Felter: Development projects don't always win 'hearts and minds'

Governments and multilateral donor organizations are increasingly targeting development aid to conflict affected areas with the hope that this aid will help government efforts to reduce conflict and stabilize these areas. 

The expectation is that implementing development projects such as roads, schools and hospitals will increase popular support for the government – effectively  “winning hearts and minds” – and reduce support for insurgents making it more difficult for them to recruit rebels and carry out attacks.

Joe Felter, a Senior Research Scholar at CISAC, with Benjamin Crost at the University of Illinois and Patrick Johnston from the RAND Corporation, challenge this conventional wisdom in their article in the June edition of the American Economic Review: Aid Under Fire: Development Projects and Civil Conflict.

Felter and his coauthors provide evidence that a “winning hearts and minds” strategy can sometimes backfire. When insurgents believe the successful implementation of government-sponsored development projects will boost support for the government and undermine their position, they have incentives to attack or otherwise sabotage those projects, thus exacerbating conflict in the short term.

Ironically, increases in violence associated with government-sponsored development efforts can in some cases be interpreted as an indicator that these efforts are effectively targeting insurgent vulnerabilities.