“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.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s