Social exclusion and conflict

Analysis and policy implications


In this 2005 report prepared for the UK Department for International Development, Stewart asks what conditions cause social exclusion to lead to violence? What policies could be adopted to reduce social exclusion and prevent conflict? The paper addresses these questions, drawing on examples of social exclusion and situations of conflict worldwide, including case studies from Malaysia and Northern Ireland. Policies to reduce social exclusion are part of a poverty reduction agenda and should aim to promote the well being of the excluded and prevent violent conflict.


Social Exclusion (SE) broadly describes how group(s) of people are excluded from the normal activities of their society, in multiple ways. It is multidimensional, with multiple deprivations reinforcing each other. Lack of power is at the root of every type of exclusion and there is a process of exclusion and agency involved. It concerns groups rather than individuals, and is relative: dependent on a given society’s norms.


SE can cause internal conflict, which in some conditions leads to violence. The socially excluded often form a cultural or religious group, and group affinity can be a powerful source of mobilisation. Certain conditions can cause this to lead to violence:

  • Leadership, which transforms grievances into group protests, is most likely to arise where there is political as well as economic exclusion. Leaders are most often from outside the group, such as middle-class leaders who seek power for ideological or economic reasons (where there are gains to be made).
  • Government reactions are the most important factor influencing whether groups take to violence rather than peaceful protest.
  • Protestors’ responses also depend on leadership and access to resources to support violence.
  • A matrix approach, as used to analyse conflict in Cote d’Ivoire, could be used to identify a countries’ conflict potential. Policies to address SE must be multidimensional. While general poverty reduction strategies will make an important contribution, they are not sufficient.


Policies must include political as well as social and economic dimensions, and be specific to context. They must include redistribution (of power and economic assets), as general growth alone will not improve SE.

  • Economic and social policies can achieve greater group equality in assets or incomes by addressing processes of discrimination, providing direct assistance to particular groups and using targets and quotas.
  • Political policies introduce formal/informal structures, ensuring that each group participates in political decision-making and power. This is especially important in preventing conflict. Strategies can include a federal constitution, Proportional Representation, decentralisation, provisions for ethnic/religious vetoes and reserving seats in parliament. They also include power sharing through job reservations/quotas and a strong and ethnically balanced judiciary combined with constitutional human rights.
  • Malaysia and Northern Ireland provide successful examples of the use of policies to combat social exclusion and conflict. Sri Lanka shows that policies may well face political obstacles and adverse reactions from those previously privileged. They must therefore be inclusive, and gradual.
  • PRSPs, public expenditure reviews and support for the Human Rights agenda provide opportunities for policies to address SE.


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