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Centre of Excellence – civil war studies:

Supplying tools to counteract civil war

For ten years, prominent researchers have combined their efforts to uncover key perspectives characterising the groups that are engaged in civil war and the causes behind the onset and development of these wars.

The Centre for the Study of Civil War (CSCW), which has its roots in the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), was among the initial 13 Norwegian Centres of Excellence (SFF) established. After ten years, its activities as an SFF centre are drawing to a close.

Impact of a surplus of men and access to natural resources

The centre’s research on the causes behind civil war reveals that factors such as a large surplus of young men may exacerbate a conflict substantially. However, the same surplus may also play a constructive role in promoting rapid economic development if the proper conditions for growth are present. In the same way, access to an abundance of valuable natural resources can have a dual effect. If a society has the institutions in place to utilise such resources, they may form the basis for social development. If the opposite is the case, they may be a factor in magnifying a conflict.

“Thus, our research shows that young men and resources are not the cause of the conflict, but rather represent mechanisms that can shift the situation in a positive or negative direction.”

Surprisingly, no evidence has been found to support climate change as a cause of civil war. It is a paradox that during the period in which the increase in temperature in Africa has been at an all-time high the decline in the number of wars has been most pronounced,” says the director of the centre, Professor Scott Gates.

Photo: Sven Gunnar Simonsen, PRIO BOMBED TO RUINS: Many years of war in Afghanistan have left Kabul deeply scarred. This photo is from Darul Aman Palace. Research findings from the Centre for the Study of Civil War have been applied by the UN system, the World Bank and many other international organisations. (Photo: Sven Gunnar Simonsen, PRIO) Declining curve but danger of recurrence

Dr Gates points out that the long-term tendency is for the number of wars and conflicts in the world to decrease. War between countries is very rare and, since peaking in 1994, the incidence of civil war declined in the years up to 2004 and has levelled out at approximately 30 per year globally. The number of deaths as a result of war continues to fall.

“Relatively few new civil wars are breaking out around the world. But 35 per cent of the civil wars that have ended start up again within ten years. For this reason, we are taking a closer look at the ramifications of the conflicts and what steps to take to keep them from flaring up again. For instance, we have focused research on the significance of peace-keeping operations, power-sharing, resource management and post-conflict court trials. In all modesty, I would say that the centre’s research has helped to increase the attention paid by the international community to policy development in the wake of a conflict,” says Dr Gates.

Research that gets applied

It is a feather in the researchers’ caps that their research is being put to use in the UN system, by the World Bank and many other international organisations. One such example is their mapping of potential areas of conflict based on natural and social conditions conducted for Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Asia (OCHA). These efforts are being carried out in cooperation with another SFF centre: the International Centre for Geohazards.

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also stands to benefit from this research: “The Centre for the Study of Civil War together with PRIO took an early lead, conducting pioneering research on water resources and how to manage tensions. Their work reveals that uncertainty surrounding access to water supplies increases tension levels, but does not necessarily escalate the level of conflict,” states Bente Bingen, Senior Adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Added benefits from the centre

Scott Gates emphasises that the interdisciplinary research carried out at the centre is founded on high-quality basic research: “Our status as an SFF centre has made it possible for us to attract experts who did not work with conflict previously. The expertise of leading researchers such as the philosopher Jon Elster, economist Kalle Moene and public opinion researcher Ole Listhaug has added a new dimension to civil war research. We have seen that our interdisciplinary model has worked very well in achieving scientific development and that the participation of top-calibre researchers has played a key role in the development of the younger researchers at the centre,” Dr Gates states.

Photo: Marit Moe-Pryce We are taking a closer look at the ramifications of the conflicts and what steps to take to keep them from flaring up again, says Professor Scott Gates (Photo: Marit Moe-Pryce) The CSCW has won international renown and recruited nine Fulbright fellows from the US and a multitude of highly talented doctoral degree students from Europe and the US. The centre has also more than doubled its original budget from the Research Council of Norway, receiving among other things funding for the creation of a database of armed conflicts throughout the world. The database will make it possible to break the data down into smaller units and provide insight on the individual actors in a conflict.

“This is how PRIO and CSCW research complex phenomena and concepts: We break them down into smaller components, making it possible to analyse them in time and space. We need specialists from many fields to work this way,” the centre director asserts.

New types of conflict

The researchers wish to continue their activities as part of PRIO once the period as an SFF centre concludes. There are a number of research questions we wish to investigate in more detail. One such area is sexual violence, where findings indicate that rape is often committed by national uniformed soldiers. What is the role of the commanding officers in such cases? Another issue which raises considerable debate among researchers is if – and to what degree – ethnicity plays a role in civil war.

“One trend on the rise today is for small groups to fight against each other or against the authorities. This leads to great suffering in the area involved. If the authorities answer uprising with violence the conflict can escalate quickly. We need to know more about these kinds of conflict to provide the tools needed to handle them,” concludes Dr Gates.

Center for the Study of Civil War (CSCW)
  • Objective: To study the various participants in civil war and thus try to find the reasons why civil wars break out, how they are sustained and what it takes to establish lasting civil peace. 
  • Participants: The Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) is the host institution. The University of California, San Diego, Norwegian University of Science and Technology. University of Essex, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, and University of Oslo are active partners. Political scientists, economists, sociologists, historians and philosophers have participated.
  • Annual allocation from the Research Council of Norway: NOK 9 million.
  • Total annual budget: Approximately NOK 24.5 million.
  • Total man-years: Approximately 17.


Written by:
Christian Lund/Else Lie. Translation: Glenn Wells/Carol B. Eckmann
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