“foreign aid can improve human development but rarely meaningfully brings political stabilization”

A valuable new study by Sexton and Zürcher in AJPS, pushing back on a focus on aid/COIN that always struck me as kind of oddly-exaggerated – not trivial or unimportant, but pretty secondary compared to the big politics of conflict. My speculative guess is that the development/aid/COIN nexus of the ~2005-~2016 period was attractive because 1) it could be manipulated and made policy-relevant in ways that larger structural variables couldn’t (“run more local projects” is more doable than “remake the ethnic composition of the Iraqi state”; plus, “build governance and legitimacy” also sounds nicer in Foreign Affairs than “surveil, penetrate, and shatter local networks to establish the hegemony of regime power”), which was desirable in substantial swathes of the policy community and 2) for similar reasons, it provided methodological opportunities for inference that were desirable in academia.


“Prevalent counterinsurgency theories posit that small development aid projects can help stabilize regions in conflict. A widely assumed mechanism runs through citizen attitudes, often called “winning hearts and minds,” where aid brings economic benefits and sways public perceptions, leading to more cooperation and, eventually, less violence. Following a preregistered research design, we test this claim using difference-in-differences, leveraging original survey data, and new geocoded information about infrastructure projects in northern Afghanistan. We find that aid improves perceived economic conditions but erodes attitudes toward government and improves perceptions of insurgents. These attitudinal effects do not translate into changes in violence or territorial control. Testing mechanisms, we find projects with robust local consultation have fewer negative attitudinal effects, as do health and education projects. These findings challenge the “hearts and minds” theory but complement the wider literature on legitimacy, suggesting that foreign aid can improve human development but rarely meaningfully brings political stabilization.”

Jaffrey on vigilantism

Sana Jaffrey (on whose dissertation committee I was lucky enough to be!) has a great piece on vigilantism in Comparative Politics, part of a special issue on collective vigilantism in global comparative perspective. Check it out:

“Existing scholarship on vigilantism focuses on explaining factors that push citizens into the streets to take the law into their own hands. This article complements these theories by examining fear of reprisals that can keep vigilantes off the streets. It argues that vigilantism becomes rife when vigilantes find a systematic way to collude with state officials to obtain impunity. Qualitative data from Indonesia illustrate how street-level policemen grant selective impunity for vigilantism to gain public support for dispensing their more pressing duties. Contrary to conventional wisdom that links state-building to a decline in vigilantism, analysis of a sub-national dataset of 33,262 victims of vigilantism in Indonesia shows that a rapid expansion of the state’s coercive presence is associated with higher levels of vigilante violence.”

Trends in arms flows in Asia: new SIPRI data

From SIPRI’s regular updates on arms transfers:

Asia and Oceania still the top importing region

Asia and Oceania received 41 per cent of major arms transfers in 2018–22, a slightly smaller share than in 2013–17. Despite the overall decline in transfers to the region, there were marked increases in some states, and marked decreases in others. Six states in the region were among the 10 largest importers globally in 2018–22: India, Australia, China, South Korea, Pakistan and Japan. 

Arms imports by East Asian states increased by 21 per cent between 2013–17 and 2018–22. Arms imports by China rose by 4.1 per cent, with most coming from Russia. However, the biggest increases in East Asia were by US treaty allies South Korea (+61 per cent) and Japan (+171 per cent). Australia, the largest arms importer in Oceania, increased its imports by 23 per cent.

‘Growing perceptions of threats from China and North Korea have driven rising demand for arms imports by Japan, South Korea and Australia, notably including for long-range strike weapons,’ said Siemon T. Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme. ‘The main supplier for all three is the USA.’

India remains the world’s top arms importer, but its arms imports declined by 11 per cent between 2013–17 and 2018–22. This decline was linked to a complex procurement process, efforts to diversify arms suppliers and attempts to replace imports with local designs. Imports by Pakistan, the world’s eighth largest arms importer in 2018–22, increased by 14 per cent, with China as its main supplier.”

Indonesia’s view of the US

This is a really interesting Lowy Institute piece by Evan Laksmana. Important points for US-based analysts to keep in mind, with relevance to a number of other South and Southeast Asian states:

“Indonesia is unlikely to view the United States as a benevolent provider of regional security in the way Australia does. Indonesia’s troubled past with the United States – and its geo-strategic vulnerability and domestic fragility – means that Jakarta will from time to time view the United States as another interventionist great power. Senior policymakers still recite how the United States kicked Indonesia while it was down during the Asian financial crisis, or how the disastrous Iraq War and the non-ratification of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea undermined the rules-based order.

Defence policymakers privately cite instances where the United States was seen as intruding into Indonesian airspace as one of the rationales for Indonesian defence modernisation. The prospect in 2019 of the US sanctioning Indonesia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) as the country was finalising its purchase of Russian arms brought back the bitter experience of the US military embargo in the 1990s and 2000s. Cold War memories, of US support for regional rebels in the 1950s, have not faded either.

Despite this history, Indonesia-US defence ties remain strong. In the past two decades, more than 7,300 Indonesian students trained in some 200 different US military education and training programs. Indonesia has held more than 100 major military exercises with the United States and imported close to $1 billion in arms and equipment.

But stronger defence ties do not necessarily correspond or lead to “further alignment”, as was implied in a meeting between the US and Indonesian defence ministers late last year. Defence cooperation with the United States may fulfil specific needs – from professional readiness to modern arms – but Jakarta does not always see American military presence as a net positive, nor will it accept that its security can only be guaranteed by it.”

Books I’ve recently reviewed or blurbed

I’ve reviewed and blurbed several books in the last few months. They’re all excellent – very different from one another while grappling with a set of fundamental questions around order and violence. Check them out:

The junta’s air war

A grim BBC report on a bombing in Sagaing, only the most recent of a sequence of bloody air attacks by the Myanmar military:

“Residents uploaded video showing scenes of appalling carnage, with dismembered bodies lying on the ground and several buildings on fire.

“Please call out if you are still alive, we are coming to help you,” they can he heard shouting as they walked through Pa Zi Gyi looking for victims of the attack.

They said that they tried to count the bodies, but that this was difficult because so many were in pieces, scattered among shredded clothing and burned motorbikes.

Pa Zi Gyi had been packed with people from nearby communities attending a ceremony to mark the opening of a new People’s Defence Forces (PDF) office.”