Researchers to study ‘Natural Resources and Armed Conflict’

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Full understanding of how natural resources relate to rebel forces in the developing world is crucial to U.S. national security policy, and a Department of Defense-funded project at UNC Charlotte is expected to provide greater insights into the impact of those resources.

James Walsh and colleagues Beth Whitaker and Justin Conrad, all from the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of Political Science and Public Administration, have received an $825,537 grant from the Department of Defense and its Minerva Initiative for the project “Natural Resources and Armed Conflict.”

Other researchers in the project are James Piazza of Pennsylvania State University, Michael Findley of the University of Texas at Austin and Victor Asal of the University at Albany.

“The United States military involvement tends to be driven by conflicts in other countries,” Walsh said. “If we can understand how resources create conflict, we can predict the start of conflict, its duration and what internal dynamics influence it.”

Fully understanding these factors can help guide policy decisions. “This has policy implications and ethical implications,” he said. “It might push us to devise policies that help reduce conflicts.”

Researchers will develop a global, geo-coded dataset of natural resource locations relevant to armed conflict. The comprehensive dataset will include resources’ location and their market value over time.

The project also will measure if and precisely how rebel groups exploit the resources. Exploitation can take many forms, such as controlling production, stealing and providing protection for producers, such as in cases of drugs. Rebels make choices, employing some type of cost-benefit analysis, Walsh said. “Starting a rebellion is very risky and costly,” he explained.

The research team will analyze how control of resources contributes to state failure, internal conflict and third-party interventions. An online “dashboard” will identify natural resource locations and their key geographic and political characteristics. This open-source resource could help civilian and military planners and researchers prepare for potential conflicts.

This project includes researchers with a wide array of expertise, such as policy experience, geographic and modeling expertise and knowledge in coding text, which is important because rebels communicate in clandestine ways. The UNC Charlotte team, including students, has spent the past year working with a pilot project focused on conflicts in Africa, which is helping shape the project.

Questions the researchers will consider include:

  • Do “lootable” resources increase the likelihood, severity and duration of ethnic rebellion?
  • How does access to natural resources influence the type of violence employed by non-government entities or people? Does that access lead them to scale up from terrorist to insurgent violence?
  • Do natural resources fuel third-party interventions into civil wars?
  • How do natural resources influence state failure and political violence?
  • How do the different ways that rebels can exploit resources influence their duration, use of violence and cohesion?

The Minerva Initiative seeks to leverage and focus the resources of the nation’s top universities to define and develop foundational knowledge about sources of present and future conflict with an eye toward better understanding of the political trajectories of key regions of the world and to improve the ability of the department to develop cutting-edge social science research, foreign area and interdisciplinary studies that is developed and vetted by the best scholars in these fields.

The initiative brings together universities, research institutions and individual scholars and supports interdisciplinary and cross-institutional projects to address specific topic areas as determined by the U.S. Secretary of Defense.