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

Job Market Paper: "The Perverse Effects of Civic Education: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Peru"

Abstract:  Past research suggests that improving citizen political knowledge and coordination can increase political participation and accountability and help channel grievances through democratic processes rather than conflict. A randomized field experiment in Peru demonstrates that civic education can sometimes have perverse effects on these outcomes. I find that civic education workshops reduce participation in the district's ``participatory budgeting" process by creating a free-riding problem and increase support for protest 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. Taken together the evidence suggests that improved information and coordination of local elites is not sufficient to improve government performance where it has previous lagged.

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

Sexton, Renard.  "Global markets, local conflict: How political institutions shape extractive industries conflict, with evidence from Peru."  (under review)

Abstract:  Extractive industries have the potential to produce economic benefits, including jobs and tax revenues, but also generate local externalities that grow with international prices via greater production. In contrast with most literature on trade and domestic politics that predicts social turmoil when the global economy is weak, in this paper I provide evidence from Peru that in the extractives sector high prices cause a significant increase in social conflict. This effect manifests primarily where local governments have low capacity and low accountability. When weak, local governments do not sufficiently enforce limits on environmental pollution or appropriately compensate communities, and cannot credibly commit to doing so as prices rise. In addition, I show that acutely polluting minerals greatly drive conflict, at rate six times higher than chronic, less observable polluters. These findings shed new light on the role that local political institutions play in managing social conflict in the face of volatile international markets.

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

Abstract: Facing a democratic transition from dictatorship, we argue that the military can maintain its control of valuable rents by stoking violence. The logic, while perverse, is straightforward: the new civilian government relies on security forces to manage domestic and external threats and is, thus, reluctant to strip military elites of their authority over conflict-ridden 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 assume control of jade-mining areas and the associated rents, the military foments unrest in mining townships to deter the development of an alternative and legitimate authority. Using geocoded data on conflict and the locations of jade mines, we find support for this argument: just as Myanmar embarks on its political transition in 2011, we observe a sharp increase in conflicts involving government security forces in jade-mining areas.

Appendix: Formal model for 'Strategic Violence during Democratization' 

Works in Progress

  • 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.
  •  Examining the effect of European Union aid in Afghanistan (with Allison Carnegie)
  • Using ICT to Improve Well Being and Mitigate Social Conflict in the Extractives Sector of South Africa (with Darin Christensen and Graeme Blair)
  • Examining the effects of post-conflict reparations payments in Peru (with Matthew Bird)