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Armed conflict and education inequality: What do we know?

Click here for results from EPDC's most recent research findings.

What do Ethiopia, Nepal, the Philippines, and Niger have in common? Each country had episodes of conflict in the 1990s, and each bucked the global trend of declining education inequalities in a subsequent time period. Researchers have long puzzled over the relationship between inequality and civil conflict; do grievances over a lack of access to resources or social capital actually lead people to go to war? For some academics the question is met with skepticism, as empirical research has often led to inconclusive results. Recent changes in the way inequality is conceptualized and measured have changed the way people think about this connection.

It was with this in mind that FHI 360’s Education Policy and Data Center set about the task of investigating the relationship in conjunction with UNICEF’s Learning for Peace programme, in 2014. EPDC researchers showed that in countries with high levels of education inequality, the risk of conflict almost doubled in the years after 2000, controlling for a host of relevant factors. New research from EPDC now seeks to investigate the reciprocal relationship; does the outbreak of conflict exacerbate pre-existing inequalities?

To investigate the nuances of this relationship, FHI 360 examined inequality using the Education Inequality and Conflict Dataset (EIC), a new dataset developed for this research project. The most recent study examined education inequality between culturally defined or constructed groups and socioeconomic divisions (e.g., ethnic, religious, etc.), referred to as horizontal inequality following Stewart (2000), as well as inequality across households or individuals, or vertical inequality.

What kind of education inequality affects the risk of violent conflict?

Inequalities between ethnic and religious groups were most strongly associated with the risk of conflict in the post-2000 years, even though overall inequality had declined. In contrast, inequalities across subnational regions within countries are strongly associated with the risk of conflict in all time periods. Gender equality between males and females decreases the likelihood of conflict by as much as 37%. Further research using the EIC dataset found that conflict widens inequalities in education among groups and individuals, with wealth-based groups and gender disparities particularly impacted. The analysis found that the negative impacts of conflict on inequality increase over time, meaning the longer the conflict, the harder it becomes to return to pre-conflict levels of inequality. 

Fig. 1 – Relationship between education inequality and violent conflict

Does the nature of conflict or fragility matter?

Delving further into the effect of conflict on education inequality, the study distinguishes between ethnic and non-ethnic conflict. It finds that ethnic conflicts have a greater impact on inequality than non-ethnic conflicts. Across all identity and wealth groups, as well as by gender, ethnic conflict exacerbates inequality to a greater extent than non-ethnic inequality. For example, the education Gini coefficient increases by 2.2 points (out of 100) as a result of ethnic conflict, compared to no effect for non-ethnic conflicts. Similarly, gender parity is worsened by 5.3 points as a result of ethnic conflicts compared to only 1.7 points for non-ethnic conflict. The effects of conflict on inequality are also stronger in fragile countries, which are defined as countries with a greater risk of conflict based on their observable characteristics.

Fig. 2 – Effects of conflict and fragility on inequality

Policy implications

The findings of the most recent study provide causal evidence that conflict exacerbates education inequality more than would have been present otherwise. Further, the effects are amplified in highly fragile states. To that end, the present study adds to the compelling findings that inequalities in education are strongly related to the occurrence of conflict, and creates a compelling case for investment in education with a focus on equity to mitigate the likelihood of conflict.

With the Learning for Peace programme officially closed, it is critical that the research findings related to inequality are used to inform programs and policies going forward. One effort that is taking up the mantle in regards to inequality research is the Education Equity Research Initiative, which seeks to advance research to inform policy and programing on effective ways of strengthening equity in and through education systems. The initiative is structured around four inter-related workstreams focused on measurement, learning and retention, conflict and fragility, and finance. Led by FHI 360 and Save the Children and working in conjunction with partners including the Education in Crisis and Conflict Network (ECCN) and New York University, the initiative will develop common measurement frameworks, tackle data gaps and under-researched equity issues and help to guide programs and policies working at the student level. With equity at the center of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), education has a critical role to play in promoting positive development outcomes.

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