Small Wars Journal

The Greed versus Grievance Theory and the 2011 Libyan Civil War: Why grievance offers a wider perspective for understanding the conflict outbreak

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 8:16pm

The Greed versus Grievance Theory and the 2011 Libyan Civil War:

Why grievance offers a wider perspective for understanding the conflict outbreak


Paolo Pizzolo




This paper will describe the Greed versus Grievance Theory and why it is a useful theoretical framework to address the incentives for the outbreak of the 2011 Libyan Civil War. Specifically, it will argue that, although the greed argument can partly contribute in explaining the motivations that led the anti-Gaddafi rebel front to mobilize, the grievance argument renders a broader explanation to the uprising, as it includes relevant variables typical of Gaddafi’s regime, like: unequal income distribution, unemployment, lack of political rights, nepotism, and corruption. The introduction will describe the main aspects of the greed and grievance theory, linking it to the increase of intrastate wars vis-à-vis interstate wars. A summative analysis of the key features of both the greed and the grievance theory will be discussed. Afterward, the outbreak of the 2011 Libyan Civil War will be analysed through the lenses of the Greed and Grievance Theory. Furthermore, this analysis will demonstrate that the grievance argument is more applicable to this specific case study.




The concept of warfare has developed incessantly in the last four centuries, introducing changes in the goals, scopes, and nature of conflicts. During the 17th and 18th centuries, warfare was conducted within the framework of the political organization known as the absolutist state. Its goals followed the reason of state, dynastic contrapositions, and adjustment of borders. Armies predominately consisted of mercenary troops; the military technique relied on firearms, manoeuvres, and sieges; and taxation sustained the war. In the 19th century, the nation-state gradually replaced the absolutist state and the aims of conflict became self-determination and national independence. Armies became professional, the national draft replaced the use of mercenaries, rapid mobilization and the evolution of firearms guaranteed faster military tactics, and the expansion of state bureaucracy influenced the war economy. At the beginning of the 20th century, on the eve of World War One, coalitions of states and empires confronted each other in national and ideological conflicts. The army was assembled, due to the mass draft, and military technique evolved with the introduction of new weapons, like heavy artillery, tanks, and aviation. Until World War Two, warfare was interpreted in a traditional way, with contraposed blocs engaging in ideological or national conflicts, and with a strong military-industry sustaining the war effort. Even at the beginning of the Cold War ideological blocs confronted each other, though avoiding direct, generalized hostility thanks to nuclear deterrence.


However, at the end of World War Two, the world witnessed a gradual shift from the concept of “old wars” to the concept of “new wars.” Old wars presented some common, typical features. First, they were always interstate conflicts, symmetric conflicts between similar actors. They manifested with direct, large scale battles between conventional armed forces. Their primary aim was the destruction of the enemy’s army and the goal was the capture, defence, or retention of territory. They presented a defined beginning and end, with a formal declaration of war and the conclusion of a peace agreement. Finally, they were financed by states through taxation and war economy.


On the other hand, new wars evolved with noteworthy differences. First, they are intrastate conflicts, fought within and across states, with a wider range of fighting forces that confront each other. Being essentially civil or ethnic wars, they are often underpinned by narratives of identity, ethnicity, and religion. They are characterized by a blurred distinction between civilians and combatants. Their beginning and ending is unclear. They are financed through engagement of belligerents, as well as through local and global networks, which are often illicit. They present few direct battles between forces; instead, they are often replaced by attempts of ethnic cleansing, genocide, guerrilla warfare, and violence against the civilian population. Typical of failed nation-states, they appear in countries that cannot provide a normal security standard or implement the rule of law. In terms of methods, new wars encourage asymmetric and hybrid warfare, with an extended battlefield involving civilians.

Since 1945, humanity avoided nuclear wars by relying on deterrence, left behind world wars, almost extinguished interstate war, and reduced civil wars to fewer countries and fewer casualties (Goldstein 2012). In the past fifty decades, interstate wars have been positively declining and, at the same time, intrastate wars and wars by proxy have been increasing. One of the reasons for this trend could be related to the introduction of the United Nations (UN) Charter, which condemns wars of aggression and allows foreign military intervention only under specific circumstances, and only with the endorsement of the UN Security Council.


The phenomenon of the new wars increased significantly in the global post-bipolar phase, with the rise of cultural conflict, the clash of civilizations, the clash of communities, and ethno-political conflict. Moreover, new wars can be considered a negative outcome of the era of globalisation. Typically, they take place in areas where authoritarian states – as globalisation “losers” – have been greatly weakened when opening to the rest of the world. In such contexts, “the distinction between state and non-state, public and private, external and internal, economic and political, and even war and peace are breaking down” (Kaldor 2013: 2).


In this context, the Greed and Grievance Theory, a theoretical contribution developed by Collier and Hoeffler (1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2004), may offer input to understanding the outbreak of civil and ethnic wars. Collier and Hoeffler investigated the causes of civil war using a data set of wars from 1960 to 1999 and detected 79 major conflicts. Their study concluded that civil war is far more common today than international armed conflict. Recent arguments and evidence support the idea that civil wars are rooted in causes that reflect a blend of “greed and grievance” (Reagan and Norton 2005). The theory is based upon the so-called “deprivation argument,” where the cause of war is attributed to either “greed” or “grievance,” and the common factor is the perception of a certain deprivation. If it is an economic deprivation, the inequality will be a “vertical inequality” and the cause of war will be “greed.” If, instead, the deprivation is caused by variables such as ethnicity, age, religion, or gender, it will be a “horizontal inequality,” and the cause of war will be attributable to “grievances.”


According to the greed explanation, rebels act in pursuit of self-interested material gain, which is often related to the exploitation and possession of valuable economic resources, such as: oil, diamonds, and timber. Thus, the control of a strategic resource serves as the mechanism for mobilization. On the other hand, according to the grievance explanation, rebels act for obtaining some form of socio-political asset of which they are deprived. Therefore, conflicts derive from high levels of inequality and socio-cultural deprivation. In other words, a gap between expectations and achievement would contribute to the willingness of the people to rebel. Inequality of land, economic income or social status could result in large-scale political violence that could evolve into civil war.

 Thus, the fundamental distinction between the two arguments of the greed versus grievance debate lies in the kind of deprivation perceived by the population. The perception of a vertical inequality compels rebels to act in order to obtain self-interested material gain, such as raw materials, valuable resources or economic assets. The perception of a horizontal inequality leads rebels to act over issues of identity, in order to obtain a specific socio-political asset or to fill the gap given by a lack of political rights or status due to ethnic and religious cleavages in society (Sørli 2002).


The outline of the paper is as following: the first section will try to highlight the main features of the greed argument, analysing its core contributions to the understanding of the outbreaks of civil wars; the second section will outline the key aspects of the grievance argument and its theses endorsing the outbreak of civil wars; finally, the third section will compare the two theories with the Libyan case study and demonstrate that the greed argument offers a better interpretation of the outbreak of the civil conflict in 2011.


The Greed Theory. Economic self-interest as an explanatory variable for the outbreak of civil and ethnic conflicts


According to the greed argument, civil wars stem from the avaricious behaviour of rebel groups that organize an uprising against the existing political establishment. The supporters of the greed thesis argue that greed may better explain the outbreak of a civil war, since empirical evidence would suggest that personal profits are the key determinant in joining a rebellious faction. The core element of the greed argument, and the main reason for its validation, is the so-called “curse of natural resources,” which defines a country rich in resources as a country also cursed by them (Sachs and Warner 2001). Countries that suffer a structural dependence on the export of primary commodities and natural resources are statistically more likely to experience civil wars due to competition among societies’ groups and classes, who want to control and possess these economic assets. Clearly, countries rich in resources that did not experience civil war because of their resources do exist; however, as previously noted, civil conflicts occur in states of weak or failed institutions, not in countries with a strong political organization and a functioning rule of law.


Greed would stem from the rebel groups’ wish to seize opportunities that are in the hands of the political-governmental and socio-economic leading elite. Generally, such desired opportunities fall into the three main spheres: economic gain, political dominance, or geographical advantage (Murshed 2009). Rebels seek for political dominance that would assure easier access to resources or to a strategic geographical area rich in resources. Perhaps economic gain would be the most significant factor in understanding the relevance of the greed argument for the outbreak of civil conflicts. Following Collier and Hoeffler’s schema (2004), civil wars are essentially market-driven, originating from competition among elites over natural resources and from the desire for self-enrichment. Furthermore, they are typical of states with negative economic growth or endogenous, systematic poverty.


Key assumptions of the greed theory rest on the idea that countries with slow economic growth, low per capita income, and high unemployment rates are more likely to face civil wars. The relation between per capita poverty rate and civil conflict outbreak can be explained in terms of cost-opportunity: the less income people have, the higher the cost-opportunity of joining revolts will be (Collier and Hoeffler 2004). Furthermore, greed-driven factions or rebel-leaders can manipulate rebel groups and leverage on a grievance narrative for their own personal profits (Ibid.). Easily accessible and plunderable natural resources, such as oil, diamonds, and drugs provide lucrative sources for financing rebellions and coups. Hence, from an opportunistic perspective, the access to strategic natural resources can facilitate the financing of uprisings (Sørli 2002).


Natural resource abundance is associated with poor economic growth and greater social and economic inequality. The lack of income, the low levels of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, unemployment, economic recession, hyperinflation, and other economic variables may allure citizens – especially young adults – to join a rebel organization that would guarantee food supply, benefits, and a secure employment. For example, in a recent survey by Collier and Sambanis (2005) 40% of all respondents answered that they had joined a rebel group because they were unemployed, while only 13% claimed that their reason was ideological and that they shared the belief in the group’s cause. In addition, group size is critical in achieving collective action, even in the cases of civil wars (Olson 1965). Smaller groups tend to face lower costs of organization and would provide more lucrative opportunities for the individuals who join them. On the other hand, large groups tend to appear less capable of acting in accordance with their common interest. Tactically and logistically easier to mobilize, a small rebel group could be assembled solely through the promise of obtaining personal profits and material gains that spark greed. “Free-riding” would also be avoided, or at least reduced, if active participants in the rebellion would receive punctual private benefits and a stable income. Monetary incentives would represent the central aspect that would lead rebels to join a rebellion.


Moreover, during conflicts, greed may shift for the primary objective from social justice – typical of peacetime – to monetary gain (Weinstein 2005). The chances of obtaining large profits can reorient the rebel group to seeking private wealth rather than from achieving the public well-being of society.

Finally, the supporters of the greed argument criticize the grievance argument and the thesis of horizontal inequalities. They argue that, while grievance may better explain the cause of the conflict outbreak, it cannot clearly describe why these conflicts persist in time. Furthermore, the greed argument can always explain the outbreak and the continuation of a conflict, since greed is an intrinsic characterization of humanity. This idea partly stems from an understanding of human nature as egotistical and strictly connected to the assumptions of Hobbesian pessimistic anthropology, which is typical of the realist paradigm of international relations.


The Grievance Theory. Collective socio-political inequalities as an explanatory variable for the outbreak of civil and ethnic conflicts


Recently, the grievance aspect of the greed and grievance theory has been thoroughly investigated in scholarly debate (Keen 2012). According to the grievance theory, countries with certain socio-political cleavages are more prone to civil strife. For instance, a population subject to political repression, instability, or a widespread feeling of ethnic or class discrimination would more easily develop emotions that would lead to a civil war. According to grievance argument, all civil wars bear two common characteristics. First, the perception by some sectors of civil society, that a rebellion could ameliorate the unfair socio-political status quo. Second, the civil war has the goal to replace the exploitative, abusive, and greedy political elite, privileged class, or ruling ethnic or religious group.

In contrast to the greed argument, the rebels are not driven by selfish or materialistic gains. Rather, the motivation behind their participation to civil strife would stem from a collective request to access some assets of which they have been denied or deprived. Unlike greed, grievance is linked to the claim of overcoming an injustice or an unfortunate circumstance that produces great sorrow, mental distress, sense of oppression, and a perception of injustice among a segment of the population.


A case study that shows why the outbreak of civil war is often grievance-based is Rwanda’s 1994 crisis. At the end of World War One, Belgium replaced Germany as colonial master of Rwanda, ruling it, along with Burundi, under a mandate of the League of Nations. Belgium introduced a stricter colonial rule, centralization of state power, and some economic and administrative reforms. Both Germany and Belgium considered the Hutu and Tutsi different races, the former inferior and the latter superior, and promoted Tutsi supremacy. In 1935, Belgium introduced identity cards, labelling the population as either Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa; thus, creating the ethnical division of the nation. While the Belgians favoured the Tutsis (14% of the population), the Hutus, the majority of Rwanda’s inhabitants, were denied fundamental rights and socio-political status. In the 1960s, while the African continent was experiencing a massive wave of decolonization, tensions escalated between the Tutsi and the Hutu emancipation movement, culminating in the 1959 Rwandan Revolution in which Hutu activists began mass killings of Tutsi. After its independence in 1962, Rwanda experienced continuous assaults between Hutus and Tutsi from the 1960s to the 1980s. This ethnic hatred ended with the famous 1994 Rwandan genocide: between April and July1994, at least 800,000 people (Tutsi, Twa, and moderate Hutus) were systematically massacred with gunfire, machetes, and iron bats, until a humanitarian UN mission ended the slaughter. Grievance could offer the theoretical explanation to the Rwandan genocide, showing how civil wars – and eventually ethnic cleansing – can be the result of the uprising of a discriminated group against a ruling socio-political elite.


As aforementioned, the grievance argument provides motives of civil wars to social or political inequality rather than economic profit. Rebellions occur when grievances are sufficiently acute that people want to engage in violent protest produced by non-profit rebel organizations. According to Collier and Hoeffler (2004), the motivations that generate grievance are four: ethnic or religious hatred, political repression, political exclusion, and economic inequality. Although ethnic or religious hatred is complex to quantify, it can only occur in multi-ethnic or multireligious societies. Empirical measurements show that fractioned societies are more vulnerable to intragroup hate than homogeneous ones, not because of diversity itself, but because of the side-effects of polarization. Political repression can be measured through data sets, issued by think tanks or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), like Freedom House, that focus on political rights, autocracy levels, and political openness. As for political exclusion, rebellious uprisings may occur when institutional power – including the governmental infrastructure the party system, the parliamentary structure, and the administrative branches – encourage the superiority of an ethnic group, thus promoting discrimination or underrepresentation of others. Finally, high levels of economic inequality could induce poorer groups to force an income redistribution; meanwhile, richer regions may call for secession in order to avoid such redistribution.


Moreover, grievances are often fuelled by relative deprivation, polarization, and horizontal inequality. Relative deprivation can be described as the discrepancy between what people think they deserve and what they actually receive or, in other words, the level of social expectation. Polarization outlines how differences and similarities among different social groups contribute to the onset of civil wars. Horizontal inequalities based on ethnicity, age, religion, language, or gender may lead to significantly higher likelihood of a civil conflict outbreak.

According to a part of the literature on the grievance theory (Gurr 2015; Cederman et al. 2010), relative deprivation is considered the main variable for the outbreak of rebellions and civil wars. The core argument states that people develop an ambition that quickly goes beyond their individual or social capabilities needed to achieve the desired status quo of welfare, security, and self-actualization, degenerating into civil war. The independent variables that produce the mechanism that lead to relative deprivation and, therefore, to civil war would be political and economic discrimination, demographic distress, loss of dominance or loss of relative political power in the state apparatus, state repression, group cohesion, and international dispersion.


Finally, grievances would increase following the size of a country. In countries with a high population, public choices tend to diverge more from the preferences of the socio-political elite.

Proponents of the grievance argument have extensively criticized greed-based inferences accusing them of reductionism. Greed-based explanations are accused of methodological and analytical incompetency, as well as oversimplifying the complexity of the factors that contribute to the onset conflicts. The supposition that an actor’s behaviour and decision-making will always be economic-driven and rely on rational choice would ignore significant psychological and social aspects that can lead to war. When analysed solely through the lenses of economic profit, the occurrence of civil war tends to negate the lived realities of people and their level of discrimination and oppression. If rebels are viewed as a mere unitary actor with an interest in predation, the relevant role of ideological zeal, ethnic loyalty, or aspirations to power is marginalized and ignored. Kalyyas (2003) highlighted that “civil wars are not binary conflicts, but complex and ambiguous processes that foster the ‘joint’ action of local and supralocal actors, civilians, and armies, whose alliance results in violence that aggregates yet still reflects their diverse goals.” In this context, greed would be anchored in a Hobbesian inspiration reflecting private egoism, while grievance would stem from a Schmidtian understanding based on an ontology of civil wars grounded on group loyalties and beliefs (Ibid.). In other words, greed focuses on self-centred, private material gain, while grievance focuses on collective, societal, and public good.


The 2011 Libyan civil war: A conflict motivated by greed or by grievance?


Grievances in Libya first manifested in 2009 with the first protests in non-western cities due to a stagnating economy, liberalization, discrimination, and international sanctions. Gaddafi’s answer to these protests was the use of soft power, by offering financial support to protesters. Meanwhile, the Libyan leader started to mobilize pro-regime support throughout the country by supplying weapons to loyal tribes. Furthermore, the regime implemented crisis management methods, such as a promising mixture of populist economic policies and financial packages. However, economic reforms could never be fully implemented in a politically hostile, divided and, unsecured environment. Thus, the outbreak of the Libyan Civil War and the deposition of Muhammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011 are outcomes of the so-called Arab Spring. The Arab Spring, a socio-political awakening aimed at dismissing the old elite in power in several Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, offered new research opportunities of civil wars, including the study of the Greed and Grievance Theory. The wave of protests that occurred between 2010 and 2011 led to two noteworthy violent rebellions: the Libyan revolutionary war and the civil war in Syria.


In considering the case of Libya, the Greed and Grievance Theory gives an explanation to the rebel uprising and consequent civil war. Libya’s socio-economic climate presented many incentives which are considered typical and relevant for both the greed theory and the grievance theory, including a strong dependence on primary commodities for exportation, economic instability, a high percentage of uneducated and unemployed young people, and deep-rooted social inequality. Notwithstanding, it is an open debate which aspect of the theory – whether greed or grievance – has been the main vector that triggered the Libyan Civil War and consequently caused the regime change.


According to the greed argument, the civil war of 2011 broke out because rebels were interested in the material benefits that would derive from the control of Libya’s oil reserves. Libya has always relied on primary commodity exports, specifically oil. The desire for economic self-enrichment would have been the motivational factor that led rebel groups to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime. War-waging parties needed to be financially viable and would have had an interest in gaining control over strategic natural resources. Consequently, greed led rebels to obtain profits from the predation of primary commodities: economic interests triggered groups that wanted to take advantage of the conflict (Keen 2000; Vandewalle 2012).


The Libyan economy is typical of a rentier state, which derives all or a substantial part of its national revenues from the rent of homegrown resources to external clients. Rentier economies rely on the production of strategic resources sold in international markets. However, a well-functioning rentier state should assure a fair redistribution of the revenues originating from the commercial asset. Instead, Gaddafi’s Libya excluded citizens from all mechanisms aimed at administrating those revenues (Mehdavi 1970) and prevented the participation in their production (Beblawi 1990). The simultaneous existence of grievances would have been used as an instrument for self-enrichment. Grievances were used as levers to create open rebellion and civil war for the ultimate purpose of controlling natural resources, like oil reserves.


However, the greed interpretation, albeit sustainable, is reductive. The factor of economic gain of the regime’s rival groups would not have borne the needed strength to trigger a full-fledged civil war, or at least would not have entailed a sufficient thrust, if not supported by deep-rooted socio-political issues that Libyan society suffered.


On the other hand, Gaddafi’s regime was filled with vertical inequalities, including inequal income distribution, unemployment, lack of political rights, nepotism, and corruption; thus, the grievance argument offers a more comprehensive understanding of the events that led to the Libyan civil war. The Libyan society suffered greatly under the economic policies of the regime: while the international community imposed strict sanctions, public services were eroded (Pargenter 2012). In years leading to the rebellion, the gap between rich and poor widened. The juxtaposition of scarce employment opportunities, along with the increased levels of education, produced vertical economic grievances, as it was impossible for citizens to work on the level for which they were trained (Campante and Chor 2012).


The political power was entirely in the hands of the regime. Regional political bodies were ineffective as Gaddafi was making political decisions unilaterally. Under Gaddafi, Libya embodied an authoritarian police state without any form of political pluralism (including lack of a multiparty system) that violated the legal rights of all dissenters. Indeed, responses to the opposition were comprised of violence and torture (Simons 2003), propagating a widespread resentment. Moreover, while the country’s population was embracing a sober lifestyle, Gaddafi’s children and his close entourage exhibited a luxurious lifestyle shaped on the “Western” model that only aggravated the population’s bitterness (Pargenter 2012).


Additionally, the regional division of the country provoked decentralization and centrifugal forces. Historically, Cyrenaica, the eastern part of Libya, has been the centre of resistance against Gaddafi. Specifically, Benghazi – Cyrenaica’s chief town – turned into the core of the Islamist-driven opposition to the regime in the 1990s. According to Pargenter (Ibid.), Gaddafi’s response was to keep the east in a “constant state of underdevelopment,” in order to avoid all threats that could challenge the existence of his regime. Gaddafi’s policies toward the east have been crucial in forming the necessary resentment for a prolonged rebellion. In 2001, “76% of the citizens in Benghazi felt alienated from the political process and sought change” (Warshel 2012: 735). Gaddafi had long exploited the tribal differences in Libya for maintaining power. Initially, he pitted the different tribes against each other, with three preferred tribes as the main pillars under his regime. After an attempted coup by the Warfalla tribe in 1993, the leadership consisted entirely of members of the Gadaffa, the leader’s own tribe (Martinez 2007). In addition, Gaddafi ensured loyalty by distributing public offices to members of his own tribe or to friendly clans, ensuring support of his regime. Consequently, the rest of the population bore no socio-political perspectives for improving its socio-political status and was controlled through coercion. During the revolution, tribal loyalties and regional cleavages were crucial factors in shaping allegiances (Lacher 2011).


This political exclusion and deprivation was characteristic of pre-civil war Libyan society. For instance, the Toubou experienced a lack of social recognition for their ethnic group and were excluded from the wider political and economic system. Political-economic deprivation for specific ethnic-social groups is a constant element of the grievance and identity-based theories as a cause for ethnic conflict outbreaks. For decades, Gaddafi’s regime pursued national policies of “Arabization” and sought to expel the Toubou, along with other minorities from Libya. The 1969 constitutional declaration defined Gaddafi’s Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya as an “Arab nation” and proclaimed Arabic the only official language. Successive policies deliberately denied basic human and political rights to non-Arab minorities in Libya, including the 2007 withdrawal of citizenship rights and public services.


The proliferation of pro-Arab preference, along with the discouragement of including ethnic minorities in socio-political life, led to social alienation. Some ethnic minorities that the legal system precluded from enjoying citizenship were even prohibited to run for political office. The Vice President of the National Toubou Congress (NTC), Mohammed Seed Ibrahim, often addressed the issue of marginalization, demanding Gaddafi to abandon the policy of ethnic divisions and to build a more equal and representative Libya. However, the plea remained unanswered. Libya’s weak state institutions contributed to the mobilization of minorities against the regime. Acting on the collapse of state authority after the Gaddafi’s fall in 2011, Toubou militias mobilized to provide communal security and to consolidate control over key economic resources in the region, especially illicit smuggling routes across Libya’s southern borders. While the transitional regime’s capacity and legitimacy remained weakened in the south, state security forces were unable to ensure adequate public security and disarm the militias.


The Libyan Civil War raised the issue of the ethnic security dilemma. Ethnic mobilization amid a collapsed multi-ethnic state creates perceptions of sovereign vulnerability among disenfranchised factions, creating conflict escalation leading to the armament of other ethnic groups. The mobilization of the Toubou triggered fear of mass conflict amongst other ethnic groups – particularly the Zwai, who were primary contenders for control of the smuggling routes. Fuelled by a desire to control operations, as well as a prior-history of interethnic hostilities – these conditions set in motion an ethnic security dilemma between communities in intermixed areas, such as Sabha in southwestern Libya. After successful rebellious uprisings that led to the absence of a central authority to arbitrate between the communities, groups became suspicious of adversaries’ aggressive motives.




The outbreak of the civil war in Libya was the result of a combination of a variety of grievances: the regime’s policies of unequal socio-political and economic redistribution, territorial and historical diversities and rivalries, militarization of local actors, international intervention, and the role of strategic primary commodities.


Generally, the distinction between greed and grievance represents just one of many ways to interpret the outbreak of civil wars: “Greed and grievance factors often interact, and the distinction thus falsely assumes that these are two distinct analytical categories” (Berdal 2005: 691). However, proxies of a potential for greed can often be exploited also as proxies for grievances, which can both produce social anger and a reason for low opportunity costs for rebellion (Cramer 2002: 1853). Still, Collier and Hoeffler argue that all rebellions are accompanied per se by a narrative of grievance, simply because publicly announcing greed-based motivations would lead to a reduced support.


Nonetheless, the greed versus grievance debate has helped to popularise a way of organising the analysis of and policy responses to violent conflicts. In principle, empirical tests can be used to evaluate the relative importance of “greed” versus “grievance”. However, in many cases the empirical tests are not rooted in theory, making it difficult to distinguish conclusively between rival theoretical explanations. The future of the field of study lies in probing the porous borders between the categories of greed and grievance. Quantitative studies are important but need to be carried out with considerable caution. Specifically, there is a need for more interdisciplinary, detailed, and historical research to understand the deep-rooted reasons for their outbreak. The single case studies should be treated through the lenses of interdisciplinary approaches, including sociological, anthropological, economic, and political analysis. Necessity brings in perceptions, that bring in subjectivity and miscalculations or a misdirection to the core concepts of the greed and grievance argument.


The greed and grievance debate reveals the issues of the so-called “rebel’s dilemma”. In this theoretical framework, rebellions are perceived and conceived as a collective action problem. According to Lichbach (1994), the “rebel’s dilemma” highlights the problem that people generally do not participate in protests, but through rational choice they weigh the costs and benefits of protesting. The government tries to prevent the rebels from succeeding in overcoming the rebel’s dilemma, whereas the rebels, to the extent that they are organized, try to find a strategy to overcome the collective action problem. In 2011, the protests in Libya finally gained momentum in a unique regional context, since the early Arab Springs protests showed that the autocratic regimes were not at all powerful in cracking down on dissidents (Kneissl 2011), lowering the perceived opportunity costs for protesters.


Ultimately, greed and grievance are two sides of the same coin: the former privatizes the rebels’ motivation and the latter underscores the exasperation of an alienated population or ethnic-social group. However, compared to the greed approach, the grievance argument offers a more complete explanation of the cause of civil wars’ outbreak, since it provides an all-encompassing analysis of the causes that have worsened the living conditions of the population heading them to revolt. Thus, the grievance argument can offer a broader explanation for the outbreak of the civil war in Libya through the stress on the suffering of the people, their needs, their concerns for their lives and their families: the omission of these aspects in the greed argument represents a noteworthy limitation of the understanding of the civil war itself. Moreover, the greed argument seems more helpful to understand the behaviour and motivations of the NATO-led coalition that intervened militarily in Libya in March 2011, apparently to implement Resolution 1973 of the United Nations Security Council, suggesting that the greed argument could be more fitting for explaining non-civil wars. Not per chance, the coalition included some key international actors with important interests in Libya – primarily France, Great Britain, and Italy – whose greed for Libya’s resource assets does not represent a veiled mystery.

In conclusion, grievances offer a more all-encompassing understanding of the civil war that broke out in Libya than the greed explanation. Gaddafi’s regime fuelled a numerous portion of the population with resentment and grudge. Economic inequalities such as an uneven income distribution, a gap between levels of study and employment, a widespread poverty, as well as socio-political-ethnic issues like the lack of political rights, nepotism, corruption, forced “Arabization”, and the struggle against all forms of oppositions and political plurality contributed significantly to the birth of grievances within the Libyan population. Gaddafi failed in avoiding the rise of grievances inside his state through allowing a broader political participation of citizens, promoting reforms for social instances, creating strong institutions for peace and stability, and enhancing policies to foster a more equal distribution of resources. The Libyan leader paid the price of these miscalculations with his own downfall and, eventually, death.


Today, after almost ten years from the outbreak of the conflict, the struggle between Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord, Khalifa Haftar’s Lybian National Army, and the numerous southern groups and tribes over the country’s control has reopened the greed and grievance debate in relation to Libya.




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About the Author(s)

Paolo Pizzolo is a Research Fellow at LUISS Guido Carli University of Rome. He holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations.



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