Expert Commentary

Global model for forecasting political instability

2010 study in American Journal of Political Science on factors that may predict state conflict, collapse.

Firmly identifying the specific factors that trigger conflict and instability around the globe has long been a goal of policymakers, humanitarian organizations, security agencies and academics. In the past, many analysts have pointed toward underlying economic factors, and the type and character of political institutions present have often remained a secondary area of focus, researchers note.

A 2010 study by seven academic and research institutions published in the American Journal of Political Science, “Global Model for Forecasting Political Instability,” looked at data for countries with populations above 500,000 over the years 1955 to 2003 and isolated 141 episodes of civil conflict, instability or breakdown of government. The researchers then examined how four independent variables helped predict these episodes: (1) regime type, subdivided into full and partial autocracies, partial democracies with and without factionalism, and full democracies; (2) infant mortality rates; (3) proximity to conflict-ridden neighbor states; and (4), state-led discrimination against minority citizens.

The study’s findings include:

  • The researchers’ analytical model using these four factors predicted with 81.7% accuracy state instability with a two-year lead time.
  • The most important factor was the country’s regime type. Democracies with factionalism present were the most susceptible to instability: “The relative odds of instability for such regimes were over 30 times greater than for full autocracies.” These odds were similar for predicting the onset of civil war in such countries and even higher for predicting adverse regime change.
  • High rates of infant mortality proved a strong predictive factor. The chances of adverse regime change and civil war for countries whose rates were at the 75th percentile for infant mortality were seven times higher than that for countries at the 25th percentile.
  • Countries that had four or more neighbors experiencing armed conflicts were “far more likely” to experience instability of their own. (The researchers note that this is not that uncommon; 11 of the episodes of instability studied saw this dynamic at work, and 77 countries in 2003 had four or more bordering countries.)
  • For countries where at least one minority group was subject to discrimination, the odds of future civil war were roughly triple.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa saw the most episodes of instability, with 49 (34.8% of the global total); it was followed by North Africa/Middle/Central Asia with 32 (22.7%); Europe and the former Soviet Union with 23 (16.3%); Latin America and Caribbean with 19 (13.5%); and East Asia with 18 (12.8%).

The researchers conclude that “once regime [type] characteristics are taken into account, most other economic, political, social, or cultural features of the countries in our sample had no significant impact on the relative incidence of near-term instability…[T]his finding should encourage scholars in this field to redirect their attention from the economic to the institutional foundations of political instability.”

Tags: Africa, Asia, Europe, war

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