January, 2004, updated April, 2017.
Distributional conflicts are conflicts over who gets what and how much they get. The item to be distributed is usually tangible -- money, land, better houses, better schools, or better jobs, for example. But the item to be distributed can be intangible as well. For example, siblings competing for a parent's love could be considered a distributional conflict. (Although the parents would likely argue that there is plenty of love to go around, the children may not see it that way.)
Distributional conflicts only become problems when there is not enough to go around. If there is plenty for everyone, then everyone takes what they need or want, and no conflict develops. But when there is not enough to satisfy everyone, and no more can be found or created, the conflict becomes a "win-lose" situation, meaning the more one party gets (that is, "wins"), the less the other party gets (or the more he or she "loses"). When the item to be lost is very important or valuable, these conflicts tend to become very intractable.
The conflict over Jerusalem, for example, is at least in part a high stakes distributional conflict. The land -- with its historical and religious significance -- is immeasurably valuable. Yet it cannot be expanded, and there is no way for one group to control it themselves without the other groups who care about the city "losing." In theory, the different groups could share control, of course, but that is very difficult to accomplish in reality, as each of the parties has, as least so far, viewed shared control as a "loss."
Conflicts over water in arid lands are also high-stakes classic distributional conflicts. In the Western United States, as well as many other arid regions, water is extremely valuable, as life cannot exist without it, and again, there is not enough to go around. Here we have endless conflicts over who gets how much water for what purpose. Although the individual disputes get resolved and a dam will get built or a city will be allowed to divert water out of a stream for its use, another dispute over the same water will almost certainly arise again later on.
The associated articles on rich-poor conflicts, and status conflicts describe the nature of those distributional conflicts in more detail. A third essay on land-tenure in the peace process describes both land ownership as a cause of conflict, and how ownership disputes are dealt with in the peacebuilding and peacemaking process.
This is an interesting article to read because the high-stakes distributional conflicts that now come first to my mind are very different. Certainly Israel/Palestine still is one, but what about inequality in the United States? That is one of the key factors--perhaps THE key factor--that scholars and pundits seem to think explains why Donld Trump was elected President in 2016. It now is driving the very divisive fights over health care, immigration, tax reform, trade, and many other issues. Similar conflicts are raging in Europe. It was high-stakes distributional conflicts that drove Brexit; it is driving the rise of far-right parties in many other countries, and it is one of several factors (identity being another key one) that is threatening the European Union itself. The next post, on inequality, will explore these issues in more depth.
-- Heidi Burgess. May 3, 2017.
Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi. "High-Stakes Distributional Issues." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/distribution-issues>.