is called ‘national security’, and second, between human security and the more established notion of ‘human development’. The concept of national security can be defined in many different ways, and given the importance that the insignia of the term has acquired, there may well be much merit in trying to broaden appropriately the use of the expression ‘national security.’ But traditionally, national security, which is sometimes used synonymously with ‘state security,’ concentrates primarily on safeguarding what is perceived as national robustness, which has only an indirect connection with the security of human beings who live in these states. National security, in that aggregative and somewhat distanced form, has been studied over the centuries, and it is fortunate for us – people living in different countries in the world – that the demands of human security, which can go well beyond the concerns of national security (narrowly defined) are receiving more global attention today. Examination of the sources of insecurity of human lives, coming from violence, poverty, disease, and other widespread maladies, brings to light the far-reaching role of social, economic, political and cultural influences that the limited concept of national security cannot easily capture. The focus of security that interests people has to concentrate on the lives of the people, not the vigour of the state.
That contrast may be clear enough, but in delineating human security adequately, it is also important to understand how the idea of human security relates to – and differs from – other human-centred concepts, particularly that of human development. The idea of human development is not alienated from individual human lives in the way that some characterizations of national security can be, but human development too has its own specialized priorities, which need not be the same as the concerns of human security. It is, therefore, particularly important to ask what the idea of human security can add to these well-established ideas, particularly human development.
The human development approach, pioneered among others by the visionary economist Mahbub ul Haq (whom I was privileged to have as a close friend from our student days together at Cambridge to his untimely death in 1998), has done much to enrich and broaden the literature on development. I say with a declaration of interest and involvement, since I worked closely with Mahbub ul Haq, and among other things, helped him to devise the now much-used Human Development Index (HDI). I would claim that Mahbub’s insights have deeply enlightened the understanding of development in general and development economics in particular in quite a decisive way. In particular, the human development approach has helped to shift the focus of developmental attention away from an overarching concentration on the growth of inanimate objects of convenience, such as commodities produced reflected in the gross domestic product or the gross national product), to the quality and richness of human lives, which depend on a great many influences, of which commodity production is only one.5 Human development is concerned with removing the various hindrances that restrain and restrict human lives, and prevent its blossoming. Some of these concerns are indeed reflected in the HDI, which has served as something of a flagship of the human development approach, but the human development approach as a whole is much broader than what can be encapsulated into one numerical index of the HDI. The wide range and long reach of the human development perspective have motivated a vast literature, with increasing informational coverage of different aspects of human lives.
Why can’t we, it can be asked, integrate our concern with human security and with violence in society within the broad coverage of the human development approach? Part of the reason is that, the more we put into one index or one approach, the less becomes the weights that can be placed on the other elements to which the index or the approach also caters. For example, the HDI is just one number, and if we want it take note of violence as well, then the relative focus on other factors already included – life expectancy, education, avoidance of economic penury – would to that extent weaken. We can certainly include the overcoming of violence and insecurity within the broad picture of human development, but if we want to do justice to each of the concerns that we include within one perspective, then we need to pay some special attention to each of them, rather than seeing each merely as a part of a very large whole.
There is another reason why we have to go beyond embedding our concern with violence and security within the broad vision of the human development approach, even though there is no conflict between these different concerns. The idea of human development has an especially buoyant quality, since it is concerned with progress and augmentation. It is, as it were, out to conquer fresh territory on behalf of enhancing human lives, and for that reason perhaps far too upbeat to focus on rearguard actions needed to secure features of our lives that have to be safeguarded. This is where the notion of human security becomes particularly relevant. Human security as an idea provides a necessary supplement to the expansionist perspective of human development for it pays direct attention to what in the insurance literature is called ‘downside risks.’ The insecurities that threaten human survival or the safety of daily life, or expose human beings to the uncertainty of disease and pestilence, or subject vulnerable people to abrupt penury related to economic downturns (as we are experiencing today), demand that special attention be paid to the dangers of sudden deprivation. Human security demands protection from these dangers and also calls for the empowerment of people so that they can cope with and overcome – and when possible prevent – the incidence and reach of these hazards.
I am specifically concerned here with problems of violence in society, arising both from organized and unorganized mischief, but we have to examine the correlates of violence – its threats and the fears it generates – in the broader perspective of human security in general. There is a contrast there with both human development and national security: violence and other sources of human insecurity demand more systematic attention than they have so far tended to get.


The question of violence engaged Nadine Gordimer and Kenzaburo Oe in a correspondence the two great writers had in 1998.6 Gordimer noted that she ‘should not have been surprised’ that in writing to each other they were so ‘preoccupied by the question of violence.’ She went on to explain: ‘This is a ‘recognition’ between two writers, but it goes further. It is the recognition of writers’ inescapable need to read the signs society gives out cryptically and to try to make sense of what these really mean.’ That need – indeed that inescapable need – to understand the question of violence not only influences writers like Gordimer and Oe, who illuminate us with their perceptive insights. It also makes all of us worry and fret and wonder, in trying to understand what we ourselves observe and what we can learn from reading others, and what we could possibly add of our own, if we only knew how.
The signs that ‘society gives out cryptically,’ to use Gordimer’s discerning phrase, engage us all, in one way or another. Questions of violence and insecurity are omnipresent in the world around us. If peace is in our dreams, war and violence are constantly in our eyes and ears. The terrible toll of human insecurity is recognized across the world.7 What must, however, be avoided are ready-made answers that have a little plausibility (not no plausibility, but only very little), and which are then used to arrive at elaborate social policies, which neglect huge parts of the real connections.
On the grand subject of the root causes of contemporary global violence, theories abound – as theories are prone to. However, two particular lines of theorizing have come to receive much more attention than most others. One approach is primarily cultural and social, and often focuses on such concepts as identity, tradition and civilisation. The other is largely economic and political, and tends to focus on poverty, inequality and deprivation.
The main thesis I would like to present here is that the economic, social and cultural issues need serious efforts at integration. This exercise is spurned both by the crudely fatalistic theorists of civilisational clash and by the simple ‘economistic’ theorists who focus on poverty as the main cause of violence and, despite catching some part of the reality, may end up falling for the temptation to oversimplify the world which they wish to reform. I would argue that it is a mistake to look for ready-made reasons for remedying economic injustice so as to appeal even to those who are, for whatever reason, not revolted by injustice itself and yet hate – or are terrified of – the threat of violence.
Cultural theories tend to look at conflicts connected with modes of living as well as religious beliefs and social customs. That line of reasoning can lead to many different theories, some more sophisticated than others. It is perhaps remarkable that the particular cultural theory that has become the most popular in the world today is also perhaps also the crudest. This is the approach of seeing global violence as the result of something that is called ‘the clash of civilizations.’ The approach defines some postulated entities that are called ‘civilisations’ in primarily religious terms, and it goes on to contrast the ‘Islamic world,’ the ‘Judeo-Christian Western world,’ the ‘Buddhist world,’ the ‘Hindu world,’ and so on. It is the intrinsic hostility among civilisations that make them prone, it is argued in this high theory, to clash with each other.8
Underlying the approach of civilisational clash is an oddly artificial view of history, according to which these distinct civilisations have grown separately, like trees on different plots of land, with very little overlap and interaction. And today, as these disparate civilisations with their divergent histories face one another in the global world, they are firmly inclined, we are told, to clash with each other – a tale, indeed a gripping tale, of what can, I suppose, be called ‘hate at first sight.’ This make-believe account has little use for the actual history of huge historical interactions and constructive movements of ideas and influences across the borders of countries and regions in so many different fields – literature, arts, music, mathematics, science, engineering, trade, commerce, and other human engagements. The civilisational theorists are not entirely wrong in assuming that people are often suspicions of foreigners about whom they know little – possibly only about a few odd beliefs and practices that ‘those foreigners’ are supposed to have. However, more knowledge of each other can generate understanding rather than greater hostility. The civilisational theorists in this mode have tended to feed ignorant suspicion of ‘the others’ through their confident presumption that coming closer to each other as human beings must somehow aggravate those suspicions rather than helping to allay them.
Aside from missing out much of world history, the civilisational approach also takes a mind-boggling shortcut in trying to understand our sense of identity, with all it diversities and complexities, in terms of just a single sense of belonging, to wit, our alleged perception of oneness respectively with our so-called civilisation. It is through this huge oversimplification that the job of understanding diverse human beings of the world is metamorphosed, in this rugged approach to humanity, into looking at the different civilisations: personal differences are then seen as if they must be parasitic on civilisational contrasts. Violence between persons is then interpreted, in this approximate theory, as animosity between distinct civilisations, which is seen as a kind of all-powerful generic backdrop behind the frontage of human relations. Thus, in addition to its dependence on an imaginary history of the world, the civilisational explanation of global violence is largely moored on a particular ‘solitarist’ approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members of exactly one group defined by their native civilisation or religion.
A solitarist approach is, in fact, an excellent way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world. In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups – we belong to all of them. The same person can be, without any contradiction, a South African citizen, of Asian origin, with Indian ancestry, a Christian, a socialist, a woman, a vegetarian, a jazz musician, a doctor, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a jazz enthusiast, and one who believes that the most important problem that the world faces today is to make cricket more popular across the globe, breaking the spell of ‘silly’ games like baseball. Each of these identities can be of significance to the person, depending on the problem at hand and the context of choice, and the priorities between them could be influenced by one’s own values as well as by social pressures. There is no reason to think that whatever civilisational identity a person has – religious, communal, regional, national or global – must invariably dominate over every other relation or affiliation a person may have.
Trying to understand global violence through the lens of the clash of civilizations does not bear much scrutiny, because the reasoning is so crude. But it must also be recognized that reductionist cultivations of singular identities have indeed been responsible for a good deal of what can be called ‘engineered bloodshed’ across the world. The engineering takes mostly the form of fomenting and cultivating alienated perceptions of differences. These conflicts are not just spontaneous unfoldings of a ‘natural and inescapable’ clash.
We may be suddenly informed by instigators that we are not just Yugoslavs but actually Serbs (‘we absolutely don’t like Albanians’), or that we are not just Rwandans or Kigalians or Africans, but specifically Hutus who must see Tutsis as enemies. I recollect from my own childhood in immediately pre-independent India, how the Hindu-Muslim riots suddenly erupted in the 1940s, linked with the politics of partition, and the speed with which the broad human beings of summer were suddenly transformed, through ruthless cultivation of communal alienation, into brutal Hindus and fierce Muslims of the winter. Hundreds of thousands perished at the hands of activists who, led by the designers of carnage, killed others on behalf of — for the cause of — those who are abruptly identified as their ‘own people,’ defined entirely by religion and religious community.


Identity politics can certainly be mobilized very effectively in the cause of violence. And yet it can also be effectively resisted through a broader understanding of the richness of human identities. Our disparate associations may divide us in particular ways, and yet there are other identities, other affiliations, that defy any particular division. A Hutu who is recruited in the cause of chastising a Tutsi is also a Rwandan, and an African, possibly a Kigalian, and indubitably a human being – identities that the Tutsis also share. Socially and culturally anchored theories are not wrong in noting that people can be made to fight each other through incitement to violence across some divisive classification, but when that happens, we have to look for explanations of why and how the instigations occur, and how that one identity is made to look like the only one that matters. The process of such cultivated violence cannot really be seen simply as something like the unfolding of human destiny.9
In a marvellous essay in her book Writing and Being, Nadine Gordimer quotes Proust’s remark: ‘Do not be afraid to go too far, for the truth lies beyond.’10 Gordimer is talking here about three great writers: Naguib Mahfouz, Chinua Achebe and Amos Oz, respectively from Egypt, Nigeria and Israel. These countries are not only very different, but are in some conflicted relation with each other. Gordimer notes that ‘the oppositional links are there,’ and yet, she goes on to point out, ‘these three writers do not expound the obvious, divided by race, country and religion, they enter by their separate ways territory unknown, in a common pursuit that doesn’t have to be acknowledged in any treaty.’
The battle against the bloody illusion of destiny calls for clarity. A clearer understanding comes not only from the visions of insightful writers, but also in more mundane ways from the thoughts of very ordinary people. It is that understanding that the instigators want to break down, and here the powerful voice of the more insightful can give us all a determination that we may not find it easy to sustain. When Mahatma Gandhi moved around, unarmed and completely unprotected, through the riot-torn districts during the violence of Indian partition, he was not only bringing new ideas to some. He was also helping to build greater determination of those whose own ideas matched, perhaps in a somewhat vague form, his own, but who did not have quite the courage and defiant confidence that Gandhi brought to them.


Aside from the need to disestablish the claim that alleged clashes of civilisations, religions or communities must be natural processes, it is also important to appreciate that no matter how momentous the religious differences may appear to be in the context of some warfare today, there are other divisions that also have the potential for creating strife and carnage. The violence of solitarist identity can have a tremendously varying reach. Indeed, the obsession with religions and so-called civilisations (based primarily on religious differences) has been so strong in contemporary global politics that there is a strong tendency to forget how other lines of identity divisions have been exploited in the past – indeed not so long ago – to generate very different types of violence and war, causing millions of deaths.
For example, appeals to country and nationality played a rousing role in the immensely bloody war in Europe between 1914–1918, and a shared religious background of Christianity did nothing to stop the Germans, the British and the French from tearing each other apart. The identity that was championed then was that of nationalism, with the huge patriotic fervour it generated. Before the horrors of the First World War took the freshly recruited Wilfred Owen’s life in the battlefield, he had the time to write his own protest about values that glorify violent combat in the cause of one’s identity with one’s nation and fatherland:
My friend, you will not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro Patria Mori.
Horace’s ringing endorsement of the honour of death for (or allegedly for) one’s country could be seen as catering to the violence of nationalism, and it was this invocation against which Owen was emphatically protesting.
Europeans today may not easily appreciate Owen’s profound sense of frustration and protest. In fact, the understanding that seemed well ‘beyond’ the ‘too far’ in Europe during the First World War, or for that matter during the Second, is now altogether customary and commonplace across Europe. The Germans, the French and the British mix with each other in peace and tranquillity and sit together to decide what to do in their continent without reaching for their gun.
A similar vulnerability is present in many other divisions of identities that may, at one level, be made to look like an unstoppable march of violence based on its unique claim of importance, but which, at another – broader – level may be nothing other than an artificially fostered avowal that can be disputed and displaced by a great many other solidarities and loyalties associated with different identities, including, of course, the broad commonality of our shared humanity.


Let me, for the moment, leave the cultural approaches there. What about the other approach, the one of political economy? This line of reasoning sees poverty and inequality as the root causes of violence. It is not hard to see that the injustice of inequality can generate intolerance and that the suffering of poverty can provoke anger and fury. There is clearly much plausibility in seeing a connection between violence and poverty. For example, many countries have experienced – and continue to experience – the simultaneous presence of economic destitution and political strife. From Afghanistan and Sudan to Somalia and Haiti, there are plenty of examples of the dual adversities of deprivation and violence faced by people in different parts of the world. Given that co-existence, it is not at all unnatural to ask whether poverty kills twice – first through economic privation, and second through political carnage.
Poverty can certainly make a person outraged and desperate, and a sense of injustice can be a good ground for rebellion – even bloody rebellion. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to presume that a basic characteristic of an enlightened attitude to war and peace must be to go beyond the obvious and immediate causal features that can be plainly seen in a conflict, and must seek ‘deeper’ causes in social deprivation. In looking for such underlying causes, the economics of deprivation and inequity has a very plausible claim to attention. The belief that the root of discontent and disorder has to be sought in economic destitution has been fairly widely favoured by social analysts, in their attempt to look beyond the apparent and the obvious.
The straightforward thesis linking poverty with violence also has another appeal: that it looks ready for good use in the humane advocacy of concerted public action to end poverty. Those trying to eradicate poverty in the world are, naturally enough, tempted to invoke the apparent causal connection that ties violence to poverty, to seek the support of even those who are not moved by poverty itself. There has, in fact, been an increasing tendency in recent years to argue in favour of policies of poverty removal on the ground that this is the surest way to prevent political strife and turmoil. Basing public policy – international as well as domestic – on such an understanding has some evident attractions. It provides a politically powerful argument for allocating more public resources and efforts on poverty removal because of its presumed political rewards, taking us much beyond the direct moral case for doing this.
Since widespread physical violence seems to be more loathed and feared, especially by well-placed people, than the social inequity and deprivation – even extreme deprivation – of others, it is indeed tempting to be able to tell all, including the well-heeled, that terrible poverty will generate terrifying violence. Given the visibility and public anxiety about wars and disorders, the indirect justification of poverty removal – not for its own sake but for pursuing peace and quiet – has become, in recent years, a dominant part of the rhetoric of fighting poverty.
There is certainly a connection there, but is it really plausible to seek explanations of violence in a one-factor analysis of poverty and privation? While the temptation to go in this direction is easy to appreciate, the difficulty here lies in the possibility that if the causal connection proves to be not quite robust, then economic reductionism would not only have impaired our understanding of the world, but would also tend to undermine the declared rationale of the public commitment to remove poverty. This is a particularly serious concern, since poverty and massive inequality are terrible enough in themselves to provide ample reason for working for their removal – even if they did not have any further ill effects through indirect links. Just as virtue is its own reward, poverty is at least its own punishment. To look for some ulterior reason for fighting poverty through its effects on violence and conflict may make the argument apparently broader with a larger reach, but it can also make the reasoning much more fragile.
To see this danger is not the same as denying that poverty and inequality can – and do – have far-reaching connections with conflict and strife, but these connections have to be investigated and assessed with appropriate care and empirical strongmindedness. The temptation to summon economic reductionism may be sometimes effective in helping what we may see as a right cause (and may even have the arguably agreeable feature of catering to our frailty in giving us satisfaction from frightening the ethically obtuse by threatening them with the danger of bloody violence), but it is basically an unsound way to proceed and can indeed be seriously counterproductive for political ethics.


The simple thesis linking poverty with violence is not only compromized by doubtful ethical use, it is also, as it happens, riddled with epistemic problems. The claim that poverty is responsible for group violence is empirically much too crude both because the linkage of poverty and violence is far from universally observed, and because there are other social factors that are also associated with poverty and violence.
When I gave the Lewis Mumford Lecture at the City College of New York in 2007, entitled ‘The Urbanity of Calcutta,’ I had the opportunity to comment on the remarkable fact that Calcutta (or Kolkata as we are now encouraged to spell the name in English in search of a closer correspondence with Bengali diction) is not only one of poorest cities in India – and indeed in the world – it so happens that it also has a very low crime rate. Indeed, in serious crimes, the poor city of Calcutta has the lowest incidence among all the Indian cities. The average incidence of murder in the 35 cities of India is 2.7 per 100,000 people – 2.9 for Delhi. The rate is 0.3 in Kolkata.11 The same lowness of violent crime can be seen in looking at the total number of all violations of the Indian Penal Code put together. It also applies to crime against women, the incidence of which is very substantially lower in Calcutta than in all other major cities in India.
It also emerges that Indian cities in general are strikingly low in the incidence of violent crime by world standards, and Calcutta seems to have the lowest homicide rate not only in India, but also in the world. In 2005, Paris had a homicide rate of 2.3, London of 2.4, New York of 5.0, Buenos Aires of 6.4, Los Angeles 8.8, Mexico City of 17.0, Johannesburg 21.5, Sao Paulo 24.0, and Rio de Janeiro an astonishing 34.9.12 Even the famously low-crime Japanese cities have more than three times the homicide rate of Calcutta, with 1.0 per 100,000 for Tokyo and 1.8 for Osaka, and only Hong Kong and Singapore come close to Calcutta (though still more than 60 per cent higher), at 0.5 per 100,000 each, compared with Calcutta’s 0.3.
If all this appears to us to be an unfathomable conundrum, given Calcutta’s poverty, that may be a reflection of the limitation of our thought, rather than a paradox of nature. Calcutta does, of course, have a long distance to go to eradicate poverty and to put its material house in order. It is important to remember that the low crime rate does not make those nasty problems go away. And yet there is something important to note – and even to celebrate – in the recognition that poverty does not inescapably produce violence, independently of political movements as well as social and cultural interactions.
Explanation of crime is not an easy subject for empirical generalizations, and even though there have been some attempts recently to understand the nature and incidence of crime in terms of the characteristics of the respective neighbourhoods, it is quite clear that there is still a long way to go for a fuller understanding of the picture.13 In my Mumford Lecture, I have tried to argue that Calcutta has benefited, among other causal factors, from the fact that it has had a long history of being a thoroughly mixed city, where neighbourhoods have not had the feature of sharp ethnic separation that some cities – in India as well as elsewhere – have. There are also many other social and cultural features that are undoubtedly relevant in understanding the relation between poverty and crime. For example, in trying to understand the high rates of violent crime in South Africa, it would be hard to overlook the connection with the legacy of apartheid. The linkage involves not only the inheritance of racial confrontation, but also the terrible effects of separated neighbourhoods and families that were split up for the economic arrangements that went with the philosophy of apartheid. But it would not be easy to explain why the belated attempts to generate mixed communities have also had the immediate effect of fostering crime committed within the newly mixed neighbourhoods in South Africa. Perhaps the legacy of a long history can only be wiped out rather slowly.
I am afraid we do not know enough about the empirical relations to be confident of what the exact causal connections here are, and I am acutely aware that there is need for humility here that social sciences invariably invite and frequently do not get. It does, however, seem fairly clear that the tendency to see a universal and immediate link between poverty and violence would be very hard to sustain. There is certainly a more complex picture that lies beyond the alleged straightforwardness of the poverty-violence relationship.
More specifically, if we look, in particular, at violence related to religion, ethnicity and community (the direction to which we are dispatched by many cultural theorists), the role of conscious politics as a barrier also demands a fuller recognition. For example, the prevailing politics of Calcutta and of West Bengal, which is very substantially left of centre, has tended to concentrate on deprivation related to class and, more recently, to uses and abuses of political power. That political focus, which is very distinct from religion and religion-based community, has made it much harder to exploit religious differences for instigating riots against minorities, as has happened, with much brutality, in some Indian cities, for example Bombay (or Mumbai) and Ahmedabad. Calcutta did have its full share of Hindu-Muslim riots related to the partition of India, which were rampant across the subcontinent. But over many decades later, there have been no such riots in this large city, unlike in many other urban conglomerates in India. Indeed, the whole sectarian agenda of cultivating communal divisiveness seems to have got substantially overturned by new political and social priorities that dominate the city.
And in this political development, the focus on economic poverty and inequality seems to have played, if anything, a constructive role in bringing out the ultimate triviality of religious differences in preventing social harmony. In the recognition of plural human identities, the increased concentration on class and other sources of economic disparity has made it very hard to excite communal passions and violence in Calcutta along the lines of a religious divide – a previously cultivated device that has increasingly looked strangely primitive and raw. The minorities, mainly Muslims and Sikhs, have had a sense of security in Calcutta that they have not always been able to enjoy in Bombay or Ahmedabad or Delhi.
If identities related to left-wing politics and class have had the effect of vastly weakening violence based on religious divisions and community contrasts in the Indian part of Bengal, a similar constructive influence can be seen on the other side of the border, in Bangladesh, coming from the power of identities of language, literature and music, which do not divide Muslims and Hindus into different – and exploitably hostile – camps. The more general point here is that an understanding of multiplicity of our identities can be a huge force in combating the instigation of violence based on a singular identity – particularly religious identity which is the dominant form of cultivated singularity in our disturbed world today.


The economic connections between poverty and violence are quite complex and can hardly be captured by the simplicity of economic reductionism. For example, the violent history of Afghanistan cannot be unrelated to the poverty and indigence that the population have experienced, and yet to reduce the causation of violence there entirely to this singular economic observation would be to miss out the role of the Taliban and the politics of religious sectarianism and extremism. It would also leave out the part played by the history of Western military support – and incitement – to strengthen religious extremists in Afghanistan against the Russians, at a time when the Western leaders saw the Soviet Union to be something like a single-handed ‘axis of evil.’ And, at the same time, to dissociate the rise of fundamentalism and sectarian violence from all economic connections would also be a mistake. We must try to understand the different interconnections that work together, and often kill together. We need some investigative sophistication to understand what part is played by the economic components in the larger structure of an interactive social framework.
The empirical connections between poverty and violence are clearly significantly contingent on many other circumstances. There is, of course, no dearth of evidence of conflicts and confrontations in economies with a good deal of poverty and much inequality. But, at the same time, there are also other economies with no less poverty or inequality that seem to stay deeply and inertly sunk just in economic hardship, without generating serious political turbulence. Poverty can co-exist with peace and apparent tranquillity, and the causal reasoning linking poverty to violence has gaps that need to be acknowledged. Impoverishment can, of course, yield provocation to defy the established laws and rules, but it need not give people the initiative, courage and actual ability to do anything particularly violent.
Indeed, destitution can be accompanied not only by economic debility, but also by political impotence and debility. The emaciated victims of deprivation can be too frail and too dejected to fight and battle, and even to protest and holler. It is not surprising that intense suffering and inequity has often been accompanied by astonishing peace and deafening silence. For example, the famine years in the 1840s in Ireland were among the most peaceful, and there was little attempt by the hungry masses to intervene even as ship after ship sailed down the river Shannon laden with food, carrying it away from starving Ireland to well-fed England, by the pull of market forces (the English had more money to buy meat, poultry, butter and food items than the blighted Irish had). As it happens, the Irish do not have an exceptional reputation for excessive docility, and yet the famine years were, by and large, years of order and peace. London not only got away with extreme misgovernance of Ireland, they did not even have to face the violence of Irish mobs (even though the Irish famines had the largest share of mortality in total population among all the famines for which data exist). As Calgacus, the rebellious Scottish chief, said about Roman dominance of first century Britain: ‘They make a wilderness and they call it peace.’
This does not, however, indicate that the poverty, starvation and inequity of the Irish famines had no long-run effects on violence in Ireland. Indeed, the memory of injustice and neglect had the effect of severely alienating the Irish from Britain, and contributed greatly to the violence that characterized Anglo-Irish relations over more than a century and a half. Economic destitution may not lead to an immediate rebellion, but it would be wrong to presume from this that there is no connection between poverty and violence. There is an important need here to look at connections over time – often a very long time – and also at the way the grievances of deprivation and maltreatment get merged with other factors, including, in the Irish case, a championing of national identity that seeks distancing from the English. The offensive nature of English caricatures of the Irish, going back all the way to Spenser’s Faerie Queene in the sixteenth century, would be strongly reinforced by the experience of the famines of the 1840s under British rule, generating deep resentment against Ireland’s more powerful neighbours who did so little to stop the starvation, and in many ways, even helped to aggravate it.
There is a similarity here with the experience of the Middle East. There are, of course, many influences that have made the situation as difficult there as it has been in recent decades, including the apparent difficulty of some world leaders to think clearly on the subject. But among the many connections, it is hard to ignore the memory of ill-treatment of the Middle East by Western powers during the colonial days, when the new masters could subdue one nation after another and draw — and redraw — the boundaries between countries just as they liked. That abuse of power did not cause many riots right then in the nineteenth century, but that silence of the vanquished — the peace of the trampled — does not indicate that the subject matter was gone forever, and would not leave behind a terrible memory of ill-treatment. As Flora Goforth remarked in Tennessee William’s The Milk Train Does Not Stop Here Anymore, ‘Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going.’ Similarly, the new episodes of trampling and pulverization today — in Iraq and Palestine and elsewhere — will not be easily forgotten, I fear, for a long time in the future.
Despite the burden of history, there is a huge opportunity right now for the world to play a positive part in sustaining the powerful popular movements for democracy that have rapidly become a new reality of the Middle East over the last few months (even as I write this Introduction). The strong desire for democracy in the Arab world, which I discussed in my book Identity and Violence (2006), seems to have fought through the authoritarian barriers in most courageous ways, and there is a lot to be done right now to provide global support to this highly promising development in one of the most problematic regions in the world. Civil paths to peace across the world can both help and benefit from the powerful social initiatives that have challenged the tyranny and military might of entrenched regimes through essentially peaceful means, in favour of democracy and long-postponed ‘governance by discussion’ (to return to Mill’s championing of that foundational idea of democracy).14


If the strong but less immediate linking of poverty and injustice to violence has some weak plausibility (as I believe it does), then we have to see how the ideas of identity and culture add to the reach of these issues of political economy, rather than competing with their influence in an ‘either this or that’ way. The categories around which the provoked violence may proceed would have cultural and social distinctions of their own (linked with ethnicity or nationality or social background), but the possibility of instigating anger can be dramatically increased and magnified by historical association with economic and political inequity. Indeed, even the brutality of the Hutu activists against Tutsis made effective use of the fact that Tutsis had more of a privileged position in Rwanda than the Hutus typically had — this would have done nothing to justify what happened but the existence of that empirical connection is part of the study of violence of which we have to take notice. Poverty and inequality must have a role in promoting and sustaining violence, but that role, I would argue, has to be sought not through an exclusive concentration on deprivation and destitution in isolation from society and culture, but through looking for a larger and much more extensive framework with interactive roles of poverty and other features of society.
Similarly, while the fierce nastiness of Al Qaeda against Western targets cannot be justified by any invoking of history, the fact that those on whose name the terrorists work have had unequal treatment in the past from Western colonialists makes the invitation to barbarity that much easier to sell. The absence of an ethical justification of such a linkage does not eliminate the fact that it can nevertheless have much power in moving people to blind rage. Indeed, the tolerance of terrorism by an otherwise peaceful population is another peculiar phenomenon in many parts of the contemporary world, particularly those that feel they were badly treated in the past.
Inequalities of military strength, political power and economy might leave behind huge inheritances of discontent. This is so even when the process is not apparently linked with force and strong-armed behaviour, for example, the injustice of leaving hundreds of millions behind in global economic and social progress, or condemning millions of others to untreated medical maladies for ailments that can be eliminated or effectively controlled, but where the global economic mechanism fails to provide life-saving drugs to those who need them most.


Economic, social and cultural issues need serious efforts at integration — an exercize that is spurned both by the fatalistic theorists of civilisational clash and by the hurried advocates of economic reductionism. Cultural and social factors as well as features of political economy are all important in understanding violence in the world today. But they do not work in isolation from each other, and we have to resist the tempting shortcuts that claim to deliver insight through their single-minded concentration on one factor or another, ignoring other important features of an integrated picture. Perhaps most importantly, we have reason to understand that these distinct causal antecedents of violence are not immovable objects that can defy and overwhelm all human efforts to create a more tolerable social order. These connections are more fully explored in the report of the Commonwealth Commission, Civil Paths to Peace, to which this essay is merely the introduction.
It is indeed important to see the often-neglected connection between clarity of understanding and the way society functions and operates. Indeed, but for the political vision that inspired South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, led by Nelson Mandela and also Desmond Tutu, South Africa today would be covered not with reconciliation but with violent revenge against what had been one of the most cruel segregationist orders in the world. Similarly, the barbarity of world wars in the early twentieth century paved the way for the kind of social analyses which led, among other things, to the European Movement that would ultimately lead to the submerging of those national conflicts within Europe in the latter half of the century. The outcome that is entirely mundane now would have been very hard to imagine in the trenches and battlefields in the dark days of 1914 to 1918. Similarly, the huge expression of public demand for democracy that is unfolding in one country after another in the Middle East (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and others) can be the beginning of the operation of a very different identity – different from religious prioritization as well as submission to authoritarianism – that would, unless suppressed by organized power of state governments or of religious extremism, bring about a major change in the politics of the Middle East.
It is not difficult to see that divisions can be exploited to generate violence, sometimes made more intense and fierce through the coupling of economic and social inequality with ethnic and cultural differences. Nor is it really surprising that those divisive lines of thinking can be overcome given some clarity of vision and understanding. What, however, is altogether magnificent is that what seems to lie far beyond feasibility today may become, through our own efforts, entirely achievable and thoroughly ordinary tomorrow. We can get strength from Proust and Gordimer: ‘Do not be afraid to go too far, for the truth lies beyond.’ That recognition, which is important in general, may be especially so in our moments of dejection about human insecurity in our trouble-ridden world.
Amartya Sen would like to thank the Centre for History and Economics and, in particular, Inga Huld Markan and Neesha Harnam, for their research support. He would also like to thank Dr Corin Throsby, Senior Editor at Open Book Publishers.
1 This essay draws on my lecture at the University College London, on 2nd June 2009, on ‘Violence in Society,’ and also on my book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (New York: Norton and London and Delhi: Penguin, 2006).
2 Civil Paths to Peace (London: Commonwealth Secretariat, 2007). This is the Report of the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding re-published in this volume. The Commission included, in addition to me, John Alderdice, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Adrienne Clarkson, Noeleen Heyzer, Kamal Hossain, Elaine Sihoatani Howard, Wangari Muta Maathai, Ralston Nettleford, Joan Rwabyomere and Lucy Turnbull. I take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation of the wonderful work done by each of them. I am also grateful to the Commonwealth Secretariat for making this joint work possible.
3 On this and related issues, see Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: Norton, 2006); and Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (New York: Norton and London: Penguin, 2006).
4 Jorge Sampaio, The Road from Madrid to Istanbul and Beyond (New York: Alliance of Civilizations, 2009), p. 13.
5 See the very first Human Development Report 1990 (New York: United Nations, UNDP, 1990), and the subsequent volumes. See also Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and Shiva Kumar, eds., Readings in Human Development (Oxford, New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
6 Nadine Gordimer, Living in Hope and History: Notes from the Century (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp. 84-102.
7 A few years ago when I was privileged to chair, in the enlightening company of Dr. Sadako Ogata, the Commission for Human Security which reported to the U.N. Secretary General and the Prime Minister of Japan (the Japanese Government had taken the initiative in setting up this Commission), we were impressed to see how widely the interest in human security is shared across the world. See Human Security Now. Commission on Human Security (United Nations Publications: New York, 2003).
8 This theory has received its definitive exposition in Samuel Huntington’s widely read book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).
9 This issue is more fully examined in my book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (2006).
10 Nadine Gordimer, ‘Zaabalawi: The Concealed Side,’ in Writing and Being (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 43.
11 These figures are based on the data presented by the National Crime Record Bureau of India, Crime in India 2005 (New Delhi: Government of India, 2007).
12 The data on the incidence of homicide in different cities have been collected from the respective municipal and national publications, and I am very grateful to Pedro Ramos Pinto for wonderful research assistance in this and related work.
13 See, for example, the illuminating collections of essays in Per-Olof H. Wilkstrom, and Robert J. Sampson, eds., The Explanation of Crime: Context, Mechanisms and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
14 On this see my The Idea of Justice (London: Penguin and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), Chapters 15-18.