Group inequalities and political violence: policy challenges and priorities in Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru.


This Overview summarises the key findings and policy challenges identified by the CRISE research programme in its evaluation of three Latin American countries. The case studies selected were the three countries with the largest indigenous populations in proportionate terms: Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru. The underlying research challenge was to understand the role of horizontal or group inequality in overall acute inequality in the countries studied, and the relevance of group inequality to political violence.

The paper shows that horizontal inequalities (HIs)—political, social, economic and cultural— are deeply embedded in two of these countries, Guatemala and Peru, and have played a significant role in terrible political violence. They remain severe; indeed, political HIs have worsened in some respects with the legacy of violence and repression. In Guatemala and Peru, the pervasiveness of embedded prejudice and ways of thinking make even good policy initiatives non-functional. In Guatemala, for example, the public can be readily persuaded to disapprove of human rights initiatives because they seemingly sanction the freeing of the guilty, in the shape of young delinquents.

In Bolivia, meanwhile, an exceptional set of political and geographical circumstances has, over many decades, resulted in political accommodation mechanisms that have avoided widespread violence and led to a genuine improvement in political HIs. Social and economic inequalities have improved in ethnic terms, although the country has not been exempt from a general worsening of ‘vertical’ inequality in recent years. However, the mechanisms are unlikely to continue to work following the election in 2005 of the government of Evo Morales, with a clear indigenous base, and may have to be reinvented.

The study concludes that progressive policies could significantly change the situation, given considerable political commitment. It emphasises the need to link social and economic policies and institutional change—inequality is so deeply embedded that such complementarity is essential. The legacy of divergent pathways of economic and social progress means that, today, strong policies are needed to influence or counteract market-induced group inequalities. This Overview underlines in particular the regional dimension of this complementarity and argues that informal institutions are crucial—above all, the reality of discrimination and prejudice, conditioning social policy and institutional functioning at every level. This is the most difficult aspect, necessitating forceful political leadership and commitment.

In addition, the study highlights the importance of diversification of the economy and the role of institutional change in supporting small enterprises, especially to help them deal with the high levels of risk that they face, and to increase participation by women. All elements of delivery of social policy need to be reviewed to evaluate their vulnerability to attitudes of discrimination.

This Overview shows how much institutional change has occurred in all three countries, and can be built on. If success stories can be communicated and celebrated, cumulative progress can be fostered.


Oxford, UK: Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE). CRISE Overview No. 2, 36 pp.

Group inequalities and political violence: policy challenges and priorities in Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru.

Published 1 January 2010