Do Working Men Rebel? Insurgency and Unemployment in Iraq and the Philippines

Eli Berman, Michael Callen, Joseph H. Felter, Jacob N. Shapiro

NBER Working Paper No. 15547
Issued in November 2009, Revised in December 2011
NBER Program(s):Labor Studies, Political Economy

Most aid spending by governments seeking to rebuild social and political order is based on an opportunity-cost theory of distracting potential recruits. The logic is that gainfully employed young men are less likely to participate in political violence, implying a positive correlation between unemployment and violence in locations with active insurgencies. We test that prediction in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Philippines, using survey data on unemployment and two newly-available measures of insurgency: (1) attacks against government and allied forces; and (2) violence that kills civilians. Contrary to the opportunity-cost theory, the data emphatically reject a positive correlation between unemployment and attacks against government and allied forces (p<.05%). There is no significant relationship between unemployment and the rate of insurgent attacks that kill civilians. We identify several potential explanations, introducing the notion of insurgent precision to adjudicate between the possibilities that predation on the one hand, and security measures and information costs on the other, account for the negative correlation between unemployment and violence in these three conflicts.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w15547

Published: “Do Working Men Rebel? Unemployment and Insurgency in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Philippines.” (with Jacob Shapiro, Joseph Felter and Michael Callen), Journal of Conflict Resolution , August 2011 vol. 55 no. 4 496-528.

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