Over the past half century, nearly a third of all countries in the world have experienced violent civil wars. Until recently, the economics profession has been mostly on the sidelines, uninterested in exploring the causes and consequences of these conflicts.
But in the past decade or so, economists have started to become players in research on civil wars. Two economics majors—Sara ('07) and Matt ('10) Lowes, a sister and brother tandem—have been a part of this process, and returned not long ago from a region recently racked by violent civil conflict.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the Ugandan government was engaged in an armed conflict with the rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army. Thousands of Ugandans were killed and millions more displaced by the fighting. In the 1990s, the national government forcibly moved the population of northern Uganda into holding camps in an effort to identify rebels. Though the violence has recently subsided, the effects of the displacements and killings may be long-lasting.
When Sara graduated three years ago, she may not have imagined that she would soon be coordinating research in East Africa. While an economics major at Middlebury, she found herself drawn to studying the challenges faced by developing countries, eventually writing an award-winning thesis (under the direction of Professors Maluccio and Myers) on the health and education effects of a conditional cash transfer program in Nicaragua. Upon graduating, she first moved to Vietnam to intern for an organization extending microfinance services to remote villages.
When her internship came to an end, Sara moved to Uganda to work with Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), an organization specializing in assessing the impact of development programs using randomized control trials. Sara's work for IPA focused on two projects, one of which involved evaluating the effects of a cell-phone application that allowed users to text in questions about sexual and reproductive health.
Her other project explored the effectiveness of a program targeting women in northern Uganda who had been affected by the civil war. Known as WINGS (Women's Income Generating Support), the program provided women with training, a cash grant, and follow-up support to develop their own businesses. Sara's research involved designing and administering surveys to assess the degree to which the program increased the recipients' financial independence and helped them reintegrate into their communities.
Inspired by his older sister's work, as well as a Middlebury class on civil conflict, Matt used a small grant from the College this past summer to launch an independent research project designed to investigate the effects of the civil war on both trust and risk tolerance within Ugandan communities. Matt was most interested in investigating whether communities that had been forcibly moved from their homes and lands exhibited different levels of trust than non-displaced communities. Working with Professors Matthews and Carpenter, he designed a series of "economic games" that have been used to study levels of trust and risk tolerance within groups.
"Trust is an important indicator of development potential," Matt says. "If people do not trust each other, they will be less willing to invest or engage in economic activities with each other; conversely, higher levels of trust indicate a greater potential for development." He also notes that a willingness to tolerate risk may be "necessary for the incorporation of new technologies or practices in developing countries."
Together with a team of two enumerators and three motorbike drivers, Matt visited 23 villages in northern Uganda. Over a period of five weeks, 230 people participated in Matt's game-like experiments and completed surveys, which gathered information about the respondent's family composition, education and experience during the civil war. Village leaders answered an additional survey addressing their community's history of displacement and the availability of public goods in their region.
Though they are back from Uganda now, Sara and Matt have continued to pursue their research interests. Sara, who remains in close contact with many of her economics faculty mentors at Middlebury, has taken a position at the Economic Growth Center at Yale and plans to apply to doctoral programs in economics. She would like to continue researching the transition from conflict to economic development.
Matt returned for his senior year and enrolled in Professor Matthews' ECON 0700 Senior Research Workshop. Analyzing the data that he collected this past summer, Matt uncovered a significant negative effect of having been abducted on the willingness to tolerate risk. Specifically, abductees were a third less likely to take a risk than non-abductees. Matt's research, in other words, highlights a potential long-term cost associated with civil conflict.
Matt's thesis was titled "Examining Social Preferences in Post-conflict Northern Uganda." And Matt, who graduated in May 2010, followed in his sister's footsteps, again, by sharing the department's D.K. Smith Economics Prize for best senior thesis.