The European Journal of Development Research

, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 81–94 | Cite as

Violent conflict and social transformation: An institutionalist approach to the role of informal economic networks

  • Kathleen Sexsmith
Original Article


This article seeks to add to the debate on the role of informal economic networks in violent conflict. It argues that social transformations arising from conflict can be either productive or destructive, depending on the particular institutions embedded in social networks. It also emphasizes how the historical relationship of informal networks to the state shapes the institutional content of informal networks. Two case studies are used to exemplify these contrasting cases. In Somalia, customary institutions of trust and reciprocity were preserved during conflict, and contributed to economic coordination and conflict mediation. In Sierra Leone, the intrusion of patrimonial networks into community life contributed to the development of youth networks based on social misconduct and opportunism, causing social collapse.


conflict social networks informal economy Somalia Sierra Leone 


Cet article cherche à contribuer à la discussion à propos du rôle des réseaux économiques informels lors de conflits violents. Il soutient que les transformations sociales qui découlent d'un conflit peuvent être soit productives ou destructives, selon la nature des institutions imbriquées au sein des réseaux sociaux. Il souligne en particulier la manière dont la relation historique des réseaux informels avec l'Etat façonne le contenu institutionnel de ces réseaux informels. Deux études de cas contrastées sont présentéés afin d'illustrer ceci. En Somalie, les institutions traditionelles de confiance et de réciprocité furent préservées lors du conflit, et ont contribué à la coordination économique ainsi qu'à la médiation du conflit. Au Sierra Leone, l'intrusion de réseaux patrimoniaux dans la vie communautaire traditionelle suite au conflit a contribué au développement de réseaux de jeunes ayant un comportement anti-social et opportuniste, ce qui causa un effondrement social.



Kathleen Sexsmith is a Project Officer with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of IISD. I would like to thank Dr Kate Meagher for her supervision at the University of Oxford on a first draft of this essay. I would also like to thank two anonymous referees for comments that helped refine the ideas.


  1. Abdullah, I. (2004) Bush Path to Destruction: The Origin and Character of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF/SL). In: I. Abdullah (ed.) Between Democracy and Terror: The Sierra Leone Civil War. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA.Google Scholar
  2. Bakonyi, J. and Stuvoy, K. (2005) Violence and social order beyond the state: Somalia and Angola. Review of African Political Economy 32 (104): 359–382.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bangura, Y. (2004) The Political and Cultural Dynamics of the Sierra Leone War. In: I. Abdullah (ed.) Between Democracy and Terror: The Sierra Leone Civil War. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA.Google Scholar
  4. Castells, M. and Portes, A. (1989) World Underneath: The Origins, Dynamics, and Effects of the Informal Economy. In: A. Portes, M. Castells and L. Benton (eds.) The Informal Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries. Baltimore, London: The John Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Chang, H-J. (1994) State, institutions and structural change. Structural Change and Economic Dynamics 5 (2): 293–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chingono, M. (2001) Mozambique: War, Economic Change, and Development in Manica Province. In: F. Stewart, V. Fitzgerald and Associates (eds.) War and Underdevelopment, Vol. 2, Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Compagnon, D. (1998) Somali Armed Units: The Interplay of Political Entrepreneurship and Clan-based Factions. In: C. Clapham (ed.) African Guerillas. Oxford: James Currey Ltd.Google Scholar
  8. Duffield, M. (2001) Global Governance and the New Wars: The Merging of Development and Security. London: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  9. Evans, P. (1996) Government action, social capital and development: Reviewing the evidence on synergy. World Development 24 (6): 1119–1132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Keen, D. (2005) Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone. New York: Palgrave.Google Scholar
  11. Klein, A. (1999) The Barracuda's tale: Trawlers, the informal sector, and a state of classificatory disorder off the Nigerian coast. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 69 (4): 555–574.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kpundeh, S. (2004) Corruption and Political Insurgency in Sierra Leone. In: I. Abdullah (ed.) Between Democracy and Terror: The Sierra Leone Civil War. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA.Google Scholar
  13. Lefeber, L. (2003) Problems of Contemporary Development: Neoliberalism and its Consequences. In: L. North and J. Cameron (eds.) Rural Progress, Rural Decay: Neoliberal Adjustment Policies and Local Initiatives. USA: Kumarian Press.Google Scholar
  14. Lindley, A. (2005) Somalia Country Study: A Part of the Report on Informal Remittance Systems in Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Countries. ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), Ref: RO2CS008.Google Scholar
  15. Little, P. (2003) Somalia: Economy Without State. Oxford: International African Institute in association with James Currey; Bloomington: Indiana University Press; Hargeisa: Btec Books.Google Scholar
  16. Marchal, R. (2002) A Survey of Mogadishu's Economy. Nairobi: European Commission/Somali Unit.Google Scholar
  17. Marchal, R. (2007) Warlordism and terrorism: How to obscure an already confusing crisis? The case of Somalia. International Affairs 83 (6): 1091–1106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Meagher, K. (2005) Social capital or analytical liability? Social networks and African informal economies. Global Networks 5 (3): 217–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Meagher, K. (2006) Social capital, social liabilities, and political capital: Social networks and informal manufacturing in Nigeria. African Affairs 105 (421): 553–582.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Menkhaus, K. (2007) The crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in five acts. African Affairs 106 (204): 357–390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Nenova, T. (2004) Private Sector Response to the Absence of Government Institutions in Somalia. World Bank (draft paper).Google Scholar
  22. Nordstrom, C. (2004) Shadows of War: Violence, Power and International Profiteering in the Twenty-first Century, Berkeley. London: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  23. North, D.C. (1981) Structure and Change in Economic History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  24. Portes, A. (1994) The Informal Economy and its Paradoxes. In: N. Smelser and R. Swedberg (eds.) The Handbook of Economic Sociology. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Reno, W. (1995) Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Reno, W. (1997a) African weak states and commercial alliances. African Affairs 96 (383): 165–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Reno, W. (1997b) War, markets, and the reconfiguration of West Africa's weak states. Comparative Politics 29 (4): 493–510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Reno, W. (2000) Clandestine economies, violence and states in Africa. Journal of International Affairs 53 (2): 433–459.Google Scholar
  29. Reno, W. (2003a) Somalia and Survival in the Shadow of the Global Economy. QEH Working Paper Series, QEHWPS100.Google Scholar
  30. Reno, W. (2003b) Political networks in a failing state: The roots and future of violent conflict in Sierra Leone. Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft 2: 44–66.Google Scholar
  31. Richards, P. (1996) Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone. Oxford; Portsmouth: The International African Institute.Google Scholar
  32. UNDP. (2001) Human Development Report: Somalia. Kenya: UNDP Somalia Country Office.Google Scholar
  33. Warsame Yusuf, A. (2006) Local Business, Local Peace: The Peacebuilding Potential of the Domestic Private Sector: Case Study Somalia. UK: International Alert.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathleen Sexsmith
    • 1
  1. 1.International Institute for Sustainable Development

Personalised recommendations