Book Review - On the Fault Line

All countries have societal divisions. But why do these "fault lines" cause friction in certain states and not others? Why are some parts of the world more prone to violent conflict? According to the editors of this enlightening study, various differences have to be taken into account – race, religion, ethnicity, wealth, class and power – while historical factors also play an important part. Africa's colonial history still affects many states – it has suffered more internal conflict than anywhere else. Today, the authors note, the most widespread bloodshed is caused by violence within nations rather than wars between nations.

On the Fault Line is a series of essays that illuminate the diverse range of contemporary fault lines. While a little more than half of the book focuses on Africa, there are also chapters on Northern Ireland, Canada and Indonesia and a section dedicated to "Transition and Divergence in the Middle East". The editors claim that the book's main objective is "to help leaders and decision makers convert fault lines from security problems to political problems". Each contributor offers pragmatic advice, specific to their area of expertise, on how to manage these divisions.

The consensus is that fault-line violence can be prevented by ensuring that the "constituency of losers", what Joel D Barkan refers to as "the 'smalls' and the 'have nots'", does not become too large. Good governance, they argue, and the fair distribution of resources, can dramatically diffuse the threat of societal violence.

Various contributors suggest that while international intervention can be helpful, it needs to be flexible and external forces should not presume that what works in one state will work in another. Asher Susser gives a persuasive summary in her essay "Israel, Jordan and Palestine": "All those involved should ... study the limitations, constraints, desires, aspirations and red lines of the players and make their best effort to help them get where they would like to go." Others conclude that too much outside interference can exacerbate the situation. J Peter Pham, for instance, recommends that Somalis be given the space "to make their own determination about their future political arrangements".

The suggestion that the promotion of democracy is the best way to avert violent conflict is nothing new, but On the Fault Line offers a detailed and cogent analysis, case-by-case, as to how this might be best achieved.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday 22 January 2012