Your aid dollars at work… suppressing voters

Colombia receives more U.S. military aid than all but Israel and Egypt. That aid is allocated in an unusual way: to specific brigades and bases of the Colombian armed forces. I wish I’d noticed that. Instead, I learn the fact in a new paper by Suresh Naidu and Oeindrila Dube.

With town-by-town variation in military aid, Dube and Naidu can look how annual changes affect local violence and politics. The result?

a 1% increase in US military assistance increases paramilitary attacks by 1.5% more in base municipalities, and lowers turnout for mayoral elections by .2% and .12% more in militarily and electorally contested regions

Their intuition: military aid indirectly helps paramilitary groups carry out political attacks and intimidate voters.

On the plus side, this at least suggests our aid is effective at something.

I wouldn’t say such evidence damns Plan Colombia. Fighting drug-funded insurgents is ugly but important. You don’t always get to pick your allies. But it suggests the U.S. might have a greater obligation to promote local democracy and safety alongside its military aid (and no, not by the military themselves).

Suresh is on the economics and political science job markets, and is easily one of the smartest and most creative scholars I know. Interview this man.

17 thoughts on “Your aid dollars at work… suppressing voters

  1. I would be interested in seeing their econometric model. What variables did they include to address OVB? Spurious factors they couldn’t control for?

  2. Oeindrilla, not Oeidrilla. It’s an unusual name, granted, but I’d be a little pissed if I uncovered such a beautiful natural experiment and then Chris Blatmann went and spelled my name wrong.

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  4. “I wouldn’t say such evidence damns Plan Colombia. Fighting drug-funded insurgents is ugly but important. You don’t always get to pick your allies. But it suggests the U.S. might have a greater obligation to promote local democracy and safety alongside its military aid (and no, not by the military themselves).”

    By that standard it isn’t clear what would render Plan Columbia useless. There is evidence (to which this paper contributes) that US Aid is perpetuating the conflict and is having a marginal effect improving human security in Columbia and decreasing drug exports. There is a strong indication in the paper was that increased US funding has no significant effect on guerilla attacks. That would call into question the efficacy of Plan Columbia, if not the purpose of the entire endeavour.

    pp. 14
    “Moreover, it suggests that US military aid has a differential effect in terms of strengthening paramilitary capacity rather than guerilla capacity, which is consistent with the idea that aid channeled through the Colombian military reaches paramilitary groups specifically. ”

    from the Cato Institute

    “Plan Colombia may have increased security for some of Colombia’s citizens, but from a counternarcotics standpoint, it was a failure. It certainly didn’t decrease the amount of cocaine being produced in Colombia. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime [pdf], Colombia produced 617 metric tons of cocaine in 2001, and 610 metric tons of cocaine in 2007. Plan Colombia’s stated goal was to reduce production by 50 percent in six years. The UN’s statistics are corroborated by the research of the International Crisis Group in its March 2008 report on drugs in Latin America, Losing the Fight [pdf], as well as reports [pdf] from think tanks such as the Center for International Policy and the Washington Office on Latin America. The United States is currently negotiating an expanded military presence in Colombia – a presence that wouldn’t be necessary if Plan Colombia had been a true success.”

  5. What is lost in this analysis is whether the aid is in response to increased activity prior to the localities receiving the funding. Also, if the aid is delivered first and violence and activity picks up it could simply be the local military units using their increased funds and capability to go out into the field. This would indicate an uptick in violence without the necessity of the aid having caused it. If the aid is received after increased guerilla and paramilitary activity, then that is simply an indication that US aid dollars are going where necessary. It is dangerous to correlate violence with decreased political activity. Future counterinsurgency activity could shift the balance and get people back to the polls.

  6. The effects are very small, aren’t they? The suggested causal mechanism does not make the world a better place but then .2% lower turnout is not a big deal.

  7. In a macro setting, people should do some serious thinking whether Plan Colombia isn’t paving the way for Uribe to become a “caudilho” as he is heading for a third term in office (note: he changed the law to allow for his reelection and now is changing it again to allow for his re-relection). .

  8. Some points:

    1) Chris – you should correct Oeindrila’s name on your post!

    2) Andrew says: “What is lost in this analysis is whether the aid is in response to increased activity prior to the localities receiving the funding.”

    But in the paper, the authors actually pay a lot of attention this this possibility. First of all, they find that municipalities with Bases see a rise in paramilitary attacks compared to non-base muni’s precisely when overall aid rises; but this overall aid is “instrumented” by overall US aid. In other words, it’s not driven by the timing of demands for aid in Colombia; rather, it is driven by increases in US aid generally. And when US aid increases generally, we see a clear uptick in paramilitary attacks precisely in base municipalities (and not non-base municipalities, and not even in municipalities NEIGHBORING bases). And to settle the question, the authors show that it’s only paramilitary attacks that rise. In other words, there is no association with guerrilla attacks. Which is further inconsistent with a story that somehow rise in guerrilla violence in the base municipalities that led to more US funding going there. And all in all, this is associated with lower voter turnout, which is consistent with the story that greater US aid fuels paramilitary violence and suppresses votes.

    3) Patrick says: “Another reason for this outcome is that military aid goes to areas that are in worse shape.”

    See above. Moreover, these bases didn’t get constructed after aid from US came in. Moreover, time-invariant attributes of places don’t play any role in the authors’ analysis – as they get picked up by “municipality fixed effects.” And to reiterate, you don’t see any association with guerrilla violence, so it can’t be that places getting aid are those where guerrillas were “causing trouble.”

    3) kerimcan says:
    “The effects are very small, aren’t they? The suggested causal mechanism does not make the world a better place but then .2% lower turnout is not a big deal.”

    No, these are not small effects. A 1% increase in aid reduces turnout by .2%. Which means if you cut US aid by 1/5 (a 20% reduction, which is a fairly modest change), voter turnout in base municipalities would increase by 4%, which is a non trivial amount. If you are willing to further extrapolate, this suggests that US aid overall has reduced turnout by 20% – which is a very very large amount.

  9. All evidence at hand suggests drug eradication is not the main priority in US aid to Columbia. Rather it would seem to be a pretext that both the US and Colombian governments use in order to strengthen the right-wing regime against opposition forces so that it can continue to be a conducive environment for US business interests and continue its role as a client state/proxy of US power. The correlation between US military aid and human rights abuses is not just in Colombia; but almost an unabated trend in aid dispersed across the world (Egypt and Israel being the two largest recipients). With much of Latin America turning leftward and threatening US dominance, Colombia becomes ever more important if the US hopes to reverse this trend (which is why the US just announced it will be taking over three Colombian military bases). With only token aid cut off in near-by Honduras, but the vast military aid still flowing to the coup government, one wonders what the future holds for the region.

  10. I didn’t understand what you mean by “the plus side”. If you mean that (unintentionally) strengthening paramiltary groups (that not only launch political attacks and intimidate voters, but do so leaving a trail of thousands of dead, injured, raped, displaced, traumatised people) is good because they help fight “drug-funded insurgents”, you should consider that paramilitaries are responsible for possibly much more drug trafficking than guerrillas, and that they emerged from drug lords’ personal armies. The paramilitaries are not trying to help the Colombian and US governments fight insurgents and drug traffickers; they are traffickers (and in some sense, also insurgents) waging a war to control people, coca fields and routes.The implication of “you don’t always get to pick your allies” is that many times you do. Judicious policy analysis such as the sort you report is urgently needed, and deliberation about its consequences extremely important in order to redesign or stop programs that do more harm than good.

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  12. Fighting drug-funded insurgents is ugly but important.

    It’s always so disappointing when I find out someone whose opinion I value doesn’t oppose anti-drug efforts out of hand. Human beings will always crave stimulants – be they caffeine in the form of coffee from the New World, heroin and cocaine around the turn of the century before they were criminalized, perscription amphetamines after that, meth after that, and the latest craze, a redo of the perscription amphetamines phase, but this time for a new and ephemeral condition known as ADHD. The US finally cracking down on the coke trade in the Carribbean and into South Florida might have been effective in its proximate goal, but the consequences in terms of violence in Mexico have been horrific. Plan Colombia begat Plan Mexico, and apparently the US never actually finished the job in Mexico.

    It’s suprising that someone as intelligent as yourself can believe that prosecuting a drug war is ever a good idea.

  13. I agree with Kevin that curbing drug production in Colombia is a lower of priority for the US, and that the higher priority is to use American military might to challenge any and all alternative economic forms. The spread of free market capitalism across the globe is the main priority of US foreign policy and socialist societies in Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia are threats to the American vision of global capitalism. I believe it is no coincidence that the US chose Colombia as their military base in the region because it is nicely located in the center of these three Latin American rogues. The US is also conducting a similar operation in the Middle East in an effort to militarily surround the Islamic Republic of Iran. America wants the Iranian regime to fall not because of Islam, but because Iran also offers an alternative to free market capitalism. The choice for developing states is clear: either fall in line with the American version of capitalism and suffer the consequences of unfair trade practices such as American farm subsidies and high agricultural import tariffs or become a pariah state that chooses a different economic form and whom the US actively tries to isolate by disengaging their economic and political relationships with (I’m thinking of Cuba and Iran here).

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