The negative consequences of war on society are severe. Armed conflict displaces populations, destroys capital and infrastructure, damages the social fabric of communities, endangers civil liberties, and can create health and famine crises. There is currently a large literature on the conditions that lead to the outbreak of armed violence, but the long-term economic impacts of war remain relatively understudied empirically. The goal of this research project was to investigate both the short- and long-run legacies of armed conflict resulting from the U.S. bombing of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and from the 1991–1992 civil war in Sierra Leone.
One publication that resulted from this project is “The Long Run Impact of Bombing Vietnam” (co-author Gerard Roland), forthcoming in the Journal of Development Economics. Many poverty trap models of economic growth predict that sufficiently severe war damage to the capital stock could lead to a “conflict trap” that condemns an economy to long-term underdevelopment. Despite this prediction, results from our research suggest that this is not necessarily always the case. We find no long-run impacts of U.S. bombing on local Vietnamese poverty rates, consumption levels, or population density over twenty-five years after the end of wartime bombing. Vietnam was able to recover largely due to the central government’s heavy postwar investment in both physical and human capital and reallocation of resources toward the most heavily bombed regions.
We find no long-run impacts of U.S. bombing on local Vietnamese poverty rates, consumption levels, or population density over twenty-five years after the end of wartime bombing.
A second publication, “War and Local Collective Action in Sierra Leone” (co-author John Bellows), in the Journal of Public Economics in 2009, carries out statistical analysis in Sierra Leone and similarly shows that despite war’s horrific humanitarian costs, the legacies of civil conflict are not always catastrophic. We find that individual exposure to the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone has lead to increased political participation, community activism, and local public good provision. This political mobilization has been coupled with, and may partially explain, the economic expansion Sierra Leone has experienced in early postwar years. These results run counter to the claims that civil war’s legacies are always major long-run impediments to African economic and political development. Moreover, since Sub-Saharan Africa is the most conflict-prone region today, these results offer some hope that even the poorest and most violent African nations can avoid the persistent negative economic and social consequences that civil conflict can potentially lead to.
However, caution must be called for in drawing broad lessons from this research regarding war’s impacts on economic growth in general. Unlike many other poor countries, postwar Vietnam benefited from relatively strong and centralized political institutions with the power to mobilize human and material resources in the reconstruction effort. Sierra Leone may be a special case of civil conflict as well; the war there was not fought along ethnic or religious lines. Though our findings may help make sense of the rapid economic growth and political consolidation that some countries have experienced following protracted armed conflict, more empirical evidence is needed before general claims about the effects of war on long-run economic performance can be made with confidence.
The research that resulted from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation grant also provided key material for two books that I have written in recent years, Economic Gangsters (Princeton University Press, 2008, co-author Raymond Fisman) and Africa’s Turn? (MIT Press, 2009). Both books emphasize the important role that violence and war have played in shaping contemporary economic and political development patterns around the world. I also recently wrote a literature survey article entitled “Civil War” (co-author Chris Blattman), for the Journal of Economic Literature in 2010.