TRUSTING FORMER REBELS: Experimental evidence from forced combatants in Uganda’s civil war

01 Aug 2018

Former child soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), especially those who were abducted at 14 years of age or younger, are more trustworthy and more engaged with their communities than their peers. That is one of the findings of experimental research in Uganda by Michal BauerNathan Fiala and Ian Levely, published in the August 2018 issue of the Economic Journal. Their study also finds no evidence of mistrust or discrimination against former child soldiers in the rebel group.

The findings provide reason for cautious optimism about the prospects of reintegration of child soldiers. But they do not imply that elevated trustworthiness among former soldiers promotes greater peace. Increased trustworthiness may capture a general tendency to obey and behave according to others’ expectations, including LRA commanders. Indeed, it may have contributed to the stability of the rebel group.

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In many civil wars, young people are abducted and forced to take part in violence, often against their own communities. After the conflict, a failure to reintegrate these former combatants successfully can make it easier for future insurgents to recruit them, and ultimately increase the risk of recurring conflict.

While previous research has shown that combat experience leads to lower employment and earnings, little is known about the effects on social behaviour and community acceptance.

Trust and trustworthiness have long been identified by economists as essential to virtually all economic transactions – especially in developing countries, where enforcing legal contracts is difficult.

Given this, a lack of trust in former child soldiers could hamper access to jobs, credit and the informal institutions that are important for economic success. Does experience as a child soldier leave individuals ‘socially damaged’ with little hope for reintegration? Does this lead others to mistrust them when they return to their communities?

To answer these questions, the researchers conducted economic experiments and collected detailed survey data in Northern Uganda five years after the conclusion of a 20-year war. During the war, the LRA, an unpopular rebel group, indiscriminately abducted tens of thousands of young people.

The results provide some reason for cautious optimism: former child soldiers, especially those who were abducted at 14 years of age or younger, are more trustworthy and more engaged with their communities than their peers. Community members seem to be aware of this.

In contrast to stereotypes of former combatants as social pariahs, the researchers find no evidence of mistrust or discrimination against former child soldiers. In fact, parents of former soldiers, who have better knowledge of their behaviour, trust former LRA members more than their peers.

Together, the findings suggest that gaps in economic outcomes between ex-soldiers and their peers in Northern Uganda are unlikely to be driven by low trustworthiness of former soldiers or discrimination against former soldiers on the part of receiving communities.

The researchers invited participants to play the ‘trust game’, a two-player game designed by experimental economists to measure trust and trustworthiness.

In the game, the first player is given a sum of money (in this case, approximately one day’s income) and can choose whether to transfer some of this to a second player. The amount given by the first player to the second player is tripled, and then the second player can decide whether to give some of the money back to the first player.

The first player’s transfer reveals trust – that is, beliefs about whether other players will be trustworthy by returning some of the money – while the amount returned by the second player provides a measure of trustworthiness.

A random sample of middle-aged villagers from conflict-affected areas were recruited to take part as the first players, while the second players were composed of young males some of whom had been forcibly recruited by the LRA.

The findings provide some reason for optimism with respect to the prospects of reintegration of child soldiers. They do not, however, imply that the elevated trustworthiness among soldiers promotes greater peace in general.

Increased trustworthiness may capture a general tendency to obey and behave according to others’ expectations, including LRA commanders, and thus it may have contributed to the stability of the rebel group.

In fact, such behavioural adaptations may be one of the reasons that the LRA and other insurgent groups prefer recruiting children and adolescents. Although children are less able fighters than adults, recruiting them makes economic sense if children are more obedient and their personality more malleable.

In addition, there may be many other negative impacts of exposure to conflict as a child, including post-traumatic stress syndrome and other mental health issues, which are outside the focus of this study.

Trusting Former Rebels: An Experimental Approach to Understanding Reintegration After Civil War’ by Michal Bauer, Nathan Fiala and Ian Levely is published in the August 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.

Ian Levely

Ian.Levely@wur.nl