Sexton, Renard (2016). "Aid as a Tool against Insurgency: Evidence from Contested and Controlled Territory in Afghanistan." American Political Science Review, 110(4), pp. 731–749. (link to author's copy

Abstract: Findings in political science, economics and security studies suggest that during civil war aid can be used to help establish control of contested areas and reduce levels of insurgent violence by winning the “hearts and minds” of the population. These accounts typically ignore the strategic implications of aid distribution by pro-government forces, namely that rebel groups should resist the implementation of aid projects that would undermine their position. Using a new dataset of fine-grained and geo-located violence incidents in Afghanistan and random variation in the administration of some US counter-insurgency aid, I show that insurgents strategically respond to counter-insurgency aid in contested districts by resisting through violent means. The results indicate that civilian aid only reduces insurgent violence when distributed in districts already controlled by pro-government forces; when allocated to contested districts civilian aid in fact causes a significant increase in insurgent violence. The results also indicate that the effect of counterinsurgency aid on violence varies by project type, and can be overwhelmed by macro-level strategic changes in the conflict. 

Working Papers

"The Unintended Consequences of Bottom-up Accountability: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Peru" (under review)

Abstract:  Past research suggests that increasing citizen political knowledge and coordination can improve government performance in developing countries via “bottom-up accountability,” where mobilized communities exert pressure on elected officials through democratic processes. A randomized field experiment in Peru demonstrates that interventions to promote bottom-up accountability can sometimes have unintended effects on participation, government performance and protest. I find that accountability workshops reduce participation in “participatory budgeting” processes and increase support for civil unrest as a tool for sanctioning politicians. Although the intervention increases the initiation of recalls for poor-performing mayors, these mayors respond to the recall threat by further reducing their effort.

"A New Resource Curse: How Externalities and Governance Shape Social Conflict" (under review)

Abstract:  Natural resource extraction is increasingly important in many developing countries, but harmful externalities threaten the viability of the sector. This paper articulates and finds evidence for a new `resource curse,' whereby negative side effects from resource extraction increase social conflict in nearby communities. Using micro-level data on extractive commodities, water pollution, local government quality and mining-related social conflict in Peru, this study shows that rising international prices increase conflict and pollution, but not public spending in mining areas. These effects disappear when local government is high quality, indicating that good governance can temper the effects of this new resource curse.

"How Government Reactions to Violence Worsen Social Welfare: Evidence from Peru"  with Mike Findley (UT Austin) and Rachel Wellhausen (UT Austin). (revised and resubmitted, AJPS)

Abstract: Dissident violence against a government inflicts substantial and widespread immediate harm on security forces and civilians. But the longest-lasting consequences for civilians may be indirect, due to the government’s response itself. We explore how governments trade off “butter” for “guns” in the wake of dissident violence, and, in turn, how these budgetary shifts affect local social welfare. We use newly collected subnational violence and government budgeting data for Peru, allowing attacks on soldiers that take place during the three-month national budget negotiation period to instrument for local health spending. In reduced form, using data from 2008-2012, one soldier killed implies a shift of 1.5 percent out of the local health budget, resulting in 75 additional infant deaths two years later. We also provide evidence that public opinion and voting behavior incentivize politicians to make these sacrifices in health and other social service budgets. Our results thus causally identify a budgetary mechanism that translates dissident violence into a longer-term deterioration in social welfare. The results also suggest that foreign aid could play a crucial role in supplementing regular government budgets in times of dissident violence. 

"Strategic Violence during Democratization: Evidence from Myanmar" (with Darin Christensen and Mai Nguyen).  (under review)

Abstract: Democratic transitions from military rule are often followed by violence and regularly revert back to autocracy. In this paper we explore one explanation for why this may occur: military leaders’ strategic use of violence to retain control of economically valuable regions. We find evidence of this dynamic in Myanmar, a country transitioning from four decades of military rule. Fearing that the new civilian government will assert authority over jade mining, the military initiates violence in mining townships to deter civilian control. Using geo-coded data on conflict and jade mines, we find support for this argument: as Myanmar starts to transition in 2011, we observe a sharp increase in conflicts involving the military in jade-mining areas. We address alternative explanations, including a nationwide shift in the military’s strategy, the co-location of mines and military headquarters, commodity prices, opposition to a controversial dam, and trends specific to Kachin State. We substantiate the theoretical claim that outgoing generals use instability to retain rents — a winning strategy where plausible challenges to state authority provide pretense for asserting military control over lucrative territory.

Works in Progress

  • Using ICT to Improve Well Being and Mitigate Social Conflict in the Extractives Sector of South Africa (with Darin Christensen and Graeme Blair; pilot ongoing with Oxfam South Africa, supported by Oxfam Novib)

  • Deescalating Conflict in the Philippines (with Nico Ravanilla and Dotan Haim; pilot ongoing with the Philippine National Police, supported by IPA Peace and Recovery)

  • Legalizing Informal Mining: Impediments and Implications (with Santiago Saavedra; pilot in Colombia ongoing; supported by PRDG and Colciencias)

  • Explaining and addressing social and economic conflict in post-transition Myanmar (with Darin Christensen and Mai Nguyen). Funded by the International Growth Center, being implemented in partnership with Innovations for Poverty Action, Yangon.

  • Evaluating the localized effects of German BMZ aid in northern Afghanistan using geo-coded citizen responses. (with Christoph Zuercher; data collection in progress, funded by BMZ)

  • Survey of leaders who participated in government conflict mediation workshops in Peru (Funded by the National Science Foundation, implemented in partnership with Innovations for Poverty Action, Lima.)

  •  Examining the effect of European Union aid in Afghanistan (with Allison Carnegie)
  • Examining the effects of post-conflict reparations payments in Peru (with Matthew Bird)
  • "The art of not being coerced: How outside options shape elections in weakly institutionalized
    democracies, with evidence from Paraguay and Afghanistan."
    (with Umberto Mignozetti)'
  • "Enhancing local public servants' capacity and accountability to improve execution of local government
    funds and reduce conflict"
    (with Peru Ministry of Economy and Finance)