The role of ethnicity in development

Urwah Saari

International Development Analyst

In many countries, ethnicity and religion have become one of the important features in the development of a nation. Whether it can be a positive or negative element depending on contexts such as social, culture, religion and tradition. The post-independence era, however, proved to be more difficult for countries which their borders and boundaries were divided by the colonial powers. Tarek Osman, the author of “Egypt on the brink” argues that the ignorance of the complexity of ethnic origin and religious historical conflict has brought some dreadful consequences. In this case, Osman suggests that Sykes-Picot hand made national borders using pen and ruler is simply contributed to one of the reasons for the prolonging Middle East political and civil unrest.

The secret Sykes-Pikot map of 1916 divides A for France and B for Britain. Original image from BBC

In the modern world, defining ethnicity can be simple as tick boxes in the registration form and ethnic category in some country passport or identification card. So, what’s the definition of ethnicity? Who has the right to define it? 

Max Weber tends to focus on the subjective nature of ethnicity rather than objective shared descent. This can be described as similarities of physical types or customs or both, or because of memories of colonisation and migration. Many modernisation theorists neglected ethnicity in their development theories, as argued by Björn Hettne, with the assumption it will fade away along the development process. This, however, creates what we call as ethnic fragmentation. Easterly and Levine argue that ethnic fragmentation helps explain the factor behind poor education, political instability and insufficient infrastructure.

During independence struggle, many anti-colonialist tend to disassociate ethnic identities and placed the nation’s interest above all would gain them full support against colonial suppression. Take look at India for an instant. However, we can’t ignore the fact that ethnicity has played a vital role in some countries in their way to independence. In Southeast Asia, when British Colonial trying to introduce Malayan Union in the then Malaya, main ethnic Malays formed a movement to oppose the proposal which later inspired independence aspirations, due to their understanding that Malayan Union will compromise their right as origin people and reduce Malay monarch’s power. While its neighbour Indonesia, main ethnic Java played a vital role in independence through coercive struggle from the Dutch and the Japanese. 

Failure to manage ethnic complexity in Rwanda and Yugoslavia provided a fatal blow to the nation’s state-building. From these two catastrophic wars, we need to realise that suppressing dissatisfaction is not a solution instead it can spark confrontations.

If ethnicity represents a chess piece in a chessboard, every move made by the piece must be made carefully because any mistake could end the game on the losing side.

*Featured image originally from