Do Nightlights Emissions Enlighten? Exploring the effect of local economic conditions on violence against civilians during civil war

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Politics


Why do rebels and state forces abduct, maim, and even kill civilians during civil war? What can the international community and individual states do to protect those civilians? Estimates of civilian casualties range from 750,000 deaths since 1989 to 22 million victims since 1945. Policy-makers from civil war affected states, development institutions, and security officials are interested in protecting local communities and preventing the causes of violence against civilians. While it is difficult to intervene directly into active zones of internal conflict, building resilience in local communities through economic development programs either before or in the aftermath of conflict constitutes a plausible strategy to protect civilians.

In order to develop such strategies, we need to better understand the link between local economic conditions and violence against civilians. Although conflict researchers put a lot of weight on the influence of economic conditions when explaining the outbreak of civil wars, these theories do not carry over into explaining patterns of violence during conflict. The lack of appropriate and reliable data is one reason for this mismatch.

This project will create the important precondition of valid and reliable data on local economic conditions to assess the economics-violence link. The innovative new dataset will triangulate satellite-measured nightlights data as a time-varying proxy for economic development with both qualitative and quantitative information from Uganda. To do so the investigators combine the experience of a historian with crucial local knowledge on Uganda, a geographer who is an expert in Geographic Information Systems, and a political scientist intimately familiar with the theory and the empirical data on violence against civilians.

At the same time, the project will build capacity among researchers and students from GW4 universities (Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth) and Makerere University in Uganda as well as development practitioners from UK governmental and non-governmental organisations to work with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The investigators will develop four audience-targeted training workshops to equip the aforementioned stakeholders with the ability to explore important development and security research problems on their own using geographic data.

Planned Impact

Exploring the link between local economic development and violence against civilians promises improving development interventions. Recognizing how we can reliably measure local economic conditions in lower income countries such as Uganda will have positive externalities for a wide area of development and security challenges. This research will contribute to better detection of high-risk areas for civilians in intrastate war zones, enabling security officials to deploy peacekeepers more effectively. It will also contribute to efforts to design better risk assessments for insurance providers of high-risk environments. As a result, this research project will benefit several groups of stakeholders in the UK, Europe.

1. Policy-makers and security practitioners
Through the activities set out in the Pathways to Impact, this group of stakeholders, including NGOs working in areas of conflict, in particular the International Crisis Group, Saferworld, and Independent Conflict Research and Analysis, security policy think tanks such as the Royal United Services Institute and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, national government agencies including UK's Ministry of Defence, the Defence Committee of the German Bundestag, and the international organizations such as the European Union's Conflict Early Warning System and NATO's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps will benefit from research results that enable (1) better identification of high-risk areas for civilians in civil war zones and (2) improve the ability of policy-makers to deploy peacekeepers to those areas where civilians will be most vulnerable.
Thus, government and international organizations might benefit from better strategic planning opportunities in conflict situations, and as a result, a lower economic burden for the military operations. Consider, for example, deploying troops to protect the local population in large states such as the DRC. By now, it is known that violence against civilians occurred long after the official cessation of hostilities (cf. Autesserre 2007). Local knowledge of high-vulnerability areas might have allowed peacekeepers to more effectively pursue their mandate to protect the local population.

2. Development professionals
The UK government's Department for International Development takes an active role in post-conflict reconstruction efforts in Uganda through the Post-Conflict Development and the Expanding Social Protection programs. Our research results will contribute to target development efforts where they will most likely protect civilians should civil war recur to Uganda. Moreover, it will create an invaluable data and visualisation resource helpful in other development projects. Furthermore, organisations from Uganda dedicated to local development such as Facilitation for Peace and Development and the Great Lakes Institute of Peace Studies will benefit from our findings due to their high local accuracy.

3. Insurance and risk analysis companies
The investigators will use their contracts to representatives of Swiss Re, Lloyds, and Cytora to engage with insurance professionals and risk analysts to improve risk assessment models for regions and states affected by civil war violence. Frequently development and relief workers visit these states to help the local population. Both the aforementioned and other insurance risk analysis companies represented by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) will benefit from the insights of the validation exercise that will provide more accurate data on local economic conditions, which may be useful beyond its application to explain violence against civilians. Furthermore, the subnational research design of our study offers the potential to increase the accuracy of risk assessments.


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