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Spatial poverty traps and ethnic conflict traps: lessons from Northern Ghana's 'Blood Yams'

Working paper series: ‘Spatial Poverty Traps: What Are They and What Can Be Done About Them?'

Jay Oelbaum


This paper considers linkages between the spatial dimensions of poverty and war in the conflict-prone Northern areas of Ghana. More specifically, the paper focuses on the Northern Region proper. The investigation centres upon one specific conflict, the ‘Guinea Fowl War’ of 1994, which was the most violent episode in the country’s history. The work examines how this conflict relates to changes in the region’s poverty profile. It does so by paying particular attention to agricultural production, consumption poverty and infrastructure accessibility in the Northern Region under economic reforms. The paper produces a counterintuitive conclusion about the relationship between changes in poverty, interethnic inequality and warfare in this region. Many existing arguments about the relationship between remoteness, poverty and insecurity established in the conflict and spatial poverty literature are valid. However, in contradistinction to most analyses, the evidence presented here indicates that the war in question was not caused primarily by the increasing marginalisation of economic agents in the region but rather by pressures related to increasing opportunities for income generation, poverty reduction and national integration under economic reform. These gains created friction in the region’s ranked ethnic system and put local exclusionary tenure and politico-institutional arrangements under strain. 

The analysis has important implications for strategies to escape from spatial poverty traps because it finds that the most effective route for escaping poverty – the participation in agriculture markets – also generates conflict. Conflict in turn generates poverty and reverses economic gains. This fact is particularly worrisome because the crop in question in this instance, the yam, is both traded and locally consumed. This crop is thus understood to be an especially valuable vehicle of pro-poor growth. 

Notwithstanding the fact that the paper can be interpreted as dismal in its outlook, the analysis holds out useful lessons for stakeholders. Five general recommendations are made here based on the findings laid out in this work. These are cast at a broad level of generality but can direct donor agendas.

This paper is a joint Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and CPRC Working Paper Series on ‘Spatial Poverty Traps: What Are They and What Can Be Done About Them'.

Publication Type(s)

CPRC Working Paper


intergenerational transmission of poverty poverty traps growth conflict Ghana Spatial poverty traps series

ISBN: 978-1-907288-08-1


1 Spatial poverty traps and ethnic conflict traps PDF 483.9 KB

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