Sexton, Renard. "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.
Coverage: Washington Post ; U.S. Institute of Peace

Sexton, Renard, Rachel Wellhausen and Mike Findley. "How Government Reactions to Violence Worsen Social Welfare: Evidence from Peru." American Journal of Political Science, 63(2), pp. 353-367. (link to author’s copy)

Abstract: Dissident violence inflicts many costs on society, but some of the longest‐lasting consequences for civilians may be indirect, due to the government's response. We explore how government policy responses affect social welfare, specifically through budgetary shifts. Using subnational violence and budgeting data for Peru, we demonstrate that attacks on soldiers during the budget negotiation period drive a shift from local social services, especially health, to defense. One soldier fatality implies a 0.13 percentage point reduction in the local health budget share (2008–12). Health budget cuts due to a single soldier fatality result in 76 predicted additional infant deaths 2 years later. We show that the effect on health budgeting operates through decreases in women's use of health facilities and postnatal services. We offer evidence that Peru's coercive response indirectly harms civilians due to butter‐to‐guns budgetary shifts. Our results identify a budgetary mechanism that translates dissident violence into a deterioration in social welfare.
Coverage: Axios ; Nature Human Behaviour 'Research Highlight' ; Political Violence at a Glance

"Strategic Violence during Democratization: Evidence from Myanmar" (with Darin Christensen and Mai Nguyen). World Politics, 71(2), pp. 332-366. (link to author’s copy)

Abstract: Democratic transitions are often followed by conflict. In this paper we explore one explanation for this fighting: the military’s 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 geocoded 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.

Working Papers

"Unpacking the Local Resource Curse: How Externalities and Governance Shape Social Conflict" (Conditionally accepted, Journal of Conflict Resolution)

Abstract: Natural resource extraction is increasingly important in many developing countries, but harmful externalities threaten the viability of the sector. This paper examines the drivers and mechanisms for the `local 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.
Coverage: Washington Post

Abstract: Recent studies have shown that sharing politician or bureaucrat performance information with voters seldom succeed at generating substantial bottom-up pressure and improved government performance. This study tests whether instead equipping local elites with information about the procedural workings of decentralized political processes allows them to participate more effectively and generate accountability pressure. A randomized field experiment in Peru demonstrates that this information can sometimes have unintended effects on participation, government performance and protest. This study finds that training workshops in fact reduce participation in local ``participatory budgeting" processes, reduce confidence in local institutions 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. The evidence indicates that high expectations about the functioning of local democracy, when not met in practice, prompt a strategic withdrawal from poorly perceived processes and into direct action.

"The Local Politics of Populism: Evidence from Duterte’s War on Drugs in the Philippines” (draft completed, working paper will be up mid-June)

Abstract: In recent years, populist politicians have won elections in numerous countries on the strength of signature, often norm-defying, policy proposals. Although effective at mobilizing supporters at election time, these policies can be difficult to implement in practice. Examining the case of the Philippines, we find evidence that local politicians who are locked out of establishment patronage networks take the lead in implementing populist policies. Taking advantage of a natural experiment, we find that municipal mayors from independent or small parties execute President Rodrigo Duterte's signature ``War of Drugs" more than 40 percent more aggressively than those from the establishment Liberal Party. These independent mayors receive nearly 50 percent less public works appropriations than establishment-linked mayors, and struggle to achieve re-election through traditional patronage politics. Using data from the upcoming 2019 mayoral election campaign and ensuing results, we will find out whether these non-establishment mayors get political support in turn from Duterte allies, and succeed at securing reelection.

Works in Progress

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

  • 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)

  • The art of not being coerced: How outside options shape elections in weakly institutionalized
    democracies, with evidence from Paraguay and Afghanistan.
    (with Umberto Mignozetti)

  • The Political Economy of the Philippines Drug War (with Nico Ravanilla and Dotan Haim)

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

  • Meta-analysis of post-conflict peacebuilding interventions (with Mike Findley)

Pre-analysis / Pre-registration

  • Pre-analysis Plan (Concept Note) for “The political economy of the Philippines Drug War” written 15 Jan 2019 link

  • PAP for “Evaluating the localized effects of German BMZ aid in northern Afghanistan using geo-coded citizen responses.” (2018) link to registry

  • PAP for "Decentralization, Elite Participation and Democratic Disillusionment: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Peru" (2016) link to registry