IG’s Peace Blog

Peace and its many aspects

More on Burton and the Middle East

A few days ago a wrote a short post about the Middle East and mentioning John Burton.  Well, shortly thereafter I wrote a somewhat longer article on the same subject, and I thought I would also share that here.


Human Needs and Events in the Middle East and North Africa

Like much of humanity, I have observed recent events in the Middle East and North Africa with both exhilaration and trepidation.  It is clear that change is occurring; but only a dyed in the wool optimist could think that positive outcomes are assured.  Too much that was “given” is now called into question.  Regimes in place for decades have been swept away or forced to barricade themselves behind walls and arms.  Autocracy seems to be on the defensive in a region where it was, in one form or another, the norm; and where countries considered “leaders of the free world” rationalized alliances with and support for dictators (and, by the way, realized great profits through arms sales and other contracts).

The implications of these events are far reaching indeed, since they may re-cast diplomacy in the region and beyond.  Judging from early “fall out” (the resignation of a French cabinet minister because of ties to the former regime in Tunisia is instructive in this regard), it may well become more difficult for the West to justify political and commercial ties with regimes that have bad (to horrific) human rights records, etc… This, in itself, would be very significant since at every stage of the emergence of the contemporary human rights regime, there has been opposition from those who argued that politics is inherently a dirty business and that the promotion of national interest should not be constrained by moral considerations.  Of course, the “international community” has articulated for some time a discourse of democracy and human rights, despite the many flagrant contradictions in the foreign policies of its leading members.  However, now, I suspect, the gap between theory and practice will close further; if only because dictators may no longer seem to be good political and economic investments.

Another striking aspect of current events is how surprised leading powers appear to have been by the scope and effectiveness of the various popular uprisings.  As with the rapid fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late ’80s and early ‘90s, almost nobody saw this coming.  There have been some preliminary analyses of how viral social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc…) enabled and accelerated the process, and I’m sure much more will be learned in the near future.  However, what should I think, be of concern, was that before the first wave of events very few commentators seemed to suspect that an end was in sight for these regimes—that they could not perpetrate themselves indefinitely.  This blind spot existed despite events in Eastern Europe, South Africa and elsewhere.  Here is where I think Peace Studies was to some degree “ahead”.  There is much work in our field indicating that human beings will not tolerate human rights abuse for an indefinite period of time.  If you add in the technological enablers, one can see it was only a matter of time till change came.  In this regard, I want to highlight specifically John Burton’s human needs theory (while acknowledging there are several other writers whose work also provides insight), since it seems to me to have been ahead of the curve in providing a framework in which current events can be seen to make sense.

Burton (1990: 23) starts from the premise “…that there are limits to the extent to which the human person, acting separately or within a wider ethnic or national community, can be socialized or manipulated…”; and “…that there are human development needs that must be satisfied and catered for by institutions, if these institutions are to be stable, and if societies are to be significantly free of conflict.” While acknowledging that this is still a new and contested research area, Burton presented a plausible list of needs. First, human beings require a sense of security and of identity. Second, since people have a generic drive to learn, they require a consistent response from the environment, without which learning is impossible. Third, from their social context people require both recognition and valued relationships, or bonding. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, individuals require (some) control over their environments in order to insure that their needs are fulfilled (Burton, 1990: 47 and 95) (1).

If, on balance, needs are met within a social institution (government, family, corporation, etc…), the institution receives support and is consolidated and perpetuated. If, however, needs are not met, the institution loses support and legitimacy, and confronts increasing opposition. In the latter case, authorities may react with repression and coercion, but if an institution is “de-legitimated” for enough people, conflict cannot be resolved this way. Rather, the institutional structures have to evolve, sooner or later, to more fully accommodate the needs of the people. To Burton (1990: 127), legitimacy is a dynamic, rather than a static, condition which “stresses the reciprocal nature of relations with authorities, the support given because of the services they render, and respect for legal norms when these are legitimized norms.” He contrasts this with a static notion of legality which “…has associated with it…loyalty to a sovereign or formal leader right or wrong, elitism, the common good and the national interest as interpreted by elites…” (1990: 127).

Furthermore, while a demand for democracy is a common theme in the current protests, and is undoubtedly an important part of positive change, Burton, suggests it does not, in itself, guarantee legitimacy for institutions of governance.  Rather he argues that conventional representative democracy is only effective in a society with “…relative ethnic homogeneity, classlessness and equality…”; and this model alone is not able to guarantee institutional legitimacy “…in a society that contains major income differences, and in which minorities are unrepresented but must observe the norms of a majority” (1998: 4) — conditions characteristic of many transitional countries. In summary, Burton’s work indicates that social reform which goes further than conventional Western models of governance to meet human needs is necessary if the deep-seated conflicts of the Middle Eastern societies currently in upheaval are to be transformed into more peaceful and creative social relations.

Early on, Burton emphasized that there were two fundamentally different approaches to the analysis of conflict.  Either conflict is due to inherent human aggressiveness and can, at best, be controlled; or, as outlined above, it results from inappropriate social institutions that frustrate human needs. The former position can be (and has been) used to justify coercion and elite control in society, but the latter points out a direction for positive change (Burton, 1998: 1). His analysis is compelling for the countries currently “making news” since their historic turning points have been reached through the collapse of overtly coercive systems. This fact, in itself, lends prima facie support to Burton’s second premise, and I would argue that this has been demonstrated several times in recent decades.  Perhaps it is time that more policymakers and commentators take note.  Finally, looking forward, if the institutions of civil society can define and focus attention on needs-related issues, such as human rights and sustainable development, and hold new public institutions accountable for steady progress in these areas, there may be grounds for cautious optimism about the region’s future.

(1)    His, and others, later work expanded and refined this initial list but the core elements remain.


Burton, John. 1990. Conflict: Resolution and Provention. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Burton, John. 1998. “Conflict Resolution: the Human Dimension. “International Journal of Peace Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, January, pp. 1-5.


March 7, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] days ago I wrote a few things about events in the Middle East and human needs.  Well, what is going on–and shows no signs of letting up–raises many other issues as […]

    Pingback by Signs of the times « IG’s Peace Blog | March 30, 2011 | Reply

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