Do Jobs Really Cure Violence?

Does giving a man a job stop him from becoming a political insurgent? The generally accepted wisdom is that it does. In fact, the U.S. and other western powers have distributed millions of dollars of foreign aid in the hopes of reducing political violence and instability. But a new working paper from Eli Berman, Joseph Felter, and Jacob Shapiro may force policymakers to reevaluate this strategy. The researchers looked at unemployment and political violence against both the government and civilians in Iraq and the Philippines. They find that unemployment is actually negatively correlated with attacks against the government and statistically unrelated to insurgent attacks against civilians. The authors explore several explanations for the negative correlation and find some evidence that high unemployment may lead to a more difficult environment for insurgents, decreasing violence. Berman, Felter, and Shapiro conclude: “The negative correlation of unemployment with violence indicates that aid and development efforts that seek to enhance political stability through short-term job creation programs may well be misguided. Development funds might be directed instead at improving the quality of local government services, thereby inducing noncombatants to share intelligence about insurgents with their government and its allies …” [%comments]


hopeless is as hopeless does


Why not do both? Perhaps more long term job growth and make government services more efficient and less redundant?

On a prima facie glance, that seems like a productive thing to do.


Perhaps it's Social Justice - including employment and a responsive and just state that decrease insurgent violence ...

The USA goes about trying to Build democracy in places like Iraq and now Afghanistan perhaps first they need to look at what the occupied nationals might see as a Just Society and try to help create that paradigm rather than insisting on the US model - one size fits all 'cos we know better one man one vote Democracy.


Kind of similar to how taking antidepressants can lead to more suicides. Take a depressed person and give them just enough of a boost to feel like they have control of their lives, so they get the courage to act.

Take a disaffected population and give it jobs, and they begin to think they can effect change...


I think it will be interesting to see how this analysis plays out over the long term. From my personal experiences in Iraq, I see that the insurgents likely view these efforts to create jobs as a threat to the needs and incentives they were providing to the populace and a diret move against their recruiting base. It is understandable that they react with a little bit of a surge in their own "direct advertising" against the threat.

I am a believer that people's loyalties will lie with the entity who fulfills their needs and provides them with the best incentive (granted this can be positive or negative). Real, sustainable employment and the resultant empowerment of the individual would give him incentive to become more positively active in his community. While initially the insurgent parallel government may exact "taxes" from the newly employed population to fund attacks, over time the legitimacy of the national government should grow with a better security situation leaving the insurgent holding an empty bag. The adage that you can't kill your way out of an insurgency goes both ways.



I have the pleasure and privilege of having as my friends here in NYC four young Bangladeshi men each around the age of 25. I am in my 50's and a 3rd generation American. My friends participated in and won the green card lottery in Bangladesh that the U. S. has open with certain nations. Each has been here approximately two years. If ever there were individuals who show that it is NOT the religion of Islam that is the problem, but rather, the fact if you take any young person and feed them on hatred and isolate them from ideas that would allow them to form their own opinions about what is true and false, it is my friends.

Each of them is as hardworking, diligent and conscientious about making a life here in the U. S. that is positive, productive and permanent as anyone might wish to see. Each of them was raised by educated parents in Bangladesh, attended college there and are continuing, at no small sacrifice and hardship financially, to strive to continue their educations in this country so they can qualify for better jobs that will ultimately enable them to afford to marry and raise their families here.

My role and goal in respect to them is, to the best of my abilities, help them learn as quickly as possible as much about the "mind set" that one needs to understand life here in America as well as to make certain they learn to speak English as perfectly as possible a soon as possible. My feeling being that without ultimately achieving a true command of English, to the point where they no longer have to think about what they are saying but are able to truly comprehend on the fly, that they will always be limited in terms of how high they can climb as well as how well they can grasp the subtle nuances of our society that make working at the highest levels possible..

Now, how does this relate to insurgents and jobs in violent countries like Iraq where the last thing the bad guy is for a young man or woman to focus on being an individual who thinks for himself, but rather surrender their reason and lives to their vicious, violent, insane cause?

Here is how. People are people are people, no matter where you go, no matter what time period you pick. Children who are raised in an atmosphere and a society that encourages them to think for themselves, as was the case in Bangladesh for my friends, naturally without coercion choose to move in a creative not destructive direction. It is a matter of personal, family and national honor to them to do well and be responsible.

Obviously, in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, where you have forces deliberately doing everything possible to undermine education and alternative ways of thinking - by throwing acid on little girls, blowing up schools etc - the difficulty of a young person being able to manifest these natural tendencies is infinitely higher and even dangerous, but the same dynamics are no less real, powerful and ever present.

The trick is to work both on the societal structure of the countries by, at the very least, create pockets within the society that are secure enough to allow those parents and their children who are open minded to exist safely and thereby over time help create more of such family structure by making the society able to provide employment gainfully. It is not an either or situation but a combination of the two.

People think we Americans are trying to create a "one size fits all" solution for the rest of the world. I don't think that is true. Basically what they get as I see it is that , we really don't care what other people do as long as they aren't hurting anyone in the process.

The key to America is that it has always been (despite our warts through the centuries) basically been about supporting individuality and a allowing one to think for oneself. As long as that paradigm exists which allows one to make mistakes, fall flat on their face in the worst ways possible out of that ultimately both individuals and nations find solutions that actually deal with the real world directly and solve problems, rather than trying to make the ever changing flux of ever changing reality fit some ossified way of thinking some long dead prophet thought up in the seventh century and his followers have been committed to never question since that time.

But then, perhaps that is what makes our approach so threatening to those who convince young men and women to strap bombs on their bodies rather than use their minds to explore ideas and spend their lives working, getting married, having children and living their lives as productive adults.

They innately realize that in the war of ideas those who cling to fixed ideas and try to make reality and people conform to it haven't a chance when in competition with someone or a culture that doesn't try to force an individual to think any one way but pursue his or her own version of reality and lead their life accordingly.



I think Shaffner's got it right.

When the U.S. is the force behind growing employment, those who would be insurgents must act fast to ensure they are still the ones in charge of hearts and minds.
Long term, I can't imagine that a place who's people have been gainfully employed having home grown insurgents.


"Real, sustainable employment and the resultant empowerment of the individual would give him incentive to become more positively active in his community." Schaffner #5

Not necessarily. Note the abysmally low voting rate in the United States. Here the prevailing attitude is as long as you don't mess with me I don't care. On second thought that may be the usual attitude for a human.

Samsara, #6, You have good points and I generally agree but I have yet to see a success story. The approach sounds tremendously expensive and very long term. I also don't know how it can be introduced externally.


Remarkable timing as I just read today an old research paper that touched upon this on my morning commute. It was by some Freaky guy named Steven Levitt. I'm not sure if anyone else here knows of him, but he wrote the following comment below. I'm sure with enough time one could trace that assertion of fact back to the source in his paper's bibliography.

"High unemployment rates are associated with increases in crimes where monetary gain is the objective, but are negatively related to other crimes", page 21 of Why do increased arrest rates appear to reduce crime: deterrence, incapacitation, or measurement error? NBER Working Paper 5268. September 1995


I tend to agree with Shaffner. From my own experience in Iraq I noticed that many insurgents doing the actual fighting were not doing so because of a strong political motivation but rather as a method required to feed a family. Often, there were not a lot of employment options available and the insurgent base was the only employer. By focusing on employment you can reduce the number of actual fighters available to the true extremist. This is not to imply that increasing the ability of the government to provide local services is not important. A multi-faceted approach will provide the best chance of achieving long term stability.

Lowell Howard

I think Shaffner (#5) and Bennett (#10) have it right.

I've had two tours in Iraq, and my observation was that public projects, while undoubtedly beneficial to resuscitating a struggling populace, ignore the most basic level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the physiological.

In order to feed their families, Iraqi men did what they felt was necessary to provide a basic, subsistence-level existence for their children and themselves. In 2004, I experienced this first hand while paying Iraqi laborers $5-6 per day to do manual labor. Legitimate opportunities were few, and insurgent leaders were more than willing to pay an unemployed local national up to $150 (about one month's salary at the time) to launch rockets / mortars into our base camps or set up an IED (improvised explosive device).

So, does giving a man a job stop him from becoming a political insurgent? Perhaps not. But left without options, a man will do almost anything to survive.


Mark S.

If foreign aid enters a corrupt system wouldn't we expect it to enhance income differences and resentment among those who get nothing ?


I haven't read the paper to which you are referring so if I am repeating their arguments I apologize.

I wonder if this is variation of that old saw from Ted Gurr about relative deprivation (1970?). Those in absolute deprivation don't have time to rebel but given visible inequities and a bit of free time they join right up. This of course oversimplifies Gurr but it has been a long time.

Skocpol also adopts a more historically constrained version of Gurr's argument in her specification of "revolutionary situation" if I remember correctly.

There are also counterintuitive examples from Africa whereby the people most likely to form and lead nationalist anti-colonial revolutions were from the extreme minority of individuals who were selected by the colonial regime to receive education and other privileges. They met Gurr's conditions of political mobilization, for sure, but others have hypothesized they also met a sort of ideological relative deprivation: they learned about the liberal political ideals of the colonial home country--Locke, Rousseau, Mill, et al--but realized pretty quickly that those same ideals were not being applied to colonial governance and formed political organizations and in some instances paramilitary organizations in response to this asymmetrical application of ideology.

The point of all this is that there are several counterintuitive effects of providing humanitarian aid and employment that can lead to insurgency or other forms of social disruption and, in extreme cases, wars, rebellion and revolution. This is not, of course, an argument for not supplying those things but rather that they need to hire more sociologists like you to assess the effects of programs in order to make sure unintended consequences don't overtake the intended policy goals.



Steve is right. Rebellions tend to happen when things start to improve. For example, Russians rebelled against communism after glasnost. Ireland is another example. People start to feel empowered and the have more resources to use in the rebellion.


Most revolutionary and terrorist leaders have been well educated and often times wealthy men, rarely (though I did not say NEVER) poor men. Upper middle class at least.