Disasters, Systems, and Human Rights

Disasters, systems, and human rights


Disasters, Systems, and Human Rights

Disasters, systems, and human rights

Disasters, systems, and human rights: Reflections on a coronial inquiry

William Maley

Abstract: A single death can be a tragedy, but it can also be a disaster, in the sense that disasters reflect a form of systems failure. To demonstrate how this can be the case, this essay draws on a Coroner's report on the death of a 24-year old Iranian asylum seeker, Hamid Khazaei, taken ill at an Australian-funded offshore detention centre in Papua New Guinea. There is a paradox at the heart of this episode. The policy of offshore detention in remote locations was officially adopted to deter asylum seekers from approaching Australia on dangerously-fragile boats in search of protection. Yet while the system failed to protect the human rights of Hamid Khazaei, arguably it did so because it succeeded in keeping him out of mainland Australia, in accordance with the “humane” policy objectives of the Australian government, until he was too ill to survive. Systems grounded in the threat to do harm are likely to result in harm.


Keywords: Refugees, disaster, human rights, Australia


I. Introduction

On September 5, 2014, a 24-year-old asylum seeker from Iran, Hamid Khazaei, was declared dead at the Mater Hospital in the Australian city of Brisbane. Just over a year earlier, on August 7, 2013, he had been a passenger on a boat supplied by people smugglers that entered the Australian “migration zone” near the Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island. On September 6, 2013, he was transferred to Papua New Guinea under a “Regional Resettlement Arrangement” between Australia and Papua New Guinea that had been signed on July 19, 2013; and he was lodged at a “Regional Processing Centre” (MIRPC) on Manus Island. Although it was later held by the Supreme Court of Justice of Papua New Guinea that the detention regime was unconstitutional, Mr. Khazaei was obliged to remain in the centre (Namah v. Pato, 2016). On August 23, 2014, he sought medical attention for flu-like symptoms and a lesion on his leg, and the deterioration of his condition resulted in his being evacuated first to Port Moresby and then to Brisbane. An autopsy report subsequently found the cause of his death to be 1(a). Hypoxic-Ischaemic Encephalo-pathy, due to or as a consequence of; 1(b). Cardio-respiratory Arrest, due to or as a consequence of; 1(c). Severe Sepsis, due to or as a consequence of; 1(d). Left Lower Leg infection with Chromobacterium violaceum.”[1]


Hamid Khazaei

Image from the Refugee Action Coalition via Human Rights Law Center

Confronted with this narrative, one might well be tempted to conclude that the case of Hamid Khazaei simply reflects the reality of life: that everyone born alive lives and then dies. The loss of Mr. Khazaei in this sense could be seen as a tragedy for his family and friends, but nothing more. In this essay, however, I argue that such an interpretation does not sufficiently capture the complexities of this particular case, and that the death of Hamid Khazaei speaks to issues of public policy that deserve more detailed attention. The death of Hamid Khazaei was not simply a tragedy; it was also a disaster, in that he was the victim not just of misfortune but of a particular kind of systemic failure. But there is still more to the story than that. The system of remote detention of asylum seekers which served Mr. Khazaei so poorly was one that set out to deter asylum seekers from approaching a country such as Australia for protection in the first place, and there is evidence from the Khazaei case that this deterrent objective prevented his deteriorating condition from being managed on medical grounds alone. In other words, there were elements of the design of the system that contributed to its failing him. Human rights violations, this would suggest, can be as much the responsibility of those who design deterrent systems and put them in place as they are the responsibility of malevolent individual perpetrators or cogs in the machine. This essay is divided into four sections. The first explores various dimensions of the idea of disaster. The second, drawing on a coroner’s report into his death, shows how Hamid Khazaei came to be failed by a system, not simply by individuals. The third shows how the system to which he fell victim was one compromised by incompatible internal logics which led to a devaluing of his human rights. The fourth offer some brief conclusions.

II. The idea of disaster

In a recent overview of disasters, Etkin notes the view derived from the philosophy of Wittgenstein that some words perhaps “do not require a precise definition to be used successfully,” and expresses the belief that the word “disaster” fits into this category (Etkin, 2016). On the one hand, it is useful to have an understanding of the word “disaster” that enjoys some lexical resonance, matching to at least some degree the way in which the word is used in ordinary discourse. On the other hand, it is preferable to avoid entanglement in what Giovanni Sartori called “conceptual stretching” where “gains in extensional coverage tend to be matched by losses in connotative precision” (Sartori, 1970). For this reason, some clarification of how the term is used in this essay is warranted.

First, the idea of disaster is intimately related to the idea of harm, but there are some examples of harm to which the term does not seem quite appropriate. Principal amongst these are harms which are consciously inflicted as acts of “war” against either external or internal “enemies”: the term “disaster” might seem overly tame or euphemistic if applied to the Holocaust or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These events, of course, differed in that the former was the product of blind racialist hatred, whereas the latter were undertaken in the hope of avoiding even more carnage and destruction (Roseman, 2012; Rhodes, 1986). All, however, involved a conscious and deliberate decision to inflict harm. The word disaster applies much more neatly and comfortably to events in the natural world: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, and the inundation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Yet the natural world does not exhaustively define the stage on which disasters play out. Events such as the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, and the crashes of airships such as the R101 in 1930 and the Hindenburg in 1937, are commonly dubbed disasters without any violence to the language. Indeed, the Hindenburg’s fiery end has acquired virtually iconic status as a disaster, since it was not only captured on film, but shared with a wide audience through a heartrending radio commentary by the broadcaster Herb Morrison.

Second, while disasters may often claim large numbers of victims, this is not necessarily the case. The term disaster has been regularly applied to the January 27, 1967 fire in the Apollo 1 space capsule at Cape Kennedy, as well as to the explosion after launch of the Challenger space shuttle on January 28, 1986, and the disintegration upon re-entry of the Columbia space shuttle on February 1, 2003. Three astronauts died in the Apollo 1 fire, and seven perished in each of the shuttle accidents, smaller numbers than the death tolls in many bus crashes and even some car smashes. What seems to have been decisive in framing these events as disasters was their shock value. The public had not been alerted to the real dangers associated with manned space flight, and whilst the Apollo 1 astronauts were not household names, some publicity had been generated about the presence aboard the Challenger of a schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, and aboard the Columbia of the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon. It is unsurprising that in his minority report attached as Appendix F of the Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (the Rogers Commission), the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman concluded that “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled” (Feynman, 2001).

Third, and most importantly, the idea of disaster is commonly associated with some kind of systems failure. “We are dealing with a system,” Jervis argues, “when (a) a set of units or elements is interconnected so that changes in some elements or their relations produce changes in other parts of the system, and (b) the entire system exhibits properties and behaviors that are different from those of the parts” (Jervis 1997). Even in the case of so-called “natural” disasters, systems failure can be highly relevant: In the face of obvious potential risk, either nothing may have been done to mitigate the danger, or such steps as had been taken may have proved manifestly inadequate. When, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush praised Michael D. Brown, Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with the words “Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job,”[1] he invited ridicule because the performance of Brown and his agency had demonstrably been unequal to the challenges that Katrina’s destruction had posed.[2] Systems failure is likely to be even more obvious when problems are unrelated to natural systems (weather, climate, or tectonic forces) but arise from defects in technology or administration. The significance of systems is also implicit in a range of theoretical models of the stages of disaster, such as Turner’s disaster incubation model.[3] The case of Hamid Khazaei was not simply one of misjudgment by medical professionals; it represented a broader failure of the detention system that exposed him to risk in the first place and then complicated the management of a potentially life-threatening problem when it arose. It was fundamentally this systemic dimension that made the death of Hamid Khazaei not just a tragedy, but a disaster.

III. The death of Hamid Khazaei: systemic dimensions

Many deaths pass unremarked and unexamined but that was not the case with the death of Mr. Khazaei. Ironically, the explanation for this was that when he was medically evacuated to Brisbane on August 27, 2014, he was technically detained pursuant to the Migration Act 1958 until his death. As a result, as the coroner put it, an “inquest into his death was mandatory as he died in custody in Queensland” (para.11). Much of what we know about Mr. Khazaei’s treatment derives from the coroner’s comprehensive and illuminating report.

On the one hand, the coroner documented a complex chain of medical decisions relating to Mr. Khazaei’s sickness and assessed with care the quality and defensibility of the judgments made by medical personnel at different stages. The first set of issues related to the situation on Manus Island between Mr. Khazaei’s presentation with symptoms on August 23 of what proved to be a serious bacterial infection, and his transfer to the Pacific International Hospital in Port Moresby on August 26. By the afternoon of August 24, Mr. Khazaei was beginning to show signs of sepsis (para.87), and when his condition was no better by the morning of August 25, an emergency specialist in the Manus Island clinic, Dr. Leslie King, stated that “we need to evacuate him” (para.96). A commercial flight to Port Moresby was scheduled for that afternoon, and there were seats available, as well as a doctor booked to travel who could have acted as a medical escort for Mr. Khazaei; a “Recommendation for Medical Movement” was sent to the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection at 12:32 p,m. that day (para.120). However, it did not come to the attention of the relevant Assistant Secretary of the Department until he came to work at 8:30 a.m. on the morning of August 26, by which time of course Mr. Khazaei had missed the opportunity to be evacuated on the August 25 flight.

By the morning of August 26, there were signs that Mr. Khazaei was developing septic shock (paras.175-177). At 8.41 a.m., his transfer to Port Moresby was approved by the Department. By this stage, however, Dr. Stewart Condon of International SOS had formed the view that what he needed was to be transferred to Brisbane (para.183). Mr. Khazaei finally left for Port Moresby at 2.34 p.m. He was to spend just one night at the Pacific International Hospital, but the care he received was plainly lamentable. A crucial “Bag-Valve-Mask with Reservoir” was torn and useless (para.262) and an intravenous line had been inserted beside the vein, not in the vein (para.266). At 10.24 pm, Mr. Khazaei suffered a cardiac arrest. On the afternoon of 27 August, he was finally transferred to the Mater Hospital in Brisbane. By then he was showing early signs of brain death (para.268), which was confirmed on September 2 and 3 (para.271). On September 5, “supportive care measures were withdrawn and Mr. Khazaei died” (para.272).

It is clear from expert evidence, accepted by the coroner, that in some respects the treatment that Mr. Khazaei received on Manus Island could have been greatly improved, notably through intubation (para.328), and possibly through the administration of Gentamicin (paras.353-354). It was also clear that miscommunication occurred at numerous points. But the coroner did not limit his findings to purely clinical and communications matters. He squarely confronted the mindset of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Dr. Yliana Dennett of International SOS had testified to the inquest that “We usually do not recommend transfers to Port Moresby. However, experience has shown that the department was very reluctant to bring patients to Australia, and we knew that if we – if we recommend transferring to Australia, it would not be approved.” (para.185) The coroner found that “It appeared that the medical staff were working primarily to clinical imperatives while the DIBP officers were working primarily to bureaucratic and political imperatives to keep transferees on Manus Island, or in PNG” (para.404), and that “the process put in place by the DIBP to approve medical transfers was overly bureaucratic and lacked clear written procedures” (para.409). He also reflected on issues of high policy. He noted that “The Commonwealth submitted that Mr Khazaei was at the MIRPC because the legislation enabling his transfer there enacted very significant and high-level government policy. This policy was designed to establish a “no advantage principle” whereby asylum seekers gain no benefit in choosing not to seek protection through established mechanisms” (para.470). In apparent response, however, he stated that “the fact that Mr Khazaei’s death occurred in the context of offshore processing cannot be overlooked.” (para.476). He made the further point that “the failures evident in the system (both human and systemic) that caused or contributed to Mr Khazaei’s death should not be sheeted home to a select number of medical practitioners or staff. I also agree that the failures of those staff should be recognized as the manifestation of the overall system, which was flawed and demonstrated a lack of capacity to meet Mr Khazaei’s immediate health needs” (para.533). Ultimately, he offered the damning conclusion that “Mr Khazaei’s death was preventable. Consistent with the evidence of the expert witnesses who assisted the court in this matter I am satisfied that if Mr Khazaei’s clinical deterioration was recognized and responded to in a timely way at the MIRPC clinic, and he was evacuated to Australia within 24 hours of developing severe sepsis, he would have survived” (para.14).

IV. Incompatible logics and human rights

While the jurisdiction of the coroner did not provide him with the scope to address broad political and administrative issues, a number nonetheless emerge very clearly from his analysis and findings, as well as from wider information on Australian policy towards refugees. Australia has a long history of respect for human rights. It is currently an elected member of the UN Human Rights Council, it is a party to key international instruments protecting human rights and giving effect to the aspirational ideas set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and domestically it benefits from the activities of a statutory body, the Australian Human Rights Commission, which on occasion has been admirably active in defending vulnerable groups, including detained asylum seekers (The Forgotten Children, 2014). Australia also historically had a good reputation for the treatment of refugees; indeed, it was Australia’s accession in 1954 to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that led to that treaty’s coming into effect.


In recent times, however, a range of calculations have driven Australian policies in a hardline direction. The rise of the far right “One Nation” party in the late 1990s alarmed the then government, which sought to appease potential far right voters by adopting One Nation’s rhetoric and policies targeting asylum seekers approaching Australia by boat (Maley, 2014). The result was the so-called “Pacific solution,” pursuant to which such asylum seekers would be removed to states such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Given its political rationale, there was nothing particularly moral about the Pacific solution, and so the search began for a justification that could at least be dressed up as somehow ethical (Every, 2008). What resulted was the claim that asylum seekers had to be deterred from attempting to reach Australia by boat because of the danger that they might otherwise perish in rough seas between Indonesia and the Australian territory of Christmas Island to which boats typically headed. This claim carried unsettling overtones of superiority: that the kind of people boarding boats could not possibly understand what was really in their interests, and therefore required Australian politicians – who had typically never experienced the threat of persecution or gross human rights violations themselves – to think on their behalf.[1] There was also a considerable cynicism to the claim: In November 2009, the U.S. Embassy in Canberra sent a cable to Washington on boat arrivals reporting that a key strategist from the opposition Liberal Party (which had originated the Pacific solution) “told us the issue was ‘fantastic’ and ‘the more boats that come the better’” (“Australia Searches,” 2009). Nonetheless, the argument that harsh measures were required to ensure that lives were saved in the seas to the northwest of Australia acquired a certain traction, even though the effect of a “successful” policy could actually be to drive asylum seekers into even more perilous routes of egress from danger.


What is important to understand here is the logic of deterrence. A policy of deterrence is unlikely to work unless the targets of deterrence have reason to fear that that they will suffer harm. The word “harsh,” used by former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to describe his own party’s policy towards asylum seekers, captured this logic (Ireland, 2014). It dictates that the rights (and in the Khazaei case, urgent medical needs) of asylum seekers warehoused offshore be broadly subordinated to the wider objective of preventing asylum seekers from accessing Australian territory. The paradox, therefore, is that the system’s failure as far as Mr. Khazaei was concerned was a consequence in part of its working to advance the government’s policy settings. The disaster that befell Mr. Khazaei was a disaster waiting to happen.


Sometimes systems of this kind can be subverted by bureaucrats. It is clear, simply from the multiple layers of bureaucracy within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection through which a request for medical transfer had to be moved in order to access an approval, that the system was not a flexible one, and indeed the coroner captured this in a number of specific recommendations. In certain circumstances, officials have found ways of overcoming the constraints of such complexity. Indeed, some formal organizations develop an organic rather than a mechanistic culture in which flexibility becomes almost a standard operating procedure, and individual officials may display a flair for working around rules in an imaginative way (Burns and Stalker, 1994) (Shepsle, 2017). Unfortunately for Hamid Khazaei, there was little evidence of this in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection as steps to evacuate him from Manus Island stalled. Instead, a longstanding and well-documented “culture of control” prevailed (Cronin, 1993). The consequences proved devastating.


It is a considerable irony that in many countries, state policies that compromise the human rights of those seeking protection from persecution are being promoted or defended in the name of “border control” by political actors who in virtually all other circumstances express great skepticism about the uses to which state power might be put. A damaging consequence is that a great deal of power is being devolved to relatively low-level state officials whose decisions can have catastrophic effects on the liberties and even the lives of those in their charge. Enhanced mechanisms of accountability are necessary to address this problem, but building such mechanisms is no easy task (Mulgan, 2003). In the interim, therefore, it is more important than ever that one not lose sight of those vulnerable to state power. Refugees and asylum seekers are amongst the most vulnerable people one could wish to find (Clark, 2013).

V. Conclusion

In his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope famously wrote “Whate’er is best administer’d is best” (Ward, 1907). This begs the question for whom, and in what ways. For some ordinary people, this may not matter much. As Richard Rose has put it, “If we did a content analysis of what ordinary people talk about, we would find that talk about the weather, meals or sport was more frequent than talk about politics, and that phatic communication was more common than reasoned analysis of society’s ills” (Rose, 1989). But for ordinary individuals such as Hamid Khazaei, exposed to largely-untrammeled bureaucratic discretion, how a system is administered may matter very much indeed. In his case, it was administered not with his human rights as paramount consideration, but as part of an attempt to realize a range of objectives, some entirely unrelated to his rights. And his sad case may not be an isolated one, as the deaths in December 2018 of two Guatemalan children in the custody of US authorities, Jakelin Caal and Felipe Gómez Alonzo, make clear (Brice-Saddler, 2018; Jordan, 2018). One might hope that cases such as these would have a transformative effect on policy settings, and it is almost certainly the case that some of the individuals involved in the processes to which Hamid Khazaei fell victim are likely to carry a heavy burden of guilt about what happened. There is, however, one further and very sobering lesson from literature on disasters, and that is that the ability to learn from past failure should not be over-estimated. The forms of organizational dysfunctionality that contributed to the Columbia disaster were very similar to those which had contributed to the Challenger disaster and which had been identified by the Rogers Commission (Vaughan, 2005). This suggests that those who are concerned to protect human rights in an environment shaped by complex public policy calculations, where a range of factors can militate against effective organizational learning, will need to be extremely vigilant.

One final development makes this painfully clear. In August 2018, Scott Morrison, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection at the time of Hamid Khazaei’s death, managed to secure the position of Prime Minister, but by early 2019, and with an election looming, his government’s standing in the polls was dire, and as a result of resignations and defections, the government was no longer in a position to command a majority on its own in either chamber of the Australian parliament. The continuing resistance by the government to medical evacuations to Australia from Manus Island or Nauru had led to an increasing number of applications to the Federal Court of Australia to force the government to act. A scathing judgment in September 2018 by Justice Mortimer suggested that the bureaucratic problems that the coroner identified in the Khazaei case remained firmly in place: “There is no longer any excuse for the respondents, in particular at departmental and agency level, not having systems in place to respond quickly, effectively and appropriately to these applications, and to ensure that their legal representatives appearing in Court can secure the instructions they require” (ELF18 v. Minister, 2018). Faced with this continuing resistance, non-government members succeeded in forcing through the Parliament amendments to what became the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2019, providing for the insertion in the Migration Act 1958 of a new section 198E to give the power to treating doctors to trigger a process that could force the ”transfer to Australia” of a person “not receiving appropriate medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment in the regional processing country.”

The response of Prime Minister Morrison was to announce the reopening of the mothballed immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, technically part of Australia but some 2,105 miles from the Australian mainland and notable for its lack of sophisticated medical services. The reported cost of reopening the centre was A$1.4 billion over four years (Koziol, 2019).

+ Author biography

Professor William Maley is Professor of Diplomacy at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, where he served as Foundation Director from 1 July 2003 to 31 December 2014. He taught for many years in the School of Politics, University College, University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, and has served as a Visiting Professor at the Russian Diplomatic Academy, a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde, and a Visiting Research Fellow in the Refugee Studies Programme at Oxford University. He is a Barrister of the High Court of Australia,Vice-President of the Refugee Council of Australia, and a member of the Australian Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP). He is also a member of the International Advisory Board of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University. In 2002, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM). In 2009, he was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (FASSA).

+ Footnotes

  1. Inquest into the death of Hamid Khazaei (Brisbane: Coroners Court of Queensland, 2014/3292, 30 July 2018) para.284. Subsequent references to paragraphs from this report appear in the text.

  2. Quoted in Spencer S. Hsu and Susan B. Glasser, “FEMA Director Singled Out by Response Critics,” The Washington Post, September 6, 2005.

  3. For a detailed discussion of this case, see Thomas Preston, “Weathering the politics of responsibility and blame: The Bush Administration and its response to Hurricane Katrina,” in Arjen Boin, Allan McConnell and Paul ‘T Hart (eds), Governing After Crisis: The Politics of Investigation, Accountability and Learning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) pp.33-61.

  4. See Barry A. Turner, “The Organizational and Interorganizational Development of Disasters,” Administrative Sciences Quarterly, vol.21, no.3, September 1976, pp.378-397; Barry A. Turner, ‘The Development of Disasters—A Sequence Model for the Analysis of the Origins of Disasters’, Sociological Review, vol.24, no.4, November 1976, pp.754-774.

  5. For further discussion, see William Maley, “Australia’s Refugee Policy: Domestic Politics and Diplomatic Consequences,” Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol.70, no.6, December 2016, pp.670-680.

+ References

“Australia Searches for Asylum Seeker Solution,” Cable Reference ID 09CANBERRA1006, U.S. Embassy, Canberra, 13 November 2009.

Brice-Saddler, Michael, “The 7-year-old girl who died in Border Patrol custody was healthy before she arrived, father says,” The Washington Post, December 15, 2018.

Burns, Tom and G.M. Stalker, The Management of Innovation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Clark, Ian, The Vulnerable in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) pp.84-105.

Cronin, Kathryn, “A culture of control: an overview of immigration policy-making,” in James Jupp and Marie Kabala (eds), The Politics of Australian Immigration (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1993) pp.83-104.

ELF18 v. Minister for Home Affairs [2018] FCA 1368 (3 September 2018) per Mortimer J., para.18.

Etkin, David. Disaster Theory: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Concepts and Causes (Oxford: Elsevier, 2016) p.7.

Every, Danielle, “A Reasonable, Practical and Moderate Humanitarianism: The Co-option of Humanitarianism in the Australian Asylum-Seeker Debates,” Journal of Refugee Studies, vol.21, no.2, June 2008, pp.210-229.

Feynman, Richard P. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (London: Penguin Books, 2001) p.169.

Hsu, Spencer S. and Susan B. Glasser, “FEMA Director Singled Out by Response Critics,” The Washington Post, September 6, 2005.

Inquest into the death of Hamid Khazaei (Brisbane: Coroners Court of Queensland, 2014/3292, 30 July 2018).

Ireland, Judith, “Malcolm Turnbull defends ‘harsh’ boats policy as necessary,” The Sydney Morning Herald, May 7, 2014.

Jervis, Robert, System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) p.6.

Jordan, Miriam, “A Breaking Point: Second Child’s Death Prompts New Procedures for Border Agency,” The New York Times, December 26, 2018.

Koziol, Michael. “A decade in detention: refugees face indefinite time on Christmas Island,” The Sydney Morning Herald, March 10, 2019.

Maley, William, “Australia’s Refugee Policy: Domestic Politics and Diplomatic Consequences,” Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol.70, no.6, December 2016, pp.670-680.

Maley, William, What is a Refugee? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) p.11.

Mulgan, Richard, Holding Power to Account: Accountability in Modern Democracies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Namah v. Pato. 2016. PGSC 13 (26 April 2016).

Preston, Thomas. “Weathering the politics of responsibility and blame: The Bush Administration and its response to Hurricane Katrina,” in Arjen Boin, Allan McConnell and Paul ‘T Hart (eds), Governing After Crisis: The Politics of Investigation, Accountability and Learning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) pp.33-61.

Rose, Richard, Ordinary People in Public Policy: A Behavioural Analysis (London: Sage Publications, 1989) p.178.

Roseman, Mark. The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution: A Reconsideration (London: Folio Society, 2012); Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986) pp.617-651.

Sartori, Giovanni. “Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics,” American Political Science Review, vol.64, no.4, December 1970, pp.1033‐1053 at p.1035.

Shepsle, Kenneth A., Rule Breaking and Political Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (Sydney: Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014).

Turner, Barry A., “The Organizational and Interorganizational Development of Disasters,” Administrative Sciences Quarterly, vol.21, no.3, September 1976, pp.378-397

Turner, Barry A. ‘The Development of Disasters—A Sequence Model for the Analysis of the Origins of Disasters’, Sociological Review, vol.24, no.4, November 1976, pp.754-774.

Vaughan, Diane, “System Effects: On Slippery Slopes, Repeating Negative Patterns, and Learning from Mistake?,” in William H. Starbuck and Moshe Farjoun (eds), Organization at the Limit: Lessons from the Columbia Disaster (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) pp.41-59.

Ward, Adolphus William (ed.), The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope (London: Macmillan & Co., 1907) p.215.


The Petty Principle

The Petty Principle

The Petty Principle

The Petty Principle

The Petty Principle: How international civil servants rise to their level of incompetence and continue to be promoted

Antonio Graziosi

Abstract: The paper provides a critical review of current practices for the selection of senior managers in international public organizations, particularly discretionary “political” appointments. Paradoxically, the more senior the position, the less weight is often given to actual managerial competencies. Appointed managers may still turn out to be good or just delegate work. In the worst scenario, they may seriously affect organizational performance. Bad managers may eventually be removed but will be often appointed to another and even more senior – though less operational – position (the “Petty Principle”). The weak governance by the organizations’ executive boards is often complemented by external auditors, which encourages managers to place higher emphasis on documenting compliance with rules than on producing results. Remedial action may include greater focus on results, leaner organizational structures, accountability on senior appointments and more inclusive management styles. These principles should also underpin the process of U.N. reform.

Keywords: International civil service, U.N.

I. Introduction

As the title suggests, this short work is inspired by Laurence J. Peter’s landmark book The Peter Principle (Peter 1969). The Peter Principle proposes that employees tend to be promoted on the basis of good performance in their present jobs. If upgraded employees continue to work well, they will be further promoted until they are appointed to a job they are unable to perform effectively and will get stuck there for good. Therefore, as Peter suggested, all employees eventually rise to their level of incompetence.

International public organizations may represent a deviation from the Peter Principle, insofar as, when employees have reached their level of incompetence, they continue to be upgraded in the hierarchy. In international civil service – the U.N. and other intergovernmental entities – a much older principle applies, which was formulated by the ancient Romans as promoveatur ut amoveatur, i.e., “let us promote him in order to remove him.”

This statement is based on over 30 years of U.N. working experience. By no means do I wish to imply that staff in multilateral organizations is generally incompetent. I actually came across amazing cases of professionalism, commitment, generosity, and even sense of sacrifice. I, therefore, have the greatest respect for the many U.N. colleagues with whom I worked and met.

Yet, these good people hardly ever rise to the highest levels of the institutional hierarchy. In the international civil service, competence for the job is just one of several criteria for the appointment of senior management, usually not the most important. As a result, the chosen candidates may still eventually turn out to be good managers, but this is just a matter of probability in a random selection process.

II. Background

One factor influencing the management selection process is the promotion of technical specialists to management positions as part of their career development. Professional staff are often hired because of their specialized technical skills – good doctors, engineers, economists, agronomists, lawyers, sociologists, etc. To advance in their careers, however, they are obliged to abandon technical work and become managers/supervisors, which requires a set of skills they do not necessarily possess. As a consequence, international organizations tend to turn their good specialists into mediocre managers. Some organizations seek to address this problem by establishing a parallel career path for specialists, who can rise in the hierarchy on the basis of their professional excellence without having to abandon technical work.

A second factor is concern for ensuring the geographic, cultural and gender diversity of the staff and management. This concern is more than legitimate: The credibility of international organizations also depends on their capacity to represent different values, experiences and cultures, so that they are perceived as neutral and honest brokers in the international arena. At the same time, this narrows the scope of candidates for a specific job. Often, a candidate will be given priority because of their personal background rather than competence.

Also, in many organizations, the composition of the staff is based on national quotas, on countries’ populations, and membership fees. A good candidate may, therefore, not be retained simply because their country of origin is already adequately or over-represented in the staff. This may become a constraint to the effective recruitment – and allocation of human resources, particularly from small countries.

The so-called political appointments have the most devastating impact on the quality of senior management in international organizations. Here, “political” is a euphemism for “discretionary.” As a general rule, in international organizations staff shall be hired through open, competitive processes based on the publication of job vacancies – with the purpose of finding the best candidate across the world. This rule, however, usually suffers one important exception: Senior management positions can be filled by the chief executive officer bypassing competitive processes and competency assessments when the head officer considers this to be in the superior interest of the organization.

Political appointments have an easy explanation. Chief executive officers are elected or re-confirmed by the governing boards of the international organizations concerned, which are mostly composed of representatives of member countries. Chief executive officers are, therefore, keen to please stakeholders with a heavier weight in the decision-making process, either because they pay more money or because they exercise political influence on others. This includes generously distributing senior jobs to keep stakeholders happy. If the number of jobs available is insufficient to appease everybody, one can create new and unnecessary positions just to ensure everybody will feel adequately represented, even if this entails a waste of public money and a blurring of decision-making and reporting lines.

In the event a national decision-maker is given the opportunity to unilaterally nominate a senior manager in an international organization, they may a) exercise due diligence in finding the right person for the job, b) appoint some friend, ally, or someone to whom one owes a favor, or c) use this opportunity to get rid of a difficult and/or incompetent person. Only in the first scenario the appointment is likely to meet the requirements of the job.

Nothing thus far contradicts the fundamentals of the Peter Principle, except the fact that a candidate’s previous performance may have little weight in the appointment process. This is where the problem starts. A new manager is in place and nobody knows how effectively this manager will perform. There may still be a positive surprise if the appointee actually turns out to be a good manager.

What if the chosen manager turns out to be a poor performer? The manager may soon realize they are not fit for the job and give up on it. Their presence in the organization will progressively slide into irrelevance, only performing representation functions and signing off on other people’s work.

The worst scenario, however, is when the incompetent manager believes they can make a difference. The manager will then actively interfere in the work processes, make wrong decisions, affect the effectiveness and sustainability of the work of the organization, and degrade the staff’s motivation.

Fundamentally, the issue is (lack of) self-confidence. If appointed to a job one is unable to perform, a sense of insecurity will seize one. The response will depend on personal awareness and emotional intelligence. As an irrelevant manager, one may decide to let others do the work while taking credit for the results. If managers are, however, unable to recognize their incompetence, they will see collaborators as a threat and will try and impose themselves at all costs. For the paranoid and insecure boss, accepting collaborators’ and employees’ opinions and suggestions implies recognizing that they know better. This manager profile will then turn out to be not only incompetent, but also authoritarian. In other words: the harmful manager.

In this latter case, sooner or later the chief executive officer of the organization will realize there is a problem (unless they are the problem themselves…). If the incompetent manager is kept in the current position, institutional performance will be affected. If the manager is sacked, sponsors may get upset. The only solution that will keep everybody happy is to promote the manager to another position before things deteriorate. Promoveatur ut amoveatur, as we said. We will call it “The Petty Principle” inspired by Petty, a pseudonym for a real person I met who succeeded in climbing the top of a U.N. organization while lacking any managerial and professional competencies.

The reader may legitimately ask: How can this happen? Should oversight by the organization’s governance not prevent or address extreme situations of inefficiency and consequent squander of public resources? To understand that, we need to analyze the perspectives of the different stakeholders.

The chief executive officer will be reluctant to make drastic moves, such as firing Petty. This would entail a) recognizing that a mistake was made in hiring Petty in the first place, and b) risking a confrontation with the constituency behind Petty. The chief executive officer will, therefore, consider the costs and benefits of leaving Petty where Petty is – which is still an option if the expected damage is not too visible or too extreme depending on the strategic nature and impact of the functions under Petty’s responsibility – or promoting Petty to a higher position, further away from direct action. This may imply adding one more, unnecessary layer in the hierarchy, thus wasting money and further affecting the effectiveness of decision-making processes.

The governing boards should be keeping the top management’s performance under scrutiny. However, individuals participating in the institutional decision-making processes are usually middle-ranking government officials or diplomats with a conservative attitude, narrow agency and limited understanding of the substantive work of the organization. They usually do not have the time and means to probe into the information submitted to them for approval or decision by the secretariat of the organization.

Of course, Petty would be delighted to be offered a further promotion. Petty may even consider this as a recognition of leadership skills. Finally, if Petty is promoted to a higher position, Petty’s staff and collaborators – who are the most directly affected by the manager’s poor performance – may be more remote and better sheltered from Petty’s influence.

In other words, no stakeholder has the necessary assertiveness, self-confidence, and motivation to make explicit criticism or demand that Petty be removed, unless it is upwards.

III. Implications: What Petty does to organizations

The institutional impact of Petty-like managers will differ depending on the organizational business model and the room for maneuver it leaves to senior management. The work of some organizations is tightly regulated and leaves little space for either good or bad managers to make a dent. As a manager, you are often given a budget and told how to spend it. This is a constraint for good and creative managers who struggle to change for the better. However, it is also an insurance against incompetent managers who strive to change for the worse. Conversely, significant and sometimes irreparable damage can be made in organizations where managers have greater latitude, particularly organizations which are largely funded through voluntary contributions and/or cost-recovery mechanisms. In this latter case, poor management performance and decision making may seriously jeopardize institutional credibility and financial sustainability.

Another key factor is staff’s resilience. In the face of incompetent management and wrong decision-making, the staff may react – for the sake of simplicity – in three ways:

a)     Submit and obey. The vast majority of the staff with some experience and common sense will understand how Petty’s decisions are counterproductive and may eventually affect the performance and sustainability of the organization. However, they also perceive that any expression of disagreement – no matter how legitimate – may backfire, as they may lose their jobs, miss a promotion, be re-assigned to undesired positions or be mobbed. In some cultures, the boss is always right and you shall never contradict them. Why waste energy for a lost cause?

b)    Stand up and react. If the staff is able to forge a common position in response to wrong management choices, it may succeed in voicing its dissent and confronting Petty. This takes courage, self-assurance and, particularly, strong cohesion among middle managers and staff. If individual middle managers or staff members pursue their own individual survival strategies, the cause is lost. Conversely, if unity is maintained, Petty will eventually have to negotiate or the conflict will escalate to higher-level managerial instances, who will be obliged to take some action. If, however, the remedial action consists in moving Petty to a different position as a quick fix, the problem – as explained earlier – is just moved elsewhere. This is probably why Petty-like managers tend to be quite mobile: It is probably safer to let them do a little damage all over the place than deep damage in just one place.

c)     Swallow and try to fix it. A basic instinct of survival will lead the officials of the organization affected to swallow their pride out of fear for retaliation. Still, they may use their own judgment and experience to mitigate the impact of poor decisions by making them ineffective or applying pragmatic remedial action. While this reaction may look somewhat opportunistic, it may often be the most successful survival strategy. It bets on the fact that Petty does not know or care enough about the business process to be able to realize that instructions are not being applied.

The proliferation of incompetent senior managers in the international civil service has two negative, complementary consequences. It represents a direct squander of taxpayers’ money that could be used for better purposes, and weakens the effectiveness, reach, and credibility of organizational performance.

IV. Remedies: how to deal with organizations’ Petty problems

Any solution requires either the chief executive officer or the governing board of the organization concerned to take the issue into its hands. A few areas of improvement may be considered:

Enhanced results-based management:

Most U.N. and international organizations have by now adopted a results-based management approach. The underlying principle is that organizational performance should be assessed on the basis of producing results and change, rather than on a list of activities or expenditure rate. Most organizations have redesigned their planning and reporting mechanisms following a results-based concept or format.

In the absence of competent guidance and oversight, however, a results-based management approach may backfire. Often, managers are asked to set themselves the targets on the basis of which they will be evaluated. Managers will therefore be as modest as possible in formulating them, in order to eventually be able to demonstrate that all the results were achieved or exceeded. As governance board members do not know the operation well, they will shy away from assessing how ambitious the objectives and targets were.

Another perverse incentive is the fact that, in the absence of proper oversight by stakeholders, the only ones who really look into organizational business processes are the external auditors. As a result, organizational business processes are progressively redesigned to please the auditors rather than the constituents or beneficiaries of the organization. A strong emphasis is placed in ensuring that every transaction is properly authorized and documented in line with the financial rules of the organization.

Weighing the pig, however, will not make it fatter. Accountability and transparent use of public money are essential preconditions for the credibility of an organization. However, they cannot be ends in themselves. Meanwhile, multiple levels of approval, justification, and reporting absorb an increasing share of organizational resources at the expense of operations. Also, auditing firms have smelled the business: On the one hand, they tend to expand their field of competence from financial management to overall management, for which they may not have adequate experience and competence. On the other hand, they may say to you, “Dear manager, your business process is quite inefficient. However, if you hire me as your consultant, I will fix it for you.” The recent history of international organizations is rich of examples of this conflict of interest.

An alternative way of looking at results-based management may be by adding flexibility to the definition of objectives, outcomes, and targets, but making them more ambitious, while strengthening the capacity to measure results. Achievement of goals set for international organizations also depends on the absorptive capacity of recipient governments and institutions as well as on external factors beyond partners’ control. Focusing on outcomes in terms of political, economic, social, cultural and environmental changes – rather than strictly on the outputs produced – would, however, demonstrate the relevance and effectiveness of the policies and work of the organization. 

Longer-term evaluation:

While decision-makers often pay lip service to the need for longer-term evaluation exercises, limited, if any, resources are allocated to this end. The main reason is not budgetary constraints but lack of instruments allowing the organization and its donors to allocate resources beyond the limited time frame of programming and budgeting exercises. Organizations may improve by setting aside adequate funds – both from core budget and from extra-budgetary sources – for ex-post evaluation exercises in the longer term. With a better understanding of organizational performance, constituents and stakeholders would get a clearer picture of the senior management’s leadership skills. Lessons learnt in a longer time frame could feed into future planning and actions.

Leaner organizational structures:

Another critical area of concern is the multiplication of management layers. International organizations, regardless of their size, have multiple layers of hierarchy: a chief executive officer, one or more deputies, then departments, branches, sections, regional, sub-regional and country offices. Additional reporting levels exist within each of these units. This complexity may affect both the cost-effective use of scarce human resources, to the detriment of technical and operational work, and the speed, consistency and effectiveness of decision-making processes. Leaner organizations, conversely, might by attrition liberate substantial resources to be invested in technical excellence and operational efficiency.

Leaner management and reporting lines may also have an immediate benefit on the simplification and consistency of internal business processes. Today, international officials are burdened with multiple, uncoordinated requirements related to reporting, financial accountability, legal clearances, cybersecurity, etc. While all these dimensions are necessary, the uncoordinated design and application of procedures by a plurality of managers who do not talk to each other has enormous transaction costs. As a manager, I ended up handling nine or ten different passwords to access data or tools in the same management information system.

Inclusive management:

In many organizations, awareness of the need to streamline and improve internal business processes has gained ground. Sarah Cliffe, Director of the New York University's Center on International Cooperation, indicates, “reform is really needed: the U.N.’s antiquated processes for the management of people and funds are at the heart of its difficulties in responding to real world challenges. Secretary-General António Guterres has laid out a bold vision to address this.” (Cliffe 2017) The current U.N. secretary-general identified five areas of management reform, namely a) eliminating duplicative internal controls; b) major budget simplification; c) ability to adjust to evolving conditions, with strengthened ex-post transparency and accountability; and d) centralizing administrative transactions in a reduced number of locations.

In my experience, however, a frequent answer is the outsourcing of business process reviews to external consultancy firms. This often turns out to be an expensive, time consuming, and inconclusive solution. As Lacity and Willcocks noted, “many companies look to business-process outsourcing to save money. But the most successful clients concentrate less on cost savings and more on achieving innovation.” (Lacity and Willcocks 2013) While external expertise and an outsider look may add value, it is essential to closely involve the relevant internal staff in redesigning business processes and procedures. Staff can offer precious experience, information, and ideas throughout the different steps of the business process, if senior management listens to them and encourages them to join forces. In my experience, internal task forces usually produce more relevant and feasible proposals for reform and improvement in a much shorter time and at a considerably lower cost than external consultants. These processes may also give an opportunity to junior staff to stand out and gain the visibility and motivation which is often lost in the daily routine of implementing inefficient and complicated rules and procedures.

Selection of managers:

Organizations may consider greater transparency in the appointment of senior managers. Senior management positions should be systematically filled through competitive processes, as happens for the rest of the staff. “Making more of the U.N.’s senior leadership appointments subject to open advertisement processes and pursuing this down the organization” is one of the key improvements that Cliffe has emphasized as part of an effective U.N. reform (Cliffe 2017). The chief executive officer of an organization should even produce a justification of why a given candidate was chosen for a senior position. This would dramatically reduce the scope for arbitrary appointments that are not driven by competence, but by other reasons – politics, nepotism, the Peter Principle, etc.

V. Petty and U.N. reform

Over and above the scope for improving the performance of individual U.N. organizations, an overall reform of the U.N. system has been on the agenda for decades now. The Security Council in its statement of 31 January 1992 asked the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to prepare an “analysis and recommendations on ways of strengthening and making more efficient within the framework and provisions of the Charter the capacity of the United Nations for preventive diplomacy, for peace-making and for peace-keeping.” (Boutros-Ghali 1992) Different U.N. secretaries-general initially declared their commitment to reform, but their enthusiasm often faded over time in the face of political, financial, and bureaucratic hurdles.

Some scholars or experts are quite skeptical about the possibilities for real reform. Andrew Barungi called it “foolhardy” to expect reforms when the U.N. has failed in its mandate to bring peace and promote sustainable development since its formation. “Reforms can be achieved when all states share the same interests,” Barungi argued (2017). Anthony Banbury, former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General, wrote that the U.N. is failing in its overall mission because of “colossal mismanagement.” (Banbury 2016)

To be fair, some substantial improvement has been made in recent years in the capacity of the U.N. and multilateral system to set a more coherent common agenda, such as:

  • The Millennium Development Goals that aimed to halve extreme poverty, stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and provide universal primary education by 2015 (United Nations n.d.).

  • The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness of 2005, which offers a roadmap to improve aid effectiveness and a establishes a system to monitor progress (OECD n.d.).

  • The Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, under which heads of states affirmed their “strong political commitment” to ensure sustainable development goals receive financing (United Nations n.d.).

  • The new Sustainable Development Goals agenda, which came into force on January 1, 2016 after its adoption in September 2015.

Still, global coherence meets serious hurdles in trickling down to the country and operational level. In late 2016, eight countries – Albania, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Pakistan, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uruguay and Vietnam – agreed to pilot the U.N. initiative known as Delivering as One, which would have all arms and agencies of the U.N. work under a single leader and with a single budget and program. (United Nations n.d.). This pilot experience of enhancing U.N. joint work has been subsequently expanded to a larger number of countries.

While it has contributed to improved communication and coordination, the Delivery as One approach is essentially based on goodwill and has no binding operational mechanisms. Once again, U.N. headquarters preferred to pay lip service to the need for reform and coordination, without addressing the political, operational, budgetary, and human resource implications of actual policy and operational integration. Therefore, the buck was ultimately passed to country representatives, while central planning and decision-making, legal and financial rules and procedures, resource allocation, and human resource policies remained unrelated and inconsistent.

This is the consequence of a system made of different organizations that were created in response to different political incidents at different times in history. As of today, each organization retains its own independent governance, management, rules, and procedures. Also, the way the scope and mandate of each organization is defined inevitably generates overlaps, duplication, competition, and mission creep. In the absence of clear policies and standards, U.N. collaboration is entirely ad hoc, based on individual goodwill and the possibility of pragmatically reconciling different interests and procedures.

Against this background, the big question – not an easy one – is: Can a U.N. reform be effectively implemented through incremental changes and improvements, or does it require going back to the drawing board?

VI. Conclusion

There is no doubt that a complete redesign of the U.N. system would enhance its relevance and effectiveness. For instance, a new Sustainable Development Goals agenda was adopted with 17 goals and measurable indicators: Would it not make sense to have 17 agencies, each one taking the lead in one SDG? Of course it would, but it will not happen. This option would de facto imply zeroing out on the current agencies and redesigning new ones from the start. The political challenges, transaction costs and transition arrangements in terms of operational and staff continuity would be so high that nobody would reasonably engage in such a process.

The alternative should, however, not be just paying lip service to policy coherence from the respective headquarters while leaving country managers and representatives to work it out among themselves. Is a third way possible?

A reasonable option would consist of an agreement across the U.N. system to streamline and harmonize legal provisions, financial rules, human resource policies, field representation, and management information systems with a view to reaching a common set of rules and tools for improved operational performance. Also, full mobility across the U.N. system should be enacted. This reform would however only be possible if each member country engaged to speak with the same voice in the different governance boards. If that happened, the effectiveness and credibility of the U.N. system would be amazingly enhanced. We can hardly expect member coU.N.tries to take an initiative in this direction. While Mr. Guterres, the current U.N. secretary-general has already demonstrated competence and an innovative approach, we hope that – through more transparent senior management selection mechanisms – strategic leaders may emerge across the U.N. system and take over from Petty-like managers to trigger and support real reform and innovation.                                                                                                                                                  

+ References

Banbury, Anthony. 2016. "I Love the U.N., but It Is Failing ." NYTimes.com. March 18. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/opinion/sunday/i-love-the-un-but-it-is-failing.html.

Barungi, Andrew. 2017. "Does the UN really need reforms? ." NewVision.co.ug. October 2. Accessed March 25, 2019.

Boutros-Ghali, Boutros. 1992. "An Agenda for Peace: Preventive diplomacy and related matters ." UN.org. December 18. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/47/a47r120.htm.

Cliffe, Sarah. 2017. "UN Management Reform in the Making: Four Strong Points and Two Challenges." NYU Center on International Cooperation.

Lacity, Mary, and Leslie P Willcocks. 2013. "Outsourcing Business Process for Innovation." SloanReview.mit.edu. March 19. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/outsourcing-business-processes-for-innovation/.

OECD. n.d. "Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action ." OECD.org. Accessed March 25, 2019.


Peter, Laurence J. 1969. The Peter Principle. New York: William Morrow & Company.

United Nations. n.d. "Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development." UN Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. Accessed March 29, 2019. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/frameworks/addisababaactionagenda.

—. n.d. "Millennium Goals." UN.org. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/.

—. n.d. "UNGA: Delivering as One." UN.org. Accessed March 29, 2019. https://www.un.org/en/ga/deliveringasone/.

+ Author biography

Antonio Graziosi is a labour economist by training. He worked for almost 32 years (including 24 years in management positions) in the International Labour Organization (ILO), with assignments in Africa, Latin America and Europe. He retired from the ILO in 2017 and since then has been collaborating with different academic institutions.


Can planting trees save us?

Can planting trees save us?

Can planting trees save us?

Can planting trees save us?

Can planting trees save us? Describing the Impact of the United States Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization on Forestry and Land Management Policies from now through 2050

Will Hackman

Abstract: The United States Mid-Century Strategy for deep decarbonization (MCS), released late in the Obama Administration, provides a vision for aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions over the next three decades. The MCS goal is an economy-wide net GHG emissions reduction of 80%-100% below 2005 levels by 2050. While the Trump Administration has rolled back some of the climate change mitigation efforts initiated under previous administrations, the MCS nevertheless remains a valuable assessment of strategies the U.S. will need to eventually return to in order to achieve long-term goals consistent with international climate agreements like the Paris Agreement. This paper focuses on evaluating the MCS goal of increasing the U.S. carbon “sink” by 40-50 million acres and the role that efficient, effective, and climate-smart U.S. land resource management policies will play. Land management choices over the next 30 years will be critical to achieving U.S. climate commitments. The policy implications on both public- and private-sector land managers of this large-scale carbon sink expansion are numerous and will need to balance future needs for the variety of goods and services U.S. lands provide, including: food, wood products, energy, and living space.

Keywords: U.S. Mid-Century Strategy, decarbonization, greenhouse emissions land management policy, climate

I. Introduction

Current best-case scenarios for renewable energy deployment over the next few decades fall short of where they need to be to reach global climate sustainability goals (“2100 Warming Projections” 2018). Governments have the technological capability to eliminate fossil fuel usage, but they are not willing to put those plans in motion fast enough. Traditional energy (coal, natural gas, and oil) is still the dominant fuel source in almost every projection through mid-century, in large part due to the massive investments that have already been made (Nyquist 2016). World energy demand is also growing rapidly as developing countries industrialize. Between now and 2040, global net electricity generation is projected to increase by 45%, and fossil fuels, still the cheapest energy source in many countries, are on track to meet a large part of that demand (“Annual Energy Outlook” 2019).

Unless there are immediate and dramatic worldwide shifts in energy usage, there may be no way to avert catastrophic global warming without technologies that remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. These are known as “negative carbon” technologies (“Geoengineering” 2019). Negative carbon technologies are included in 100 of the 116 scenarios that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the world’s leading authority on climate science – modeled to keep global average temperature in line with the goals of the 2015 international climate agreement known as the “Paris Agreement.”

The Paris Agreement necessitates that global average temperature be kept below 2°C of warming, over pre-industrial levels, by the year 2100 (“Summary for Policymakers” 2014). This is achieved through “deep decarbonization” of the world’s economy by the middle of this century. Article 4, paragraph 19, of the Paris Agreement calls on all signatory countries to “formulate and communicate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies,” for the purpose of this deep decarbonization (“Communication of Long Term Strategies” 2019).

The United States plan for deep decarbonization is called the “Mid-Century Strategy” (MCS) and it calls for U.S. economy-wide net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of at least 80% below 2005 levels by 2050 (“Deep Decarbonization” 2016). The U.S. MCS is the culmination of decades of policy conversations at the domestic level, international negotiations, and ever-increasing scientific understanding behind the challenges posed by climate change. Over 110 pages, the MCS divides policy priorities into three categories: transforming to a low-carbon energy system; sequestering carbon through forests, soils, and carbon dioxide (CO2) removal technologies; and reducing non-CO2 emissions. For each of these categories, well-researched policy plans are detailed with projection scenarios showing multiple pathways through which these policies might help achieve the MCS’s long-term emissions reduction goals.

This paper focuses on the second MCS priority, describing the impact of increasing U.S. forests and grasslands as a tool for carbon sequestration (i.e., negative carbon). The MCS goal in this regard is 40-50 million acres of reforestation by mid- century. Expanding U.S. forests and grasslands by such a large amount is a challenging task, but one that is modeled to potentially offset up to 50% of U.S. GHG emissions. This paper discusses the policies required to achieve this goal and what implications they would have on government land managers and private landowners.

USMCS Graph.jpg

II. Background

In 2007, U.S. annual CO2 emissions peaked above 7 gigatons and have been steadily declining since “Greenhouse Gas Inventory” 2019). The United States has now reduced total carbon emissions by more than any other country. From 2005 to 2015, U.S. emissions declined by 622 million metric tons (MMT); a 10% reduction (Rapier 2016). However, to meet the initial U.S. goal under the Paris Agreement, the United States must continue to significantly reduce GHG emissions over the next few years – reaching 17% reductions by 2020 and 26%-28% reductions by 2025 (relative to 2005) (“NDC Registry” 2019).

There have been many contributors to the reduction of CO2 emissions and other GHGs in the United States over the last 10 years. Emissions from coal-fired power plants have decreased as natural gas has become the primary source of electricity generation. In 2005, coal produced roughly 50% of U.S. electricity generation and natural gas around 20%. In 2017, coal had dropped to 30% of the domestic energy share and natural gas had increased to 31%. Renewable energy has also been growing rapidly. In 2017, all zero-emission sources – all forms of renewable energy, hydropower, and nuclear – accounted for 37% of U.S. energy generation (“Electricity: Current Issues and Trends” 2019). These dramatic shifts have reduced energy-sector emissions so much that transportation has now matched energy as the largest GHG emitting sector in the United States. Additionally, because of federal policies such as the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, transportation sector emissions over the last 10 years have also dropped around 10% (“Fast Facts” 2019).

While U.S. CO2 emissions reductions indicate positive trends, much more will need to be done to meet Paris Agreement 2025 targets and beyond. Increasing the U.S. carbon sink (i.e., forests and grasslands) will be critical to offsetting the emissions we cannot fully reduce in order to achieve our mid-century deep decarbonization goals.

In 2014, U.S. forests, grasslands, and other natural carbon sequestration sources sequestered 762 MMT of CO2 which offset around 11% of total GHG emissions (MCS, 69). As mentioned in the introduction, if the United States achieves its MCS goal of expanding current forests and grasslands by 40-50 million acres that could offset up to 50% of GHG emissions by 2050. This is because trees and grasses take CO2 in through their leaves and stalks. Through photosynthesis, oxygen is released back into the air and the carbon is transferred or stored in their trunks, limbs, and roots. However, when a tree dies and decomposes or is cut down and burned, the carbon is released back into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming (“Forests and Carbon Storage” 2019).  

At the international level, the role of activities that promote carbon sink expansion is recognized under Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) discussions. Climate-smart land management policy proposals and country-level carbon sink expansion strategies form key components of yearly climate negotiations. According to the United Nations:

The rate of build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere can be reduced by taking advantage of the fact that atmospheric CO2 can accumulate as carbon in vegetation and soils in terrestrial ecosystems...the world's forests and other wooded lands store more than 485 gigatons (1 Gt=1 billion tons) of carbon, 260 Gt in the biomass (53%), 37 Gt in dead wood and litter (8%) and 189 Gt in soil (39%) (“Land Use” 2019).

III. Policy proposals

From 1987 to 2012, U.S. forests expanded by roughly 1 million acres annually. From 2006-2011, federal agencies helped stimulate expansion by tree planting on over 300,000 acres annually (MCS 10). To reach the MCS goal, however, annual reforestation and afforestation would need to roughly double. In addition, since it takes time for trees to grow and reach their full carbon sequestration potential, much of the planting needs to happen in the short term. The MCS projects that 2.7 million acres of forest expansion is needed annually from now through 2035 to reach the 2050 goal.

foresttrends pic.jpg

The policy implications for government land managers and private landowners from achieving 40-50 million acres of national reforestation are numerous. U.S. forestland produces a variety of goods and services essential to the economy. Residential development and agriculture are large drivers of forest loss. A lot of U.S. energy production, including 40% of coal production, comes from federally-managed lands (“American Energy” 2019). Any plan to increase forests will need to carefully balance wood and food production, living space, and energy needs over the next few decades. To that regard, this paper makes the following six policy recommendations:

  1. Fully implement the USDA Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry. This will help to reduce GHG emissions, increase carbon storage, and generate clean energy on existing private and agricultural lands.

  2. Pass federal incentives to expand “precision agriculture” on private cropland that helps to increase perennial grasses and agroforestry.

  3. Promote large-scale expansion of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) on both public and privately-managed lands. The United States could then use BECCS as a critical compliance mechanism in meeting our commitments under the Paris Agreement.

  4. Put a national price on carbon dioxide emissions.

  5. Extend the business Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar installations and the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind installations.

  6. Ensure all nuclear power plants retiring over the next 20 years are replaced with new nuclear power plants.

IV. Discussion and analysis  

Policy recommendations 1-3 are suggested within the framework of expanding the U.S. carbon sink from its current rate of 1 million acres annually to the needed MCS projection of 2.7 million acres annually from now through 2035. Federal stimulation will play a key role in this expansion but private sector coordination is also required. These first three recommendations ensure continued economic profitability on private lands that may be impacted by land use management changes.

Forest expansion on non-federal lands

When European settlers first arrived in the early 1600s, forests covered roughly half of what would become the landmass of the United States (“Old-Growth Forests” 2019). Today, even with reforestation efforts, total forest percentage is down to around 30% (with nearly all forest cover “new growth” forests – as opposed to “old growth” which has almost entirely been lost) (Ibid). That equates to a net reduction of approximately 257 million acres of forest due to U.S. industrialization (“Forest Facts” 2019). That is more than three times the size of the total acreage under management by the National Park Service (Ibid). It also equates to an incredible amount of stored carbon released into the atmosphere.  

Much of U.S. deforestation was done for agricultural and residential needs (Ibid). In places where development directly converted forests into farms or neighborhoods, the land is now under private ownership. This presents challenges in expanding forest land and careful coordination with private landowners and other non-federal entities is needed. Adopting the ten U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry,” created in 2015, would help set the framework for correcting years of policies that promoted deforestation and development.

The USDA building blocks include planting more trees in urban locations, constructing more large buildings out of wood, and encouraging agricultural partnerships. One example the MCS provides for the latter is Iowa:

In Iowa alone, an estimated 27% of cropland, or 7 million acres, may not be profitable in commodity crop production but could be well-suited to perennial grasses or agroforestry. Focusing nationally on such areas could minimize land use competition and help increase rural landowner incomes while delivering environmental benefits like improved soil health and reduced nutrient runoff (MCS, 12).

The Iowa example is one of many public-private partnerships that will be required to balance the multiple needs of U.S. lands while ensuring rural economies aren’t devastated by large-scale, climate-smart land use changes. Biomass energy might be another large-scale strategy worth considering.

There is an estimated 31 million acres of farmland that MCS models could be used to grow energy crops like perennial grasses (MCS, 76). According to the Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC) in Burlington, Vermont, perennial grasses were used on the prairie for heat before the industrial revolution and in places with little forest land – a process that became known as “Prairie Coal.” These grasses sequester a lot of carbon in their roots and soil and are easy to grow. In particular, BERC research shows switchgrass has a very efficient energy output to input ratio. BERC has also concluded that, “one acre of farmland is capable of producing an average annual yield of herbaceous biomass sufficient to meet the annual space- and water-heating needs of an average home” (“Grass Energy Basics” 2019).

Traditional wood is another large-scale biomass energy source with carbon sequestration potential – if the carbon is captured when burned. This process is known as Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). The MCS estimates that up to 50 million acres of trees could be planted on existing agricultural land for the purpose of BECCS. This would not only provide energy and carbon sequestration but also needed revenue for rural areas, all without impacting production (MCS, 78). This is known as “precision agriculture” or “agroforestry” and the MCS claims it could, “improve soil quality, water and nutrient retention, and crop yields, all with minimal competition for land use” (MCS, 76). This approach of balancing yield and economics will be crucial in land use conversations with private landowners.

Forest expansion on federal lands

There is much potential to enhance the U.S. carbon sink through better private sector coordination, as described. However, better federal land management will also be crucial. Currently, 28% of the total U.S. land mass is federally managed lands (“Forest Facts” 2019). With existing agency jurisdictions and management plans already in place, it becomes easier to implement large-scale projects to enhance the carbon sink on federal land than private, and there is more accountability in tracking results. Additionally, the carbon sequestration potential of federal grasslands and forests are already tracked annually in national GHG inventories. In 2014, U.S. forests, grasslands, and other natural carbon sequestration sources sequestered 762 MMT of CO2 (MCS, 69).

Many of the same practices mentioned in section 3.1 can also be implemented on federal lands and scaled up rapidly -- such as BECCS. Using BECCS to reduce global carbon emissions was included in over 100 of the 116 scenarios modeling ways to keep global average temperature below 2°C by the IPCC. Models projecting large-scale utilization of BECCS could remove up to 616 gigatons (616,000 million metric tons) of global CO2 from the atmosphere by 2100 (“Rising Cost” 2015). At the federal level, the United States could potentially pursue land-use policies to dramatically expand BECCS. The government could then use these policies as another critical compliance mechanism in meeting our commitment under the Paris Agreement, and as a short-term offsetting bridge as we struggle to fully transition our energy and transportation sectors to clean energy sources.

As climate change gets worse each year, federal land management challenges increase. Increased droughts and wildfires, invasive species and insect attacks (such as bark beetles which have leveled 46 million acres of U.S. forest land), and weather events all threaten the future of U.S. forests (“Fourth National” 2019). Federal agencies that will be needed to promote reforestation and afforestation under the MCS goals are now spending an increasingly larger percentage of their annual budgets fighting these factors. According to a 2015 U.S. Forest Service (USFS) report, fire made up 16% of the agency’s annual budget in 1995, 50% in 2015, and (without funding increases) fighting fires could exceed 67% of the agency’s annual budget by 2025 (“Rising Cost” 2015). If that happens, agency funding for all non-fire programs could be reduced by $700 million. This squeeze on federal resources has already resulted in a reduction of all non-fire USFS personnel by 39% (Ibid).

A reduction of the very resources and human capital needed to fight climate change, due to climate change, is not unique to the USFS. The federal government as a whole is spending an increasingly larger percentage of its annual budget addressing the many challenges climate change adaptation poses. Fighting fires is just one item on a long list that includes responding to natural disasters, increased crop and flood insurance claims, coastal resiliency projects, safeguarding the energy grid and other national security interests, and repairs to damaged federal infrastructure. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), climate change will exacerbate these threats and increase costs to the federal government by billions of dollars a year (“Climate Change” 2017).

This is all to say the sooner the federal government acts the better. It is in the government’s own self-interest to address climate change before the costs bankrupt program budgets. And, as the MCS highlights, there are many opportunities for economic growth while pursuing needed policies. 


Further discussion points

Policy recommendation 4 is important for several reasons. Putting a price on carbon utilizes the power of the market to incentivize emissions reductions in the most effective and economic ways. Achieving deep decarbonization by mid-century will carry significant costs to every sector of the U.S. economy. Implementing a carbon price can actually help reduce those costs in the long run. According to the MCS, long-term cost projections associated with national carbon emissions reductions were two to five times higher without an economy-wide carbon price than with (MCS, 30). A carbon price is also necessary for many of the land use changes called for under the MCS and to encourage private landowners to pursue policy recommendations 1-3.

Many forms of carbon pricing structures have been proposed in recent years, all with their pros and cons. A Department of Energy analysis shows that a price that starts around $20 per metric ton and increases steadily would be adequate to achieve most of the long-term CO2 emissions reductions goals contained within the MCS (MCS, 82). Whatever the ultimate policy becomes, there is no doubt about its necessity in allowing the United States to reach long-term sustainability goals. 

Finally, while not directly related to land-use changes, policy recommendations 5-6 are included in this paper as an important reference to maintaining existing policies that incentivize CO2 emissions reductions in the short term as other longer-term policies are developed. The business Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar installations and the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind installations have significantly helped to reduce barriers to entry in the energy sector. In recent decades, and in large part to these federal tax credits, there has been huge growth in the United States solar and wind industries. However, as of 2017, wind and solar still only accounted for just 6.3% and 1.3% of U.S. energy supply, respectively, while fossil fuels supplied 63% (“U.S. electricity” 2019). The current scale of renewable energy deployment needs to increase to reach global climate goals. Yet, the federal government is now gradually phasing the ITC and PTC down over the next five years, which could potentially lead the industries to stall.

Regarding nuclear power, many plants are nearing the end of their lifespans and either need to be updated or replaced by new systems. According to a 2016 study by the Rhodium Group, if all “at risk” U.S. nuclear plants retired by 2030, GHG emissions from the U.S. power sector would double from 2020 to 2030 (Larsen and Herndon 2016). Nuclear power supplies 20% of total U.S. energy and 60% of all our clean energy. Continued nuclear generation at current levels, or expanded nuclear generation, is included in every deep decarbonization scenario under the MCS. Even by implementing best-case carbon sink expansion scenarios discussed in this paper, the United States will not be able to achieve our deep decarbonization goals, meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, and achieve climate sustainability, if existing policies that promote all forms of clean energy are not maintained.

V. Conclusion

A 2016 Shell Oil report concluded that to achieve global electricity sector decarbonization by mid-century, the energy mix would need to be at least 40% wind and solar, 20% nuclear and hydroelectricity, 15% bioenergy, and 20%-25% fossil fuels with carbon capture and sequestration (and mostly natural gas, not coal or oil). According to Shell’s report, this would require a “complete turnaround from today, where hydrocarbons constitute more than 80% of our [global] energy system” (Stern 2018). 

The United States will face monumental challenges in achieving this complete turnaround in our energy mix. Even with best case scenarios in energy, transportation, agriculture, and land use, many factors could slow progress. Now that the United States has become an exporter of coal, oil, and natural gas, domestic fossil fuel production may still increase to meet expanding global demand, even if domestic demand decreases. The United States is resource-rich, with one-fifth of the entire world’s coal reserves and 34% of global technically-recoverable natural gas (“How much coal” 2019). The United States is now the largest producer of natural gas and oil in the world (including crude and petroleum hydrocarbons).[1] It is plausible that new policies that increase fossil fuel production under the current administration, or any future administration, could contribute to a rise in global CO2 emissions. We might already be observing the beginning of this effect. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, energy-related CO2 emissions declined in 2017 by 0.7%, but will increase by 0.9% in 2018 and by an additional 1.0% in 2019 (“Energy Outlook” 2019).

Clearly, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the impact the current U.S. administration may have on efforts to mitigate climate change. What is clear, however, is that pursuit of the MCS goals must resume if we are to achieve our Paris Agreement commitments. The MCS is not a platform for any one administration. It is a set of tools for our entire society to move toward climate sustainability over the next few decades. It is also clear that climate inaction by the United States will be impossible to maintain in the long term. Global alarm and pressure is building. Markets are shifting. Every country on earth has signed the Paris Agreement – including the United States which, despite some misleading reporting, is still in the agreement. 

At the same time, the United States has many opportunities to consider if we are able to move toward our MCS goals. As discussed, creative new agricultural practices could result in tens of millions of acres of farmland not only being added to the U.S. carbon sink but reimagined into more profitable ventures. The hundreds of millions of acres under management by federal agencies could see similar benefits.

Expanding U.S. forests by 40 to 50 million acres by 2050 would recover one-third of all U.S. forestland lost since 1850. This is a daunting task, but federal land management agencies theoretically have the tools needed to get the job done. The U.S. Forest Service directly manages 193 million acres and “supports sustainable management” on 500 million acres of private, state, and tribal forests. The Bureau of Land Management manages another 250 million acres and the National Park Service manages 84 million acres (“Forest Facts” 2019). Not all of this acreage is suitable for forest or grassland, but it is plausible that a coordinated effort between federal and state agencies, as well as private and tribal land owners, could result in the needed carbon sink expansion. The path to increasing the carbon sink is viable through a variety of different scenarios all of which benefit society and the economy.

The year 2050 might seem a long way off, especially in the context of policymaking. However, the importance of urgent action over the next few years cannot be overstated. Recent research published in the journal Science shows that in order to curb global temperature rise to around 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100, fossil-fuel emissions can peak by 2020 and need to fall to close to zero by 2050 (Rockström et al. 2017). A recent joint report from the International Energy Agency and the International Renewable Energy Agency supports this claim. According to the report, to have just a 66% chance of avoiding 2°C of warming, urgent action on a global scale is required and comprehensive policies need to be introduced immediately.

U.S. federal forestry and land management policies initiated now that promote carbon sink expansion could be the determining factor in whether or not the United States reaches our climate goals. While long-term structural changes are needed in energy, transportation, and indeed across every corner of the global economy, this will take time. Increasing the carbon sink in the short term may be our best hope to offset the emissions we ultimately can’t reduce. We must buy ourselves time to fundamentally reshape society’s relationship with energy production and consumption and, by doing so, have a chance at avoiding climate disaster.

[1] EIA data on US as the world’s top producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons can be accessed through (https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/ieo/exec_summ.php).

+ Author biography

During the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, Will Hackman served as a political fundraiser and campaign manager on four federal races for the U.S. House and Senate as well as a gubernatorial campaign. In 2013, he joined the public sector conservation community as a marine fisheries conservation advocate. He first developed a love for the ocean as a commercial Alaskan salmon fisherman during the summers while in college. He later completed a season commercially fishing for Alaskan Bering Sea crab -- one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Since 2013, he has closely worked on federal legislative issues related to ocean and land conservation as well as energy and the environment. He represented Georgetown University at United Nations climate change conferences in Morocco and Germany and is a contributing author on energy, environmental, and climate change topics. He graduated from Bradley University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and received his Master in Public Policy, specializing in energy, environmental, and climate change policy, from Georgetown University in 2018. His graduate thesis was on the role of U.S. federal tax credits in stimulating growth in domestic solar installations.

+ Footnotes

  1. EIA data on US as the world’s top producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons can be accessed through (https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/ieo/exec_summ.php).

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Addressing higher ed economics

Addressing higher education economics

Addressing higher ed economics

Addressing higher education economics

 Addressing higher education economics: Policy analysis for tuition

Klevisa Kovaci

Abstract: Critical to a prosperous, democratic, and productive society, higher education provides significant benefits to individuals and communities. Initially an endeavor reserved for elites, pursuit of a college education gradually became accessible to the United States’ middle class because of government policies and laws instated in the 1800s and onward. Today, however, college tuition increases are outpacing both wage growth and inflation rates. This paper examines the problem of excessively high tuition in American higher education. It presents and assesses policy options to address this issue using supply- and demand-side economics. Research suggests that colleges that provide financial aid through grants and loans are more affordable for students, particularly students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Likewise, evidence suggests that income-targeted tuition may be an effective approach for directing tuition benefits to those with the highest need and may minimize economic inefficiencies. Other policy options, such as free tuition and increased competition, yield less consistent results. Policies should also consider the context of demand and supply for higher education, specific fields of study, and how they relate to the labor market.

Keywords: Higher education, U.S. education system

I. Introduction and background


Higher education’s dramatically increasing tuition costs pose social and economic issues for the U.S. High tuition obstructs access to college education, harms individual student health, and exacerbates an already looming debt crisis. These consequences are especially pronounced for students coming from traditionally marginalized backgrounds because they impede social mobility. In addition, uncertainty that an expensive degree will lead to a well-paying career without excessive student debt deters potential students. Evidence-based policy recommendations should seek to reduce the negative consequences of high college tuition in favor of more accessible higher education policies.

Various studies examine policies that may lower or control the high cost of tuition, either by targeting tuition directly (supply-side policies) or by providing financial assistance to students to reduce the tuition burden (demand-side policies). Policy options must also consider social equity and diversity in higher education. Evidence-based studies have major implications for policymaking, but they also face methodology limitations. Thus, policy discussions must consider evidence-based findings, their consistency, and their scalability in the context of higher education and labor markets.

History of higher education in the USA

Before the nineteenth century, higher education in the United States was only available to a few wealthy individuals. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, federal laws substantially increased both the volume of colleges and universities and the number of students who attended them. In 1862, Congress established the Morrill Land Grant Act, which allocated land to U.S. states to sell for proceeds that states could use to establish new universities (Library of Congress 2017). Beginning In 1901, states established two-year community colleges (“junior colleges”), for technical and vocational training (Encyclopedia Britannica 2019). Additional targeted laws, such as the GI Bill of 1944 and financial assistance provisions in the 1970s, further increased students’ access to higher education. These laws diversified college applicant pools through inclusion of nontraditional groups at the time, such as veterans, women, and students from minority races and traditionally marginalized backgrounds. President John F. Kennedy's 1961 Executive Order 10925 created “affirmative action” to ban applicant discrimination and foster diversity in workplaces and universities (Hoxby 1997). In the midst of the 1960s civil rights movement, this move helped to drive forward equal rights and access to work and education for African Americans and other minorities.

The proliferation of universities and candidates drove competition among students – over gaining admission to top programs – and among schools – over attracting top applicants, talented faculty, and maximum funding (Bordelon 2012). Competition among universities gained momentum as applicants began to travel further from home to pursue higher education. Initially seen as local institutions serving local populations, universities grew into national economic entities for which students and faculty would be willing to move throughout the country. Simultaneously, changes in the economy and increasing demand for college-educated workers radically altered the higher education market. Tuition costs grew rapidly. In 2018, the average out-of-state tuition and fees at public universities rose by 2.4% to $26,290 and at private universities by 3.3% to $35,830 (see figure below). Beginning in the early 1980s, tuition rate hikes surpassed wages and inflation rate increases for all but the top income earners, making university disproportionately unaffordable for most (see figure below). From 1998 to 2008, tuition at four-year universities increased 4.1% beyond inflation, and from 2008 to 2019, it increased an additional 3.1% (The College Board 2018). As the higher education cost increase outpaces wage and inflation increases, it compromises access to college education and reduces its full benefits to society.


Theory: benefits of education and the role of policy

The value of education, particularly higher education, to society is profound in civic life and the economy. Individually, more schooling has “strong causal effects” on increased earnings, improved health, and healthy behaviors (Heckman et al. 2016). In the community, education breeds informed and engaged citizens, which boosts social cohesion and democracy. Moreover, obtaining a college degree enables people to pursue work opportunities that can improve their socioeconomic situations, thus lowering socioeconomic inequality (Edwards and Marin 2015). Post-secondary education, in particular, benefits minorities and traditionally marginalized groups because it provides a way to climb the economic ladder into desirable positions in the workplace. Affirmative action, for instance, improves representation of racial minorities, such as African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Investing in higher education is important for economic prosperity, social mobility, and equality because it affects cross-sectional and intergenerational income distribution (Abbott et al. 2016).

Additionally, through teaching workplace skills, higher education builds resilient individuals who can adapt to a constantly shifting and fluctuating market. Obtaining a college degree is a prerequisite for many professional fields in the United States In 2018, 63% of U.S. jobs required a diploma beyond high school (Bordelon 2012). Over the past three decades, the earnings premium from a college degree rose because of the increased value of college-educated workers (Oreopoulos and Petronijevic 2013). Heckman and colleagues agree that additional years of schooling generally correlate with higher earnings and increased productivity, which are key factors to a healthy economy (Heckman et al. 2016).


In addition, education reduces crime rates and produces social savings. In the United States, a one-percent increase in the high school completion rates of men between the ages of 20 and 60 correlates with savings of $1.4 billion per year in reduced crime-related costs (Lochner and Moretti 2004). This effect may be a result of the higher income associated with college graduates that causes highly educated individuals to have a higher opportunity cost (in the form of losing that income) if they engage in illicit behavior. Another theory is that schools may teach students to be more risk averse, which discourages them from engaging in illegal activities. The prohibitive cost of college tuition restricts access and thereby jeopardizes higher education’s full benefits to society and the economy. Costly higher education harms individual financial well-being, inclusivity, social mobility, and the United States’ economic health.

II. Developments and consequences of high tuition


Effects of high tuition

Rising college tuition costs cause tremendous financial strain for students. Between 1987 and 2010, collegiate institutions oversaw steep tuition increases (Gordon and Hedlund 2016). In 2015, students of four-year private universities paid an average of $18,000 per year out of pocket and financed the remainder of their tuitions ($25,000 on average) through grants and loans (see figure below). The high amount of student loans has perpetuated a debt crisis with ramifications for college students and graduates.


Drastic tuition hikes challenge the accessibility of higher education. A case study on public universities in California from 2008 to 2012 demonstrated a correlation between increased tuition, reduced state aid, and decreased enrollment at California public universities, with an 8% increase in students taking out college loans (Jackson and Warren 2018). Rosemont College also observed a drop in application and enrollment numbers due to increased tuition (Eldridge and Cawley 2017). In fact, the National Association of University Colleges and Business Officers (NACUBO) showed in a 2015 report that one-third of universities that increased tuition from 2010 to 2015 experienced flat or negative net tuition revenue (NACUBO 2016). In 2017, the same study showed that universities’ net revenue from tuition decreased by 0.1% that year. This figure is down from the 2.6% increase in 2016, and 8% increase since 2010 because tuition hikes forced universities to also increase financial aid, offsetting the revenue earned from higher prices (Ibid). Continuous tuition increases appear to lead to eventual stagnation, or even diminishing net revenue, and reduced enrollment at universities. In fact, about 50% of universities reporting data to NACUBO in 2015 stated that their enrollment had declined due to “price sensitivity” (Zinshteyn 2016). This threat poses efficiency questions, not only for students financing high tuition, but also for universities attempting to deliver quality education while maximizing their profits.

Socially, high tuition contributes to increased inequality and perpetuates social status quo. In a telling study, Zimmerman found that admission to elite higher education institutions raises the probability of a student attaining a company leadership position (i.e., director, manager) by 50% in Chile. As a result, college students from wealthy families – especially males who previously attended private high school – are best positioned to obtain jobs in top leadership roles with peers from similar backgrounds (Zimmerman 2019). A college education also increases this elite group’s chance of being in the top 0.1% of income distribution by 45%. If only wealthy families in a given society can afford to invest in an expensive college education, the cost becomes prohibitive for other parts of the population and helps sustain high income inequality. The United States exhibits similar features: costly university tuition, varying socioeconomic groups with different degrees of access to higher education, and school programs that help enable graduates to attain leadership posts. In the United States, exorbitant tuition costs are unaffordable for many who are not in the higher socioeconomic levels. Prohibitive tuition may hamper access to higher education and endanger upward mobility for poor youth who lack the financial means to pay. In the United States, already high tuition indebts youth, particularly those with scarce resources, reduces their purchasing power, and precipitates a debt crisis in the macro scale and long term.  

Debt Consequences

Compounding the accessibility issue, federal financial aid expansion has been more sluggish than tuition increases. In response to the 2007 economic recession, most U.S. states cut financial aid for approximately five years (Mitchell and Leachman 2015). These cuts included slashing discretionary programs that fund higher education for low-income students due to large budget deficits. In 2017, the federal government budget eliminated the need-based Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) (effective 2019) (U.S. Department of Education 2018), drastically reduced work-study amounts, and cut Pell Grants by $3.9 billion (White House 2017). Despite state government funding increases in 2016, the amount of aid offered per student was eight to 11% lower than it had been before the recession (The College Board 2018).

In addition to the reductions in quantity of government financial aid, the shifting composition of financial aid has made managing aid less sustainable for students. Post-2010, students have been taking out more unsubsidized loans, as the amount of government-subsidized loans offered has been slowly declining since 2010 (The College Board 2019). Interest rates for federal student loans have steadily increased since 2016 (Nova 2018). Meanwhile, some private colleges reduce institutional aid and use the net funding gain to finance education inputs, thus substituting some qualified poor students for less qualified wealthy students (Epple et al. 2013). This trade-off based on ability to pay especially harms socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

Overall, a societal emphasis on the importance of a college degree combined with exorbitant tuition prices has precipitated a student debt crisis in which the average U.S. student incurred $30,156 in debt in 2016 (Federal Reserve Board of Governors 2016). Among students who completed some post-secondary education, 41% acquired debt to fund their education in 2015, a figure which does not include those who also borrowed from family or friends (Ibid). Furthermore, one-third of students who borrowed money did not graduate (Council for Economic Education 2016). Students who borrow and leave programs particularly suffer from enormous direct and opportunity costs, especially if from poor backgrounds. They accumulate debt, but lack the degree to obtain higher-paying jobs, and so work in low-paying jobs to pay back the debt (Baumhardt and Hanford 2018). This is detrimental for the economy which experiences high debt, lower income productivity, and consequently lower tax revenue (Kolodner and Butrymowicz 2017). Some experts in higher education economics believe that these statistics may indicate a looming student debt bubble: At $1.5 trillion, student debt affects 44 million Americans and is among the largest debt categories in the United States, second only to home mortgage debt (Student Borrower Protection Center 2019). 

Finally, the high cost of college may have negative health impacts on both students and borrowers. Approximately 70% of students surveyed in the Study on Collegiate Financial Wellness 2017 stated that they viewed finances as a “major stressor,” and many worried that they would not have enough money to afford school (Ohio State University 2017). Students also listed finances as an obstacle to graduating from college. These sentiments have been increasing for years; the 2013 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment showed that 35% of students in the United States reported that their finances were “traumatic or difficult to handle” in the last year (Adams-Gaston and Gordon 2017). Moreover, student debt prompts students to seek careers in the private sector, which tend to pay higher salaries than the often under-staffed professions that contribute to the public good, like public defense and social work (Bruinius 2017). Student loan debt can have additional long-term impacts on a graduate’s lifestyle and spending choices, such as postponing a home purchase or marriage due to debt. In order to address high tuition and its negative consequences, policymakers must understand its drivers. Various influences contribute to expensive tuition, including high demand for college education and underlying costs of university operations. 

Causes of increased tuition

No clear consensus exists to explain the rapid increase in college tuition prices relative to wage growth in the United States. One argument asserts that the job market’s demand for college-educated workers has increased demand for higher education (Brady 2013). The increased demand for higher education allows universities to raise prices significantly because students remain willing to pay.

Another theory asserts that increases in the underlying costs of university operations have led to tuition increases. For example, individualized attention in classrooms has become a selling point for colleges as smaller class sizes have become a priority for the students they attempt to attract, but meeting that expectation requires universities to hire and pay more professors. Others believe that increased costs of additional spending on nonessential activities and staff beyond core academics and job preparation constitute economic inefficiency, such as significant sports, stadiums, enhanced dorms, optional social activities, and an excessive number of administrators (“Making college cost less” 2014). Economic models, like those of Gordon and Hedlund and the New York Federal Reserve Bank, find that tuition subsidies through financial aid and Federal Student Loan Programs are somewhat responsible for tuition increases (Gordon and Hedlund 2016). Section four elaborates upon that theory.

A general theme of the theories surrounding tuition increase is that it is likely a product of higher education “marketization,” a phenomenon in which universities increase their number of administrators, raise tuition, and focus on auxiliary activities, like sports and recreation, to attract more applicants (Ibid). Under pressure to maximize profit by cutting budgets and generating revenue, university deans prioritize recruiting faculty and staff, fundraising, and creating programs to attract more applicants over moderating the cost of enrollment (McClure and Teitelbaum 2016). Therefore, tuition increases may be symptomatic of the broader phenomenon of marketization and market forces in higher education, and its true cause is likely a combination of the above theories and others. Indeed, policymakers and university administrators must consider the causes of increased tuition not only within the context of the higher education market, but also in its interplay with the labor market, as the two are closely linked. The greater the price of a diploma, the more imperative it becomes for the diploma to yield higher return on investment for graduates through future earnings.

Additional consideration: return on investment of an expensive degree

College attendance is an integral component of social mobility because it facilitates a higher lifetime earning potential. In the 1980s, college graduate salaries began to exceed the salaries of those with high school diplomas at an increasing rate (see figure below). In recent years, however, the wage gap between workers with high school and college diplomas has stagnated, and the highest salaries are reserved for those who hold master’s or professional degrees. The job market’s increased demand for graduate-educated employees diminishes the value of a college degree. In some professional markets, a college degree will no longer suffice (Valletta 2016).

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Increasingly, college graduates are underemployed or working in fields unrelated to their collegiate studies. A McKinsey report noted that 48% of recent college graduates are in jobs that do not require a four-year college education; almost half of all U.S. college graduates could not find jobs in their chosen field (Voice of the graduate 2013). These figures signal that, despite the exorbitant fees college students pay for education, the employment outcomes they face are increasingly disappointing. In fact, a PayScale study showed that, while some graduates earn very high premiums from a college degree, others are worse off from going to college. For instance, a computer science graduate from Stanford can make $1.7 million more in 20 years than a graduate of high school only. At the same time, an arts and English student from a less known school would be $132,000 worse off in 20 years than someone who only graduated from high school (PayScale 2018). The PayScale study estimated that Arts degrees from 12% of colleges actually yield negative returns (“Making College Cost Less” 2014). Financially, some such students might be better off if they had begun working at age 18 instead of attending college. Opportunity costs are especially high for liberal arts students, who typically obtain lower paying jobs immediately after graduating from college than students graduating from professional degree programs (Scott 2018).

Even graduates of highly technical and targeted programs may face a saturated job market and may have to accept employment outside their fields of expertise (Larson et al. 2015). Market saturation makes higher education a risky and competitive endeavor without a guaranteed return on investment. Lower, more affordable tuition would ensure that higher education would be a worthy endeavor with a positive return on an investment. The most direct way to control the tuition is through policies that directly influence tuition levels to keep them low, especially for those who can least afford it.  

III. Supply-side policies: controlling tuition

Supply-side policy recommendations to control tuition are policies that directly determine or influence the price or quantity of higher education. These policies would dictate tuition levels. They range between offering the same tuition for all (horizontal equitability) to targeted tuition levels, where each student pays an amount corresponding to his or her level of household income (vertical equitability).  

Free vs. income-targeted tuition

Free tuition movements and programs are popular answers to the tuition crisis in the United States and globally. These constitute horizontal equitability as everyone benefits from free higher education. Examples of such movements include Michigan’s 2005 Kalamazoo Promise program, the 2014 Tennessee Promise, City of Chicago programs for free community college, Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2015 proposal for free college, the founding of the Campaign for Free College in 2014, a 2013 Chilean student movement, the South African #FeesMustFall movement in 2016, and a 2017 Philippines decision to abolish tuition (de Gayardon 2017).

Experts warn, however, that government-funded tuition is extremely expensive and may have unintended consequences. Free tuition is not targeted, meaning it treats all students equally regardless of their abilities to pay and income levels. While egalitarian, the policy can bolster social inequity and economic inefficiency by providing a free service to individuals who are willing and able to afford tuition. Instead, taxpayers would collectively shoulder the burden of funding free college for students at a rate that amounts to approximately 1.5% of the US GDP (Usher 2017). In Quebec, a proposed “free tuition” plan lawmakers are considering would cost taxpayers $1.1 billion per year, and the cost would rise to $1.3 billion if extended to other Canadian and foreign students in the province (Moreau 2018). Usher notes that “free tuition may be wasteful in that it provides subsidies to those who would likely attend regardless” (Usher 2017). Economically, this proposal introduces inefficiency because it taxes the general population and partially subsidizes individuals who are willing to pay the full price of college tuitions without the subsidy.

 A more targeted approach, only offering free tuition to the poorest students, presents a more elegant option for controlling tuition costs without dramatically sacrificing economic efficiency, though increased complexity always detracts from efficiency to some degree. Such a policy maintains the same tuition levels for all but subsidizes only those with the lowest incomes so that they can afford the tuition. Enacted in 2017, New York’s Excelsior Scholarship provides tuition-free public college education to New York students with annual family incomes lower than $125,000. In 2018, 3% of all undergraduate students in New York received this award, while 70% of applicants were rejected because they did not meet the program criteria (Center for Urban Future 2018). The scholarship, targeted towards low- and middle-income students, may be successful in that all offers went to students with family incomes under $125,000. However, some argue that its threshold is too high. To have its intended effect, a targeted approach must carefully identify an appropriate income threshold. If the income threshold is too high, it poses the same efficiency risks as a free tuition system.

A more progressive proposal, income-targeted tuition, would assign different tuition levels based on individuals’ family incomes (Usher 2018). This approach is targeted to assist those with the highest need, and it facilitates differentiation between students with varying financial means. However, it assumes that students’ families would be willing to support students and raises questions about the fairness of charging different prices for the same good. It may also be more challenging to manage and implement due to customizing tuition for each student. Customizing and implementing different tuition amounts for each student is administratively costly with downsides for efficiency. Additionally, addressing the fundamental problem of excessively high tuition may require a more dramatic step to lower the cost entirely. Therefore, some universities have selected to drop tuition significantly and immediately to achieve greater affordability for all students, without sacrificing the economic efficiencies of high tuition.

 Tuition Reset

Tuition reset is a dramatic proposal involving intentionally drastic tuition reductions. In 2016, Rosemont College sampled this approach and reduced its tuition by 43%, dropping tuition from $32,620 to $18,500 in 2015 (Eldridge and Cawley 2017). It dropped room and board from $13,400 to $11,500. As a result, applications increased 64%. Enrollment of students from “squeezed” middle-income families increased by 60%, while representation from different countries also increased. Citing university data and policy research, administrators Eldridge and Cawley of Rosemont College explained that university administrators “were left uneasy by a model in which tuition is artificially inflated and then matched with ‘discounts’ offered in the form of grants and scholarships. We understood that this was not real money” (Ibid).

A tuition reset may be ideal, but it is uncertain that universities will drastically reduce prices. Mainly, universities still perceive this move as risky because they may forgo revenue that high tuition generates, while enrollment may not increase by enough to offset the lower tuition price. Extremely competitive universities that enjoy high demand from applicants at all times, regardless of tuition level, may not view tuition discounting as necessary. Indeed, the universities experimenting with tuition reset tend to be smaller colleges that have faced financial challenges, such as Birmingham-Southern, Drew, Mills, and Sweet Briar College (Vedder 2018). Beginning in 2018, more universities are engaging in tuition reset, although the number is still small (Moody 2018). Instead, most universities and governments (federal and state) are turning to common demand-side policies to render tuition affordable for students by providing them with financial aid.  



IV. Demand-side policies: financing students’ costs

Demand-side policy proposals subsidize tuition costs to improve students’ abilities to afford higher education. Instead of altering the price and availability of education, demand-side policies deliver funding to buyers to supplement higher education, such as through grants and loans.


Financial aid through grants                     

Reform proposals often recommend using grants as a primary form of financial aid to address high tuition cost. The government can deliver grants through need-based aid, work-study programs, and fellowships. In the United States, 75% of full-time students receive some form of grant-based financial aid to help pay for college (The College Board 2018). Research suggests that grant aid has a positive correlation with racial and economic diversity in colleges and universities (Abbott et al. 2016). It is also correlated with economic welfare and higher GDP: researchers estimate that removing college federal aid, grants and loans, would reduce economic output by 2% and welfare by 3% in the long term (Ibid).

Need-based aid and scholarships often yield better student outcomes than loans or no financial aid at all. Students receiving need-based grants perform “significantly better” in college than those not receiving financial aid (Cappelli and Won 2016). A one-third increase in federal aid increases college attendance by 6%; poorer students in the second, third, and fourth income deciles comprise most of the increase (Eppel et al. 2013). Reductions in federal or state aid cause the most drastic enrollment rate drops among students from traditionally marginalized communities.

College accessibility and enrollment challenges facing traditionally marginalized communities is a recurring trend. For example, Mexican-born non-citizen youth (including undocumented youth) residing in states that require all non-citizens to pay out-of-state tuition are 12.1% less likely to enroll in college than their peers living in states without tuition discrimination (Bozick et al. 2018). As this discussion indicates, studies consistently show that affordable tuition and sufficient financial aid reduces inequality.     

Some evidence suggests that high-risk groups, such as “at-risk youth” also benefit from lowered tuition and financial aid in college. In 2001, the federal government amended the Higher Education Act to ban people convicted of drug offenses from receiving federal financial aid for two years after conviction (Lovenheim and Owens 2013). Combining data on educational outcomes and drug charges, Lovenheim and Owens show that the 2001 ban on financial aid delayed previously convicted citizens’ college enrollment by at least two years and decreased the likelihood that they would enroll in college at all. The amendment had its most significant impact on first-generation students from urban areas (Ibid).

Nevertheless, there is a limit to the positive impact financial aid provides. On average, every additional dollar of a government grant replaces 20-30 cents that students or their families would have otherwise provided (Abbott et al. 2013). In addition, every dollar of government aid reduces the number of hours that a college student works by 4% (Ibid). Thus, if overused, tuition grants can contribute to economic inefficiency by substituting family contributions and work hours.

Paradoxically, tuition increase may be an unintended consequence of excessive financial aid that is not appropriately targeted. Sengenberger believes that “student debt is not just rising because college is too expensive. Rather, school is too expensive because of rising student loans and grants” (Sengenberger 2017). Financial aid, including through loans, shields students from immediately paying the full cost of tuition and allows them to pursue expensive degrees. Low-income students, in particular, suffer most if their financial aid options are loans.

To address this, Sengenberger proposes providing students with stipends or vouchers instead of loans to make tuition affordable while still exposing students directly to the actual tuition cost. This way, students would be charged the full amount of tuition, while possessing the means to afford the tuition directly, thereby making more educated decisions on which school to attend and how to finance their education. Student stipend or vouchers differ from traditional financial aid in that students would receive stipends or vouchers straight from the government and decide which university to attend using the stipend. Conversely, the current financial aid system awards grants to universities to disburse to enrolled or accepted students.

While rare, an example of such a system is the Colorado College Opportunity Fund, enacted in 2004 after the state was no longer able to support high financial allocation to higher education. The system substituted previous financial aid with a $2,400 voucher ($80 per credit hour) to each student attending a public university in Colorado. A journal study conducted 10 years later found that this system had created some cost efficiency in community colleges but reduced college access for some underrepresented groups since it reduced other forms of government aid simultaneously (Hillman et al. 2014). Beyond this, the theory of using vouchers and stipends in higher education has not been tested thoroughly and requires more research to determine its effects.

Overall, the evidence summarized above supports a consensus among most higher education economics researchers, the U.S. Department of Education, and university administrators that the government should allocate tuition aid based on financial means and prioritize delivering assistance to students from lower socioeconomic rank in order to expand higher education opportunities to those least able to afford it. Expanding need-based financial aid would increase the number of qualified students from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. However, financial aid in the form of grants is very costly to governments and universities, and alone usually does not suffice to cover full tuition amounts, which is why governments, universities and private companies offer loans to help students obtain the means to pay for college.

Loans and Repayment Programs

Though they pose more challenges for the students who depend on them than grants, loans are an essential reality of funding a college education for many young adults. In 2016, 59% of undergraduates who borrowed money to pay for college graduated with an average of $28,500 in debt, a 3% increase from 2011 (The College Board 2018). Yet, studies conclusively show that, as in the case of grants, loans reduce family and individual contributions, and indirectly cause tuition to increase. Abbott finds that each additional loan dollar reduces parental contribution by 30 cents (Abbott et al. 2013). The Federal Reserve Bank determined that tuition increases 60 cents for each dollar received as subsidized loan and 20 cents for a dollar received as an unsubsidized loan (Lucca et al. 2017). Therefore, like grants, the amount of loans distributed must not exceed families’ abilities to pay for tuition, or else risk offsetting student contribution.

Research on loans and student outcomes is not conclusive. Some studies have shown that loans have little effect on college retention, while others indicate that loans have differing effects on the retention of students from different socioeconomic groups (Heller 2008). Capelli and Won argue that students who took out loans scored 0.6 to 0.12 points lower on a 4.0 GPA scale than students who received financial aid other than loans (Capelli and Won 2016). Similarly, Stoddard and Schmeiser show a correlation between high loan balances and lower GPA, lower retention rate, and students taking fewer courses (Stoddard et al. 2018). On the other hand, Third Way demonstrates that those who take out student loans up to $20,000 are more likely to graduate than their peers who do not take out student loans, and that the graduation rates are highest for those who assume up to $10,000 in debt (Dwyer 2018). For some students who need loans, a certain level of loans can act as incentives to graduate and seek employment to repay them.

In order to meet the rising need for higher education financing, the U.S. government enacted loan repayment plans with different terms based upon income levels. These include the Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR Plan) enacted in 1994, the Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR Plan) enacted in 2007, the Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE Plan) created in 2010, and a Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE Plan) developed in 2015. Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which the government runs through the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, eliminates loan balances for borrowers who work in public service careers after graduation and make 120 payments (Federal Student Aid 2019). Practices like forbearance and deferment allow debtors to temporarily suspend loan repayment if experiencing difficulties or extraneous circumstances (Ibid). In forbearance, interest that debtors have to pay continues to accumulate. In deferment, interest also accumulates, but the government pays the accumulating interest of subsidized loans.

Enormous amounts of student loan debt raise legitimate questions about the practicality of financing college. At $1.5 trillion, the high amount of debt may constitute a crisis; the Brookings Institution estimates that by 2023, almost 40% of student loan debtors will default (Scott-Clayton 2018). After 2007, the composition of household debt changed so that mortgage debt fell from 73 to 67% and student debt rose from 3% to over 10% of total household debt (Cangero 2017). A high default rate for student loans is therefore dangerous. This is especially the case for minority groups, which have higher default rates. The default rate for African Americans, for instance, is five times higher than for Caucasian borrowers (Ibid). Moreover, high student loans reduce the purchasing power of the borrower, and consequently their spending, thereby causing a “drag” on the economy and GDP, which Farrington estimates to be a loss of 1-2% of GDP in the long run (Farrington 2018).




Currently, 29% of federal borrowers repay their loans through repayment plans. As of 2019, one out of four borrowers are behind on their student loans (Student Borrower Protection Center 2019). More troubling, 17% of borrowers have defaulted on their student loans (The College Board 2018). Fifteen percent default within three years of beginning payments (“Making college cost less” 2014). To put it in perspective, the student loan delinquency rate (rate of late payments in 2017) was 9.2%, higher than that of mortgages (under 2%), credit cards (5.1%), and auto loans (2.3%) (Cangero 2017). Even people who qualify for public loan forgiveness often encounter barriers to accessing it. In 2018, the Education Department approved only about 1% of over 28,000 applications for loan forgiveness under the program (Federal Student Aid 2018). This outcome is due to the fact that some borrowers did not meet the requirements because requirements were unclear. The United States Government Accountability Office Report on Public Service Loan Forgiveness found that the program and its policies are “fragmented,” complex, not administered effectively, and lacking in clear communication to participating employers and borrowers (United States Government Accountability Office 2018). Nonprofit organizations investigating the matter also believe that the student loan industry has also unduly delayed, deferred or denied access to expected debt relief (for example, the American Federation of Teachers is leading a lawsuit against Navient, a company that allegedly misled borrowers about the public service program in order to keep them from transferring to FedLoan).

Testimonials from qualifying debtors indicate that significant challenges in comprehending and adhering to complex policies and information made using of the Public Loan Forgiveness Program difficult (Tompor 2017). As such, loan repayment and forgiveness programs must be administered clearly, making borrowers aware of loan programs, terms, and procedures in simplistic yet informative terms.


Finally, most borrowers do not qualify for loan forgiveness programs or loan cancellation. Thus, most student debtors often continue to pay loans for decades, enduring a loss of income and reduced ability to purchase other goods and services in the long term. Though student loans make obtaining a college education possible for millions of students who would otherwise be unable to attend, they saddle students with financial burdens that tend to last much longer than two or four years. As such, taking on loans is a crucial decision for students, who must understand the implications of taking out loans and how to manage their finances to make loan repayment sustainable.

Comprehensive Financial Wellness

Scholars and practitioners agree that financial wellness training is an effective way to help students manage their debt and tuition costs. In 1992, the U.S. government enacted its first student loan entrance counseling and has continued to adapt it in conjunction with its various borrowing programs since. Nevertheless, in 2017, only 50% of students surveyed felt that counseling increased their understanding of the terms of their loans (Adams-Gaston and Gordon 2017). Further, American students score relatively poorly in financial literacy compared to their counterparts in other OECD countries and are less knowledgeable about financial management and loan borrowing (Farrington 2014). A 2016 Money Matters report found a decline in responsible financial behaviors among students (EverFi 2016).

For these reasons, scholars and practitioners recommend comprehensive financial wellness training and workshops for credit and loan management beyond the required, cursory government loan counseling (Ibid). Increasingly, U.S. universities offer school-wide initiatives to educate students on financial literacy and wellness. Financial wellness encompasses all aspects of a person’s financial situation, including financial awareness, goal setting, and achieving financial goals (Montalto et al. 2018). Recently, Indiana University illustrated that combining financial aid with financial wellness training yields positive results for students. After the University disbursed more than $1.1 billion in financial aid between 2011 and 2016, 45% of its students graduated without loan debt in contrast to the 30% of students who did so nationally. Eighty percent of Indiana University students who graduated with loans had loan balances below the national average. The University’s generous financial aid and its financial wellness training reduced student borrowing by almost $100 million (Wilkins 2017). In the case of Indiana University, university policies mandating financial disclosures and financial literacy education produced positive results in educating students in financial wellness and their loan conditions. These types of policies may be adopted by other universities to educate and empower a financially literate student body to make beneficial financial decisions in regard to loan borrowing and related financial behaviors.  

V. Other market-based policies for consideration

Other policy options to make college more affordable would make use of market forces to reduce the college tuitions. Proposals include lowering barriers to entry so that more universities offer education, and deregulating tuition decisions at public universities.  



Exposing the higher education market, including for-profit universities, to increased competition is a common policy proposal aiming to reduce college tuition. Increased competition would lower tuition prices as universities vie for students’ business (Brady 2013). Reforming the university accreditation process, which acts as a gatekeeper to the establishment of new universities, is a means of increasing competition. University accreditation institutions grant accreditation status and control access to federal funding for colleges (Sengenberger 2017). An inherent conflict of interest often arises because these organizations’ staff is usually comprised of existing universities’ faculty and staff who may have an incentive to block competition (Hegji 2017).

Increasing the number of universities by lowering barriers to entry follows economic theory, but more studies need to be conducted to demonstrate this in practice. The substantial tuition increases that accompanied the proliferation of universities throughout the 1990s and 2000s threaten the validity of this theory. Furthermore, new universities – especially for-profit universities – often lag behind established universities in terms of branding, name recognition, and perceived prestige. New universities face challenges in competing against older universities due to the first-move advantage phenomenon, in which older universities that enter the market first obtain advantages through exercising leadership in higher education, capturing more market share first, and enjoying brand recognition and loyalty due to longer history and an older alumni base.

The lack of competition between for-profit and nonprofit universities also stems from the fact that the two occupy different niches in the higher education market and cater to different types of students. Generally, for-profit universities attract older, non-traditional students who aim to improve skills through a flexible study schedule (Liu 2011). Therefore, for-profit “competition” actually appears to complement, rather than substitute, non-profit universities.

Furthermore, for-profit colleges and universities may lead to tuition costs that are even more excessive, and total privatization of higher education may increase equity issues. In 2012, the U.S. Senate issued a report showing that half of students enrolled in for-profit universities dropped out without degrees, that for-profit universities used aggressive recruiting and marketing strategies, and that 96% of students took out loans (accounting for 47% of all student loans, even though enrollment at for-profit universities makes up 13% of all students) (U.S. Senate 2012). Furthermore, a National Bureau of Economics Research Report calls into question the return of investment in a for-profit university education by showing that graduates of such universities are 1.5 percentage points less likely to be employed and have 11% lower wages after receiving their diploma, compared to public university attendees (Cellini et al. 2011).

Tuition Deregulation in Public Colleges

Another policy option for addressing college tuition hikes involves deregulation of public university tuition decisions. This policy’s argument is that allowing public universities to set their own prices, as opposed to subjecting them to government-dictated prices, enables universities to collect enough revenue needed for operations, to rely less on government funding, and to allocate financial aid more efficiently. In 2003, public universities in Texas shifted tuition-deciding power from state legislatures to university administrators, which resulted in both increased tuition and increased grant financial aid for students from low-income households. As a result, poorer students switched to more expensive, but high-return majors and received financial aid for it (Andrews and Strange 2016). Before this shift, low-income students were underrepresented in lucrative majors because they cost more. Following deregulation, universities shifted more financial aid towards these students and helped them afford more lucrative and expensive degrees.  

However, from 2003 to 2014, tuition in Texas had increased by 104% (not inflation-adjusted), a number greater than the national average, leaving students and families struggling to afford it and prompting Texas legislators to debate additional solutions to address high tuition (Schneider 2015). A study found that, after deregulation in Texas, enrollment of Hispanic students decreased by 9% (Flores and Shepherd 2014). Similarly, when Quebec deregulated international tuition for several McGill University programs in 2008, the overall tuition for those deregulated programs increased to $37,054 while the tuition for the regulated programs remained at $18,258 (Stanwood 2016). There are not enough sample cases upon which experts can predict the outcomes of deregulated tuition. The few existing cases, however, indicate that this policy may create unintended consequences, including increased tuition and heightened inequality. Overall, there is no other clear evidence that tuition deregulation of public universities will lead to better outcomes for students.


Shifting economy and markets

Unfortunately, college outcomes are somewhat subject to the whims of a fluid economy and financial markets. Effective policies governing tuition prices can boost, but not control, the ultimate value of a college degree. If a weak economy hampers job prospects for recent graduates, reducing tuition will help students to afford education, but it will not assist them well in realizing a high return on investment in the labor market because they cannot expect increased earnings. Additionally, if the market for college graduates is saturated and less demand exists for workers with diplomas from particular fields of study, then the lower return on investment for those degrees is a function of broader economic trends, structure, and climate. In recessions or poor economic climates where the market for four-year college degrees is saturated, policies should incentivize students to pursue trade school or community college to meet increasing demand for workers with such skills. This policy choice would help the economy meet demand for workers with four-year and two-year degrees beyond high school. In theory, a shift away from four-year colleges may also reduce tuition at those schools.

These considerations are beyond the scope of this article. As policies and economic phenomena are interlinked, researchers and policy makers must also study the related aspects of the market for higher education (supply, demand, price, and their qualities) and policy effects on them. Further studies must consider tuition in the broader context of higher education, skills, and labor force today.

VI. Conclusion

Critical to a prosperous, democratic, and productive society, higher education provides significant benefits to individuals and communities. Initially an endeavor reserved for elites, pursuit of a college education gradually became accessible to the United States’ middle class because of government policies and laws. These include laws in the 1800s to increase the number of universities, in the 1900s to support the founding of two-year universities, and in the mid-1900s to support inclusion of marginalized people. Today, however, college tuition increases outpace both wage growth and inflation rates. Among other factors, an overabundance of college graduates and increasing administrative costs contribute to the problem.

The trend of rapidly increasing tuition threatens accessibility of higher education for students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds. Consequently, in the short term, excessively high tuition stresses college students and graduates, places into doubt the return on their college degree investment, and causes them to delay significant life decisions. Macroeconomic effects of unaffordable tuition include a looming student debt crisis, weakened economy, and reduced socioeconomic mobility. Several policy options with varying degrees of support can address high tuition. Using supply-side policy proposals, universities may consider income-targeted tuition. While more administratively costly, income-targeted tuition would avoid the enormous expense of free tuition and economic inefficiency if the targeted levels are set at appropriate thresholds.

Another effective method to make college affordable and produce economic benefits is to provide students with grants or need-based financial aid. However, policy makers must be careful not to provide more aid then needed or risk offsetting the financing that students could have provided by themselves. The use of loans should be supplemented with financial wellness training so that students better understand and manage their debt. The U.S. government should also ensure appropriate, clear provision and management of loan repayment and forgiveness programs. Other policy recommendations to make higher education more affordable exploit market forces but are more controversial, such as deregulation of tuition decisions in public universities, reducing barriers to entry, and increasing the number of for-profit universities.

Ultimately, policy makers and university administrators will have to consider policies to control tuition in the context of shifting education and labor markets. While some policies demonstrate greater success than others in making tuition more affordable, many studies face the challenges of external validity. As such, policy makers and administrators need to tailor policies and approaches to particular types of universities, regions, or fields of study. It is clear that more research and evidence on higher education costs must inform any bold policy recommendations. A comprehensive menu of effective and impactful policies must ultimately render the price of higher education in the United States more affordable and accessible for young people in order to contribute to a thriving and equitable society.

+ Author biography

Klevisa Kovaçi is an international development consultant, with project engagements in Eastern Europe and Asia through the UN Kosovo Team, Permanent Mission of Albania to the UN, Dartmouth College, and non-governmental organizations. She holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University and Sciences Po (l'Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris).

+ References

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Adams-Gaston, Javaune and Stephanie Gordon. 2017. “Financial Wellness for a Lifetime: Educating Students on Money Management.” NASPA Leadership Exchange. Page 27. http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/reports/PDF/9260.PDF.

Andrews, Rodney and Kevin Stange. 2016. “Price Regulation, Price Discrimination, and Equality of Opportunity in Higher Education: Evidence from Texas.” The National Bureau of Economic Research. doi:10.3386/w22901.

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Institutionalized homophobia

Institutionalized homophobia and discrimination in Italy

Institutionalized homophobia

Institutionalized homophobia and discrimination in Italy

 A country’s failure to protect human rights: Institutionalized homophobia and discrimination in Italy

Robert Connor Magnacca



LGBT individuals face employment discrimination in the Italian city of Trento and in the country writ large. This article discusses the current state of Italian law and identifies areas where it lacks adequate protection for LGBT community. The article also employs qualitative and quantitative research methodology to analyze the state of homophobia in Italy. Since existing laws against discriminatory practices in the workplace in Trento have failed to prevent discrimination against LGBT people, the article proposes three policy options and discusses their potential contribution to changing the status quo. The proposed ideas include a conditional cash transfer (CCT) policy for employers to disincentivize employment discrimination against LGBT people. Other proposed policies include stricter anti-discrimination laws and government-mandated diversity training to mitigate homophobia and discrimination in Italy. The article evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed policies and concludes that, on net, the Italian government could benefit from these policies in combating anti-LGBT employment discrimination.

Keywords: LGBT rights, Italy, CCTs, Trento

I. Introduction

Italy has extremely limited protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, with no current laws protecting LGBT people against homophobic hate speech or hate crimes, and significantly limited anti-discrimination laws (“Rainbow Europe: Italy” 2018). For example, the Daughters of the Sacred Heart Institute are an organization of Christian women dedicated to education, among other services ("Principi E Valori" 2018). This group of women runs a school in Trento, Italy that dismissed a teacher in 2017 for failing to disclose her homosexuality despite laws in place to protect her employment (Scammell 2017). This dismissal represents broader public opinion in Italy: A study shows that only half of the Italian population would hire an LGBT professional as a teacher or doctor (Santona and Tognasso 2017). There are several potential policy solutions that could mitigate the presence of LGBT discrimination in the workplace in Italy. For example, the Italian government could incentivize employers likely to discriminate against LGBT individuals with stipends to encourage these employers to actively seek out LGBT people. Conversely, the government could pursue stricter punishments against discriminatory employers and businesses to ensure that they comply with the anti-discrimination laws. Finally, rather than maintain a voluntary diversity directive as in some European nations, the government could mandate that employers engage in the directive to increase diversity in the workplace and thereby improve the labor force participation of LGBT individuals.

This article advocates a stipend approach with a conditional cash transfer (CCT) method to address discrimination in the workplace by incentivizing employers to hire LGBT individuals. No government has used a CCT to reduce discrimination, but a number of countries, including Brazil, have used CCTs to alleviate poverty. Using a CCT could help because exposure to queer individuals is proven to decrease homophobic beliefs (Tepperman 2016). Therefore, incentivizing employers to increase their queer employment would not only directly decrease discrimination but also implicitly reduce homophobia by exposing more people to the queer community. Although some religious employers may refuse these conditional stipends, this method may prove to be the most successful and beneficial in limiting homophobic discrimination in the workplace among other alternatives. Thus, this approach is the most practicable option to combat discrimination in Italy outside of explicit anti-discrimination laws.


II. Background

The article will begin by defining its key terms:

LGBT: One’s identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or any other sexual or gender minority outside of heterosexuality and a cisgender identity.

Homophobia: Homophobia, as used in this article, represents an individual’s prejudice or negative attitude toward the LGBT community because of this identity, whereas discrimination applies to the practice of depriving LGBT individuals of opportunity because of homophobic beliefs.

Discrimination: Discrimination in this paper specifically applies to employment discrimination and therefore refers to situations when employment opportunities are denied, revoked, or withheld from an LGBT individual strictly on the basis of their LGBT identity. This definition follows Italian law; the article also defines indirect discrimination as disadvantaging individuals because of their identity (“Attuazione della direttiva” 2003).

Western Europe: This paper is based in Western Europe geographically and considers the European countries west of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Balkans. The paper also recognizes the Scandinavian countries as a part of Western Europe but excludes Andorra, Monaco, Lichtenstein, San Marino, and Vatican City because of the small size of their geography and population. 

The state of LGBT protections in Italy and its shortcomings

Italy severely lags in the legal rights and protections offered to members of the LGBT community, especially compared to the rest of Western Europe. There are no Italian laws that deem crimes against a person for their sexual orientation as hate crimes or hate speech ("Rainbow Europe: Italy" 2018). Furthermore, discrimination against LGBT individuals remains legal in Italy: As of 2018, no Italian law prevents LGBT discrimination in education, health, law, or in the selling and purchase of goods and services (Ibid). To this end, the only anti-discrimination law protecting the LGBT community that exists in Italy regards legal prevention of discrimination in the workplace (Ibid). Despite a law preventing homophobic employment discrimination, discrimination frequently occurs, which indicates a need for stronger laws and enforcement.

Though there are many gaps in rights for Italy’s LGBT community, some protections do exist. For example, although the fight for same-sex marriage in Italy is ongoing, Italy legalized same-sex civil unions in May 2016, and the country’s first legally recognized same-sex marriage occurred in 2017 (“LGBT Rights” 2019). Regarding the transgender community, specifically, surgery is no longer required for one to claim one’s own gender identity as of July 2015 (Ibid). Furthermore, as discussed in more detail below, codifying the prevention of LGBT discrimination in the workplace is a significant advance in LGBT rights in Italy. Notably, the policy positions of this article are independent of the existing and missing laws to prevent LGBT discrimination in Italy, and thus they will not be given more focus in this article. However, the current laws in place are crucial for understanding the state of the LGBT community in Italy and the need to diminish the discrimination against them.

The prevalence of discrimination in Italy

Homophobic beliefs are still prevalent in Italian society and manifest in discriminatory behavior; Italy may have laws against sexuality-based discrimination in employment, but it has not eliminated discriminatory beliefs or practices. The smattering of protections that Italy has enacted may have more to do with supranational organizations’ requirements than with Italian society’s genuine interest in reducing discrimination and homophobia. As Phillip Ayoub notes in When States Come Out, European institutions applying to become members of the EU “directly contribute to a minimum level of policy change across all member states,” including “anti-discrimination in employment” (Ayoub, 2016). Furthermore, the Employment Equality Directive of 2000 codified anti-discrimination in the workplace based on certain identities of a person, including sexual orientation (Tymowski, 2016). Thus, the driving force behind making LGBT discrimination illegal in the workplace may be a need to cooperate with EU norms as opposed to a progression in social acceptance. A survey from the Italian National Institute of Statistics, as presented in a Santora and Tognasso study (2018), fortifies this claim by showing that, although 70% of Italians say that gay or lesbian people should be hired despite sexual orientation, only 50% would hire an LGBT professional for positions such as a doctor or a teacher (Santona and Tognasso 2018, 364). Furthermore, an ISTAT study claims that 40.3% of the polled LGBT individuals claimed to have experienced discrimination at school, university, or the workplace (“La Popolazione Omosessuale,” 2012). These statistics show that anti-discrimination laws have not sufficiently protected LGBT citizens from employment biases.

Italy also lags in public support of LGBT individuals, leaving them in danger of hatred and attack. When a perpetrator attacks an individual because of their sexual orientation, Italian law does not recognize this action as a hate crime. Thus, homophobia-based crimes against LGBT individuals remain prevalent in Italy. In 2017, Italy witnessed 63 reported crimes “against groups of people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity” (“Crimes Based” 2017). Evidence suggests that this number does not reflect the gravity of the situation in Italy because hate crimes are severely underreported. The report Running through Hurdles: Obstacles in the Access to Justice for Victims of Anti-LGBTI Hate Crimes records the 2013 EU LGBT survey, which reports that 19% of respondents claim to have been assaulted within the last five years, but only 17% of these individuals informed the police(Godzisz and Viggiani 2018). Furthermore, the publication notes that little data exist regarding anti-LGBT hate crimes because of the lack of laws and protocols about homophobic hate crimes. It specifically notes that Italy faces severe underreporting, indicating that a significant proportion of crimes against the Italian LGBT community go unrecognized (Ibid).

In rare cases, homophobic hate crimes are so severe that they gain national attention. In 2016, a homophobia-motivated attack on the Rome Gay Center sparked national concern for the violence that LGBT community faces (“Italy One” 2017). In 2018, a gay man in Syracuse lost his eye during a brutal attack (Grattan 2018). These instances demonstrate that hateful bias toward the LGBT community persists throughout the country. Trento, in particular, performs poorly in efforts to effectively protect LGBT people from discrimination and mistreatment. Recently, the Daughters of the Sacred Heart Institute terminated a female teacher for refusing to clear up rumors of her homosexuality (Scammell 2016). The anti-discrimination laws in place did not prevent her termination. However, the court ordered the Daughters of the Sacred Heart Institute to pay 25,000 euros (approximately $26,500 in 2017) in reparations to the teacher because of their discriminatory actions, marking the first time in Italian history that a court has charged a Catholic school for an instance of homophobic discrimination (Bentz 2016). Although this ruling demonstrates progress in the Italian government’s efforts to diminish discriminatory behavior, the mere existence of the problem itself reveals the prevalence of homophobic attitudes in Italy today. Discriminatory beliefs are so strong that residents continue to act on them in spite of the laws prohibiting them.

Homophobia hinders Italy both domestically and internationally. Italy has among the fewest nationally-recognized LGBT rights and protections in Western Europe ("Rainbow Europe: Italy" 2018).Italy has no laws that protect queer people from homophobic hate speech or hate crimes, and its only anti-discrimination law failed in Trento (Ibid). Rainbow Europe, a site that ranks countries based on their LGBT protections, has ranked the countries of Europe based on scores that range from 0% – representing “gross violations of human rights” and “discrimination” – to 100% – representing “full equality” and “respect of human rights” (Ibid). According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans Association (ILGA), which established these scores, the ranking is based on any legal protections or hindrances that affect the LGBT community in these states (Ibid). The ILGA places Italy at 26.67% while neighboring countries such as Spain and France received scores of about 67.03% and 72.81%, respectively (Ibid). Societal homophobia and discrimination cause Italy to lag behind the rest of Western Europe on human rights issues. In order to remedy its poor human rights image, Italy must not only adopt new laws to protect the marginalized LGBT community, but also must strictly enforce these laws to ensure its population follows them.


III. Policy options for dealing with homophobia and discrimination

Stipends to employ LGBT individuals

Studies show that one way to diminish social stigma against the homosexual community is to foster interpersonal relationships between heterosexuals and members of the LGBT community. The Santona and Tognasso study measures perceptions of the LGBT community among a group of students in Milan using the Modern Homonegativity Scale and Attitudes Toward Lesbian and Gay Men – Revised questionnaires (Santona and Tognasso 2018, 366-367). Their research indicates that students who had personal interactions or relationships with LGBT individuals tended to respond to their LGBT identity more fondly than those who did not have such relationships (Ibid). A similar study in Washington State in the United States polled 46 men and 46 women to measure the effects of connections with queer people to attitudes toward the community (Lemm 2008). On a scale from one to six, with six representing a more positive attitude, those who had “at least one gay friend” had a mean of 4.52, compared to those without gay friends having a mean of 3.68 (Ibid, 89). These data suggest that relationships with LGBT individuals generate positive perceptions of the LGBT community.

Conditional cash transfers, which have been successful in alleviating poverty in numerous situations, may also work to encourage non-discriminatory practices. In 2003, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva sought to diminish poverty by distributing stipends to poor families on the condition that parents send their children to school (Tepperman 2016, 38). This strategy not only succeeded in diminishing “those living in indigence” to less than 3% as of 2014, but it also proved to be 30% cheaper than other policy alternatives; it also increased school attendance by 14% (Ibid, 41-42). Of course, poverty differs from homophobic bias, but the concept of CCTs may be a successful approach to alleviating homophobia. Incentivizing employers to hire queer individuals with stipends could lead to an increase in the number of queer people in the workforce, thereby diminishing discrimination by mitigating homophobia through exposure. This solution could decrease both discrimination and homophobia, which benefits the employer (through the stipend), society at large (through decreased prejudice), and the government (through improved human rights).  

Notably, a CCT approach to diminish employment discrimination would differ from CCTs addressing poverty. The amount of money needed to incentivize a hesitant employer to hire an LGBT worker, followed by recurring stipends to maintain the LGBT individual’s employment, could exceed the amount needed to relieve the poverty of families in Brazil. However, an increased taxation of the Italian population and allocation of these funds to target small businesses could prove beneficial at the onset of this police initiative. Logically, small businesses would not only be more amenable to accepting a CCT, they would also be more likely to accept a relatively modest CCT. Thus, the Italian government would need to target businesses that are most likely to need and accept a CCT. 

Harsher punishments for discriminators

An alternative policy option would be to seek harsher punishments for those who engage in discriminatory behavior. In the Daughters of the Sacred Heart case in Trento, the perpetrators merely paid a fine for the damages to the LGBT individual who lost her job (Bentz 2016). The possibility of a harsher punishment for engaging in discriminatory behavior could increase the likelihood of employer compliance with the existing anti-discrimination laws. Under this policy option, there is a risk that one could abuse the system by falsely identifying as LGBT to keep a job, but given the social stigma and discrimination that exists, the plausibility of one engaging in such behavior seems low.

According to the liberal U.S. think tank Center of American Progress (CAP), many cities and municipalities in the United States permit the revocation of business licenses when employers or companies discriminate based on sexual orientation. CAP specifically refers to Los Angeles and Indianapolis, which have laws that allow the city to revoke licenses for discriminatory offenses. As the CAP notes, “Portland, Oregon, provides just one example of license revocation being used effectively against a cab driver who discriminated against a lesbian couple” (Durso et al. 2017). CAP also notes that Denver, Colorado is a city in which discriminatory practice can lead to the revocation of a company’s license, while other cities in California have similar laws (Ibid, 26). While the previous recommendation attempts to make employing LGBT people a fiscally advantageous business decision, this method seeks increased employment through a heightened potential for business losses. In the Daughters of the Sacred Heart case in Trento, the risk of a fine was not enough to prevent the perpetrators from engaging in discriminatory behavior. The CCT solution’s positive effects could manifest with this solution as well. In the short run, this approach could mitigate discrimination because employers would fire fewer LGBT people out of fear of being harshly sanctioned and suspended from business activity. Furthermore, the approach could lessen long-running discrimination because more LGBT employment increases heterosexual individuals’ exposure to the LGBT community. Previous studies have proven that increased exposure alleviates homophobic perceptions. To this end, the policies proposed here could be piloted on a limited scale and expanded from there. Trento, where anti-LGBT discrimination is a serious problem, is a prime candidate.

Mandatory diversity management and training

Austria may relate to Italy in terms of geographical location, EU membership, and western norms, but the countries are very different in their approaches to LGBT employment discrimination and equality. Specifically, as of 2010, the Austrian Charta der Vielfat acts as a push towards increased diversity in the workforce (Schwarz-Woelzl et al. 2015). This initiative intends to set a precedent for “diversity management implementation” among those who sign onto the initiative. It offers membership tools, such as guidelines for diversity management, an implementation checklist, and a manual to address diversity (Ibid, 20). Based on this guidance, the Austrian Federal Railway (ÖBB) created an equality policy that specifically addresses “equal treatment irrespective of sex, age, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, handicap” (Ibid, 21). Austrian companies that have signed onto the diversity management plan claim that it has had a “mid-range impact on the development of their diversity policies and activities,” though they have noticed improvements in public image and business opportunities (Ibid, 20).

Diversity training mitigates LGBT employment discrimination because it emphasizes the economic benefits of having LGBT workers. Adopting diversity goals encourages businesses to actively recruit LGBT individuals and create a safer work environment for LGBT employees. Diversifying the workforce with LGBT employees yields variation in thought and ideas in the workplace, adds the devotion and dedication of talented LGBT employees to the company, and leads to an overall improvement of company image ("Charta Der Vielfalt”). Hence, this policy would both benefit the LGBT community and the companies themselves. Under Austria’s current system, however, diversity commitments and management represent an opt-in system. This means that companies for which the training may constitute a financial burden may not opt in, and mandating diversity training resources could be too expensive for some businesses. A possible middle ground would be to target the policy to business sectors that are known to be particularly hostile to LGBT individuals. Though cost constraints for businesses are real hurdles, it is also true that societal rewards from reducing prejudice would be significant.

IV. Potential stakeholder objections

As demonstrated by the existing bias in Italy, certain individuals and groups may oppose anti-discriminatory policy propositions. Religious individuals and groups, such as the Daughters of the Sacred Heart Institute, would likely object to changes because they are steadfast in their convictions. This religious opposition may cause political parties that are right-of-center to oppose anti-discrimination policy solutions because they need to appeal to a base that condemns homosexuality.  

The Italian government, on the other hand, ought to support the CCT method to change discrimination and homophobic views because it is a fairly inexpensive way to achieve equality, diminish domestic turmoil, and get increasingly closer to the international norms of LGBT rights that Italy’s neighbors already meet. Tepperman’s description of the Bolsa Família program demonstrated how affordable it was to finance families below the poverty line to send their children to school: The program cost no more than 0.5% of Brazil’s GDP (Tepperman 2016, 41). It is impossible to deduce the potential cost of a CCT program regarding discrimination with certainty because no government has attempted to create one. However, starting with smaller firms or where homophobic discrimination occurs at high rates would be a beneficial starting point. Therefore, starting in places like Trento with smaller firms could allow the Italian government to address and lessen discriminatory behavior at sufficiently low costs. Based on its success in Trento, the program could be expanded to the whole of Italy.



V. Limitations and conclusion 

Homophobic discrimination remains prevalent in Italy despite the few anti-discrimination laws that exist. In Trento, the government failed to meet its responsibility to protect the marginalized LGBT community, but this problem applies across the country. Because Trento’s exhibition of these discriminatory views is emblematic of a nationwide problem, eliminating homophobic employment practices must become a national goal if Italy hopes to see broad success. Ultimately, the CCT method can counter homophobia and discrimination and improve human rights in Italy. 

Notably, the proposed solutions to homophobic employment discrimination in Italy have flaws. First, some organizations may refuse to participate in a government stipend program because of their pre-existing beliefs. There is also no model for the proposed type of CCT program because Italy would be the first country to attempt a stipend approach to address homophobic discrimination and oppression. The CCT method, however, is relatively cheap; ergo, there would be a low opportunity cost for implementing this institutional change. CCTs are successful in partially alleviating poverty and encouraging socially beneficial behaviors, so using CCTs to facilitate LGBT employment and exposure could mitigate the problem of homophobic discrimination.

The non-CCT proposals also offer limitations. Just as homophobic employers may refuse stipends, they may continue to act in accordance with their own homophobic beliefs despite harsher punishments for discriminatory practices. In addition, forcing employers to hire LGBT individuals may put LGBT individuals in unsafe work environments under antagonized bosses.

Therefore, the policy could also be complemented by mandated reparations for those discriminated against. Diversity training is likely the most effective way to reduce stigmas and ensure a safe workplace for LGBT individuals. The Italian government should also increase explicit legal protections for LGBT individuals in the workplace to ensure the reduction of homophobic discrimination and make the LGBT community safer.

Finally, there is a risk that making Austria’s voluntary diversity management program mandatory in Italy only minimally impacts the Italian LGBT public. Italy has a similar EU-commissioned diversity charter through which employers may elect to enact preventative anti-discrimination policies (“Carta per Le Pari” 2019). The Austrian charter focuses less on sexual orientation than on other marginalized minorities such as racial, ethnic, gender, and other identities (Schwarz-Woelzl et al. 2015, 20). That said, compared to the diversity management agreements of Spain, Poland, and the Czech Republic, Austria’s is the only one that grants awards for the inclusion of minority sexual orientations. Thus, according to national reports, Austria has a greater focus to LGBT employees (Ibid, 87). Another risk is that, because the training operates in an opt-in system, the companies and employers where diversity management is most needed are likely the ones that would not engage. Thus, enacting legal requirements and remedies for employers may be explored. Although this approach poses the potential safety pitfalls previously noted, the long-term effect on the company itself and on the LGBT community through exposure and less direct discrimination could be highly beneficial.

A central challenge facing any attempt to mitigate homophobia in Italy is a lack of LGBT data and focus on the community. There is limited legal and documented research into the dangers the LGBT community faces in Italy. As noted in the 2018 Running Through Hurdles report, the absence of laws protecting LGBT rights in Italy make finding specific data for these problems difficult (Godzisz and Viggiani 2018). Thus, Italy must acknowledge the marginalization of the LGBT community and support studies to expand understanding of the issues they face.

Though this article focuses on employment discrimination, Italy faces many more equity issues within the LGBT community. The existence of civil unions for LGBT individuals in Italy is significant, but Italian LGBT couples are still unable to marry (Equaldex 2019). In addition, very few provisions or protections exist for transgender people. Many laws targeted at helping LGB individuals – including the ones that fail in protecting gay and lesbian people – solely apply to sexual orientation (Ibid). Italy must act strongly against homophobic behavior and beliefs to prevent discrimination like the case in Trento.


+ Author biography

Robert "Connor" Magnacca is an undergraduate sophomore studying Government at the Georgetown College. He is a Massachusetts native and this is his first publication with Georgetown Public Policy Review.

+ References

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Implementing a market economy in Afghanistan

Essay: Implementing a market economy in Afghanistan

Implementing a market economy in Afghanistan

Essay: Implementing a market economy in Afghanistan

 Essay: Consequences of implementing a market economy in Afghanistan

Ahmad Tariq Momeni


Abstract: This essay explores the consequences of implementing a market economy in Afghanistan, from its modern origins in the Afghan Constitution of 2004 to the impacts of joining the World Trade Organization in 2015. Without infrastructure, human capital, and industry, Afghanistan was not ready to adopt a market economy, and its establishment resulted in urbanization, the decline of its traditional agriculture sector, and rising poverty rates. The “market access to goods and services” provision of the WTO agreement in particular hurt domestic farmers. While the international development community has facilitated the transition to the market economy, it has also captured much of the investment and made the county dependent on its support. In response to these consequences, Afghanistan should join regional trade agreements and be more critical of foreign economic intervention.

 Keywords: International development, Afghanistan, market economy


I. Background: International development in Afghanistan

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces led by the U.S. remained behind to assist the governance transition process. With the help of the international community, Afghans experienced an interim administration, a transitional government, and finally a presidential government. Supported by a foreign military presence, Afghanistan opened its doors to international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including the United Nations (U.N.), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They aimed to establish institutions, infrastructure, and bring positive changes in the socio-economic status of the Afghan nation; however, Afghanistan was not ready for these changes, which included the establishment of a market economy.

Afghanistan adopted a market economy after formally enshrining it in the Afghan Constitution of 2004. Article 10, Chapter 1 states: “The state shall encourage, protect as well as ensure the safety of capital investment and private enterprises in accordance with the provisions of the law and market economy.” Pressure by international organizations, including the World Bank and IMF, coupled with pressure from other bilateral donors remained crucial to the privatization and liberalization of the Afghan market.

Moving forward, specific ministries and institutions such as the Afghan Ministry of Economy, Ministry of Commerce and Industries, and the Ministry of Finance worked closely with international experts and advisors in economic development and growth. In 2003, the international community helped to establish the Afghanistan Investment Supporting Agency (AISA). In the meantime, the Afghan Parliament passed the Chamber Law of 2009 which recognized the Afghanistan Chambers of Commerce and Industries as an independent and democratic organization that functions as the voice of the private sector in the country. The policies of the above ministries and institutions were tailor-made in favor of the market economy, but, in spite of all these changes, Afghanistan’s economy remains unstable.


II. Was Afghanistan ready to adopt a market economy?

The advent of a market economy in Afghanistan came too early and without the right protections. While recent reconstruction efforts have helped, decades of war have destroyed Afghanistan’s infrastructure, forced residents to emigrate, and slowed the economy. The education system, while improving, does not guarantee good jobs for graduates. Similarly, Afghan industries are in need of further development. Without infrastructure, human capital, and industry, Afghanistan was not ready to adopt a market economy. Yet, this choice was imposed on the country in a constitutional loya jigra (grand council) organized by the international community.

Wars have destroyed even the basic infrastructure that the Soviet Union left in the country such as power plants, dams, highways, transportation system, and a strong military. Millions of Afghans immigrated to Iran, Pakistan, Europe, the U.S., and other parts of the world (Khan, 2012). When the Taliban came into power, they inherited no infrastructure, nor did they encourage the development of institutions and infrastructure. The Afghan economy of the Taliban era heavily relied on opium production and export, traditional agriculture, manual extraction of mines, and export of minerals to their close ally, Pakistan (Nijssen, 2010). For decades, Afghanistan had a traditional economy which still remains in place.

The Bonn Conference in 2001 was the first step toward state- and institution-building (Fields & Ahmed, 2011). Afghanistan, with the support of international community, established a gender-sensitive and multi-ethnic interim government and drafted Afghanistan’s constitution. To improve security, extend the authority of the Afghan central government, and to facilitate reconstruction, the international community (led by the U.S.) established Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) (McNerney, 2005). Additionally, basic infrastructure such as building schools, hospitals, civil administration offices, and roads were reconstructed to trigger economic growth.

One of the key institutions that leads nations to development and economic growth is a functional educational system (Ozturk, 2001), but Afghanistan still lacks this institution. Education is key to a society’s development, and investing in education involves investing in economic, social, and cultural aspects of a society, which in turn leads nations to progress. Afghanistan, as a developing country, in cooperation with the international community, has invested tremendous resources to develop an education system based on minimum international standards over the last 15 years. However, the whole system continues to lag behind.

While Afghanistan has improved in terms of the quantity of education offered, it has not improved much in terms of quality. The number of constructed school and university buildings and enrollment have increased, but the quality of education and higher education has not improved. As an Afghan student and former university lecturer, I personally experienced the outdated curriculum produced by this system, where students commonly copy and paste essays from the Internet. Even after 12 years of education, school pupils are often undecided about what to study in college because school curricula in Afghanistan are general and do not prepare students for the needs of the workforce. In the case of university students, thousands graduate every year from Afghanistan’s public and private universities with only a limited number of graduates obtaining employment (Afghanistan Times, 2019).

Education quality remains an urgent national development concern for Afghanistan (WES, 2016). Education with a very limited prospect of employment simply does not bring socio-economic development. It is true that education has improved in Afghanistan, but the outcomes are disappointing: Afghanistan has over 1 million unemployed educated residents (Afghanistan Times, 2019). Additional progress is needed, as education is one of the prerequisites of a market economy (Patrinos, 2016); education creates several key market factors: human capital, human created capital and technology (Natter, 2018).

The international community has not yet sought economic development through investment in key sectors and mobilization of available resources. One promising strategy would be to identify the needs and potentials of each province in the country; accordingly, the international community could invest and support investments. An example would be energy, as it is considered the basis of industrialization. Over the last 17 years, much infrastructure has been built to import electricity from the neighboring countries such as Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, or to produce electricity through generators. Currently, 73 percent of Afghan power supply is imported—22 percent from Iran, 4 percent from Tajikistan, 17 percent from Turkmenistan, and 57 percent from Uzbekistan (ADB, 2017). However, the imported power is inefficient, unstable, and, subsequently, unreliable, and costly. The money invested in importing energy could be invested in producing domestic energy since Afghanistan is rich in renewable energy resources, such as solar, wind, biomass, and flowing water (Fahimi and Upham, 2018).

Afghan policy makers should have had a say in drafting policies for Afghanistan because context always matters. Unhappily, Afghan leaders and policymakers accepted the market economy approach without understanding its key tenets nor its positive and negative implications. Some may argue that Afghans were not truly free to choose. That is true. However, Afghans could at least have negotiated with international experts and institutions, as Afghans know the context and the status quo of their country the best. They could have asked for a transition phase, then they could have evaluated the transitional period to measure its effectiveness and implications. Most developed countries don’t even have a full market economy, as their government intervenes to protect industries when necessary. In contrast, when it comes to developing countries with a market economy, government intervention is often deemed dysfunctional.

It was too early for a newly established government like Afghanistan to adopt a specific type of economy. A market economy requires political, economic, and social institutions to be in place, because these institutions can induce political, economic, and social stability which ultimately result in economic development and growth. Institution-building cannot happen overnight, particularly in war-torn countries like Afghanistan. It requires capital: human capital and human-created capital. Sudden imposition of the market economy without meeting the prerequisites was a mistake. It is true that Afghanistan enjoys a surplus of unskilled labor, but it lacks factors of market such as capital, skilled labor, and technology.

How can a traditional economy turn into a market economy overnight without market factors in place? Prior to any decision, the international community should have put the infrastructure in place for this type of market to have a chance of being successful, as developed countries have implemented and introduced the market economy and know its best practices. For war-torn countries like Afghanistan that have no infrastructure in place, contextual needs assessments and research are essential prior to adopting and implementing any internationally accepted policy.


III. Aftermath of the market economy in Afghanistan

Afghans were very hopeful with the arrival of the international community in the country. They envisioned development in key sectors like agriculture, livestock, mining, energy, and production. They were optimistic and dreamed of economic miracles like a high rate of employment for skilled and unskilled laborers in the production sector and self-sufficiency in production of food products such as wheat, flour, fruits, and vegetables. Yet, years later, the poverty rates in Afghanistan remain the same, or even worse. In particular, Afghanistan’s traditional agricultural sector was undermined as the local development community increased demand for cheap foreign goods and incentivized farmworkers to move to cities and/or enter the service sector.

At the beginning of the reforms, 77 percent of Afghans felt that their country was headed in the right direction, compared with 30 percent in the vastly better-off United States (Langer, 2005). Despite challenges, the public hoped that developed countries would help establish a strong government that would concentrate on economic development and job creation through prioritization that would invest in infrastructure and the education, agriculture, energy and mining sectors. The market economy was supposed to trigger economic growth and create employment opportunities through private investment while the “invisible hand” of the market would work and benefit Afghans (specifically, the poor majority), but market economy did not meet its purpose

Free market policies in Afghanistan after 2001 brought economic development and attracted foreign investment; however, the majority of people remained poor and destitute, while youth unemployment never dipped below 14 percent (The World Bank, 2017a). With the market economy, most of the domestic firms and state-run factories also stopped functioning due to lack of modern machinery to compete with foreign and private companies (AISA, 2003). Unfortunately, the economic development was unsustainably donor-driven and did not deliver adequate employment and reduction in poverty. After 17 years of the presence of the international community, the socio-economic status of Afghans is dismal. Billions of U.S. dollars were spent in several sectors without any remarkable change in the socio-economic status of the poor Afghans (SCA, 2018).

It is not a surprise at all that the poverty rate has increased since 2007 (World Bank, 2018). From 2001 to present, Afghanistan heavily relied on international aid, and poverty has increased since the start of the withdrawal of international forces in 2011, causing a corresponding decline in economic growth. This comes while the share of population below the national poverty line is 39.1 percent in 2014 (ADB, 2017), with the poverty line being only earning $1.25 income per day (The World Bank, 2017b).

In the transition to a market economy, the agriculture sector has been severely neglected, although it is central to Afghanistan’s economy, employing 62 percent of the nation’s workforce (The World Bank, 2017c). Given the high rate of employment in this sector, investment in agriculture equates to a higher employment rate, lower poverty rate, GDP growth, and lower trade deficit. Unfortunately, this issue has not been taken into account and the remaining Afghan farmers are still struggling to gain access to domestic and regional markets due to lack of technical support from the government and the international community. Most do not even have cold storage to preserve their fresh fruits and vegetables.

Cheap food imports from neighboring countries have added to agriculture problems. A remarkable number of Afghan farmers were discouraged to keep on farming, leaving their villages for a better life in the major cities of Afghanistan (HELP, 2014). As a result, foreign agricultural produce has taken ahold of the market. A friend’s shopping story explicitly narrates the depth of the disaster in Kabul, Afghanistan (Mehri, 2017):

Buyer:             How much is the onion, sir?

Vendor:           Which one?

Buyer:             What do you mean by ‘which one’? An onion is an onion!

Vendor:           My brother, it depends on the color. For example, one Seer (7 kg) of the red onion is 160 AFN, the white one is 185 AFN, and the yellow one is 150 AFN.

Buyer:             It is true that the colors are different, but why the different prices?

Vendor:           Why are you giving me a hard time by asking such questions, brother? The red one is Pakistani, the yellow one is Kyrgyzstani, and the white is Iranian.


He narrates, “I did my shopping . . . In my basket of goods, only orange and spring onions were from Afghanistan; the rest were imported agriculture products.” The map below shows where the groceries came from:



He ended his story with this question: “Is the Afghan Agriculture Ministry, with its million-dollar programs, only producing the limited crops of radish, oregano, coriander, and spring onions?”

While the availability of foreign aid created high demand for goods by the Afghan government, international NGOs, and international troops, Afghanistan had to meet this demand through imports, since it did not have the capacity to fulfill the demand domestically due to little investment in key sectors (Samim, 2016). Thus, Afghanistan opened its doors to foreign goods. Furthermore, the government took precious few measures to protect small businesses and the vulnerable farmers in the country. By relying on imported food instead of Afghan food, the quality of life deteriorated for farmers and small businesses (Ibid). The low tariffs on imported goods suppressed farmers inside the country, resulting in an economy ever-dependent on neighboring countries (Help, 2014).

In addition, the large amounts of foreign aid injected in the economy created jobs and demand for educated, skilled and unskilled labor for a short time (ATR Consulting, 2018). Therefore, it was a huge incentive for Afghan farmers to leave agriculture and rush to the service sector (Samim, 2016). Afghans established hundreds of construction, logistics (supply), and import companies across the country with the hope of getting a slice of the international aid pie. Thousands of employees and laborers were recruited (Ibid.). The table below shows the value-added by each sector to Afghanistan’s GDP.  


This provided a great opportunity for those in power or who had connections with the government, international troops, and nonprofits to make tens of millions of dollars. International aid even created a few Afghan millionaires (Chiaramonte, 2017; Safi, 2015). Under the free market, Afghan businessmen monopolized the market and misinterpreted market economy as saying, “sell at whatever price you wish.” These opportunists formed mafia groups in different fields (IWA, 2015; Tolonews, 2013). These millionaires even have investments in several countries such as UAE and Turkey (Green, 2012); in case of any incidents, they liquidate their capital and leave the country, easily finding residency or citizenship elsewhere.

Having witnessed that a lot of people found jobs in big cities and some even became even millionaires, a remarkable percentage of farmers left their lands and rushed to the city for the dream of a better life. A report by UNHABITAT suggests that Afghanistan is experiencing the most powerful wave of urbanization in its history (2019). Not surprisingly, the lack of work in rural areas and the perception of better opportunities in town were the major causes of migration (Ibid.).

International humanitarian organizations exacerbated the situation. The World Food Program – Afghanistan (WFP) is an example. Before December 2010, the WFP used to buy and import wheat from abroad to provide food assistance to Afghanistan's neediest families (IRIN, 2010). Not only was it too costly, but it greatly devalued the price of wheat. Therefore, it discouraged Afghan farmers from cultivating wheat in those years. In early 2010, the WFP food pipeline was disrupted when the food was lost to flood waters while in transit through Pakistan (WFP, 2010). This forced the WFP to find an alternate solution to cover its wheat shortages in winter (Ibid.). Therefore, WFP signed a contract to purchase wheat from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and another portion directly from small-scale farmers and farmers’ organizations through the pilot Purchase for Progress program (Ibid.).

While Afghans rushed to cities, there was no plan in place to accommodate the influx of migrants. Therefore, it was out of the control of the local government and, thus, created chaos in the major cities of the country. For example, in Herat, most of the low-income families residing in suburban slum areas suffer from poverty, unemployment, child labor, health and nutrition issues, air and water pollution, and lack of functioning public infrastructure to address these challenges (Bhalla, 2012). Even most of the buildings constructed in urban areas are far from any urbanization standards. An excess amount of money with the minority rich and some middle-income families led to construction of concrete buildings without any insulation and septic wells (Kammeier & Issa, 2017). It takes a lot of energy to heat and cool these buildings. For water, Afghans drilled deep wells both for drinking water and sewage (Ibid.). Drilling wells for both purposes in the major cities lowered underground water by one meter and significantly polluted potable water with sewage water (Ayoubi & Beheshta, 2017); for example, 70 percent of Kabul potable water is polluted (Ibid.).

Above all, the current economic status of the country is not promising. After 17 years, the annual budget of the Afghan government is not balanced and still depends on international aid and donors. The most disastrous part is Afghanistan’s trade deficit. According to the IMF Country Report (2017), Afghanistan’s total exports in 2017 amounted to $723 million while total imports were $7.1 billion. With a large trade deficit and woefully inadequate infrastructure in place for accelerating exports, Afghanistan cannot viably reduce its trade deficit. Devaluation of currency to increase exports is a possible solution, only if there is an available and functional infrastructure to do so. As a result, to cover the trade deficit, Afghanistan annually receives loans from the IMF and Asian Development Bank (ADB). The ADB alone lends Afghanistan almost $963.1 million, with additional committed grants totaling $3.4 billion (ADB, 2019). The question is how long the IMF, ADB, and other financial organizations will give loans to the Afghan government and how long international humanitarian aid will cover shortages of Afghanistan’s annual budget given the above challenges, political instability, and massive corruption in the country.


IV. Afghanistan’s membership in the WTO and its impact on the country’s economic growth

World Trade Organization membership, specifically the clause calling for “market access for goods and services,” further hampered the effects of market liberalization throughout the 2000s. Before joining the WTO in 2015, multinational corporations had access to markets in Afghanistan. In fact, they rushed to Afghanistan at the same time as the intervention of the international security forces. All of the logistics, construction, training, medical, and administration services of the military were contracted with private companies. Billions were spent on supplying the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and most of this ended up in the U.S. corporations’ accounts. For instance, a report by ACBAR, an alliance of international aid agencies working in the country, including Oxfam, Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and Save the Children, estimated that 40 percent of the aid money spent in Afghanistan has found its way back to rich donor countries through corporate profits, consultants' salaries, and other costs, significantly inflating the cost of projects (Norton-Taylor, 2008).

Most of the international aid for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan has been channeled through international nonprofits, the U.N., and private contractors. The Center for Public Integrity published a list of top contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2004- 2006, which included foreign companies such as Tetra Tech, Chemonics International, and DynCorp International (Buzenberg, 2007).

International aid has been a great source of income for international contractors over the last 17 years. For example, an international staff in an American nonprofit is paid 22,000 USD monthly as a program officer with 6 months R&R (rest & relaxation), per diem, allowances, international trips, insurance, and many other benefits. A qualified and experienced Afghan in the same position receives 1,000-2,000 USD per month and must work 12 months without any other privileges (SIGAR, 2017). The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) findings corroborate this claim and show how international aid was squandered over the last 17 years in contracts and construction (SIGAR, 2018).

WTO membership will benefit mostly developed countries. For instance, Afghanistan committed to reduce fixed taxes on imports. The “Market Access for Goods and Services” clause eliminates the 3 percent tax on imports (WTO, 2015). As mentioned earlier, Afghanistan is a net importer. Elimination of a fixed tax on imports not only helps the economy, but also accelerates the drowning of the mini-functioning firms in the country (Jawara & Kwa, 2004). Instead of helping the least developed countries boost up their economy through the protection of domestic production and firms by imposing higher tariffs on imports, the WTO advocates for the elimination of tariffs. It seems that similar institutions follow their agenda and universalize the rules that are benefiting developed countries.

In addition, Afghanistan has committed to not apply any anti-dumping, countervailing, or safeguard measures until it has implemented appropriate WTO-consistent laws (WTO, 2015). Yet, many developed countries such as the European Commission subsidize their agricultural products. One of the contributing factors to domestic production and growth is subsidizing the production in the agriculture sector in Afghanistan (Jawara and Kwa, 2004). Having no knowledge of the context, potentials, and circumstances of the least developed countries like Afghanistan, the international community imposes universal regulations through the IMF, U.N., World Bank, and the WTO. While these measures have worked for certain countries like Japan, it is naïve to think that what has worked for Japan — one of the biggest economies of the world — would also work for Afghanistan.


V. Moving forward and policy recommendations

As shown earlier, the market economy has deteriorated the domestic production sector of Afghanistan and created large unemployment and poverty rates. When Afghanistan joined the WTO in 2015, it accepted an even more advanced version of the market economy. The more Afghanistan joins such universal organizations, the more it loses control over its sovereignty; for any internal decision going forward, Afghanistan must make sure it is not in violation with other signed universal agreements. For instance, under WTO rules, international corporations can apply for any national project or RFP (request for proposals) announced by the Afghan government. Since the budget for such projects/ RFPs is paid by the international community, the Afghanistan government cannot prefer national corporations and suppliers over domestic ones. As a result, domestic companies either grow slowly or go bankrupt. Violations of any of these laws will have consequences, as Afghanistan relies on international aid and loans from the IMF and Asian Development Bank for its annual budget and trade deficit.

Since Afghanistan is already a WTO member, it should find a way to balance national priority programs with the WTO rules and regulations to support its domestic products, especially farmers and small businesses. Afghanistan can also identify and sign regional agreements with strategic allies specialized in certain sectors that benefit the country politically and economically. For instance, Afghanistan should join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as Afghanistan did in signing the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation. Such regional cooperation can be advantageous, as the allies under the regional agreements can invest and contribute to key infrastructure. The government should also make sure that the domestic benefits of these agreements outweigh the disadvantages. In addition, under regional trade and cooperation agreements, the Afghanistan government should provide incentives for its strategic allies to invest in key infrastructures and Afghanistan national priority programs. Investment can take place in good governance, human capital (professional and vocational training), agriculture development, renewable energy, mining, and other key areas.

+ Author biography

Ahmad Tariq Momeni is a Fulbright Scholar from Afghanistan with over 8 years of experience in development sector. He did his undergrad in Education and his master’s in Sustainable Development.

+ References

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Mo' money, mo' votes

Mo’ money, mo’ votes

Mo' money, mo' votes

Mo’ money, mo’ votes

Mo’ money, mo’ votes: Does special interest money affect senators’ voting proclivities on climate change?


Noah Yosif


Abstract: Extravagant political spending (“big money in politics”) is an important issue in contemporary American politics. Many academics, policymakers, political scholars, and citizens believe that excessive campaign spending is counterproductive to fostering an equitable system of governance where everyone has equal access and representation by their elected officials. Central to this argument is the notion that exorbitant political donations persuade legislators to vote in a manner conducive to the interests of their donors. However, this assertion fails to account for many other variables – such as the party line, the officials’ political standing, and the issue itself – that would also influence a legislator. This paper employed a multiple regression model to assess the impact of special interest donations on United States Senators’ voting on climate change-related legislation. Results indicate that political donations do indeed influence a senator’s overall voting calculus on climate change policies. Although the effect on a per-dollar basis appears to be modest, it can be significant when scaled by the massive amounts donated. The quantitative methods developed in this study could also help inform our understanding of the influence on big money on other issues.

Keywords: United States Senate, climate change, electoral politics, money in politics

I. Introduction

Exorbitant campaign donations by wealthy individuals and corporations, aptly termed as “big money in politics,” is a dominant issue in contemporary American politics. Since the late 20th century, special interest donations to political campaigns have been increasing, yet this issue has attracted more scrutiny in recent years given the enormous size of some contributions and their efficacy in pushing the particular policy platforms of their donors (OpenSecrets.org, 2019). This can be attributed to a lax regulatory framework that has failed to keep pace with an American constituency characterized by income inequality among individual citizens as well as an economic environment where large corporations have embraced lobbying to further their business interests. In light of direct legal efforts to constrain limitless political donations such as Citizens United, as well as poignant issues such as gun control and abortion, which have highlighted special interests’ power over the policymaking process, “big money in politics” has indubitably become a divisive issue in (Avis et al., 2017). Setting aside the legal and moral considerations that arise from such an issue, this paper will attempt to answer an underappreciated economic question central to big money in politics: How effective are political donations in swaying a senator’s voting proclivities?

The answer is perhaps fairly obvious. Theories spanning human psychology (Eisler, 2016), political science (Primo and Milyo, 2006), and economics (Welch, 1974) agree that the odds of currying favor from an individual are much better when asked alongside a modest check. This is perhaps why comprehensive quantitative analyses of big money in politics are few and far between. The vast majority of available literature on big money in politics is often restricted to documenting the contributions of special interests on one particular issue and employing qualitative analysis to connect monetary contribution to passage or failure of legislation (Bowler and Donovan, 2016). This approach fails to quantify the impact of special interest donations on the inclinations of legislators, and the reductive assertion of more money equating to more influence negates other important factors, such as the issue itself, the senators’ personal philosophies, their party’s views, their political standing, socioeconomic consequences, and so much more. The inclusion of these variables could seriously complicate a supposedly simple relationship between donors’ money and their political influence. A more sophisticated quantitative estimation of a donor’s acquired influence over a legislator would be important to the public discourse on this issue, and more importantly, for potential regulatory efforts to reign in exorbitant campaign donations.

This paper will estimate the impact of special interest donations on legislators’ voting proclivities by focusing on one issue, climate change, and developing a multiple regression model that examines the impact of increased contributions on convincing U.S. Senators to promote a particular policy agenda. Climate change is a good issue with which to analyze the impact of big money in politics because it is divisive and attracts significant attention from wealthy special interests on both sides of the political spectrum. The model will synthesize several political, economic, and climate change-specific variables that would likely be part of the calculus of a legislator’s stance on climate change-related bills. The model will attempt to quantify the impact of political donations on senators’ overall voting rationale. This paper hopes the model and resulting analysis could contribute to the ongoing conversation on climate change, and more broadly, the impact of big money in politics. 

II. Literature review

            As mentioned above, the available literature covering big money in politics is diverse but fails to adequately assess the impact of campaign contributions on a legislator’s likelihood of aligning their votes with their donors’ interests. The notion of campaign contributions equating to political influence is popular: A study conducted by Justin Grimmer and Eleanor Powell (2016) found that an overwhelming majority of Americans who disapprove of Congress named “corruption” of the political process facilitated by excessive, unregulated campaign contributions as their main grievance. While average citizens believe big money in politics is a problem, donors see it as a solution and viable vehicle for realizing their political views. Alexander Fouirnaies and Andrew Hall (2015) found that firms within highly regulated industries are more likely to donate money to incumbent legislators, believing greater contributions preserve the status quo and facilitate continued access. If a legislator is particularly powerful because they hold a committee position or occupy a major leadership role in their party, donors are likely to contribute more money to them than they would to a challenger or freshman legislator.

Yet, the majority of available literature also acknowledges the difficulty of establishing a causal link between campaign contributions and legislators’ voting proclivities. Janet Grenzke (1989) argues that endogeneity is the main problem when analyzing this issue quantitatively. She maintains that a correlation between increased donations and a senator’s voting record may be spurious (Grenzke, 1989). For example, if a pro-climate legislator met with a pro-environment interest group which also donated to their campaign, a link between donations and political access may appear to exist even though the actual explanation for the meeting stemmed from mutual political goals. Nathaniel Persily and Kelli Lammie (2004) argue that omitted variable bias is the primary obstacle to establishing a causal relationship between political contributions and legislators’ behavior. For example, if there is a strong public stigma attached to a particular political position, such as funding recovery measures after a major oil spill, campaign contributions may not be enough to sway a legislator’s vote (Persily and Lammie, 2004). These studies demonstrate how any empirical assessment of political contributions on politicians’ behavior would yield uneven results that are difficult to generalize.

In spite of these challenges, several studies have provided glimpses into the power of political donations on legislators’ votes and the legislative process. Joshua Kalla and David Broockman (2016) analyzed the impact of campaign contributions on preferential treatment from policymakers through a randomized field experiment. In this study, CREDO Action, a progressive political organization, made 191 political donations, randomly assigning whether it revealed to congressional offices its status as a contributor. It found that senior-ranking[1] legislators were three to four times more likely to be available to meet and take steps to address their concerns (Kalla and Broockman, 2016). Another study by Justin Grimmer and Eleanor Powell (2016) found that corporations and business political action committees (PACs) donated significant amounts of money to incoming congressmen on committees that had regulatory power over their particular industry but decreased or ended contributions to committee members who were retiring or stepping away from their post. This study showed that business interests seek short-term access to influential legislators, and they believe their donations will have a favorable impact on the policy process.

Additionally, several studies have analyzed the influence of political donations on climate change policy. A study by Justin Farrell (2016) at Yale University concluded that legislators who received the most political donations from special interests were likely to also have the most polarized views on the matter in favor of their donors. While this study mentions political contributions to come from donors on both sides of the climate change issue, it does not give any details to the profile of a pro-climate or anti-climate change donor. Robert Brulle (2018) answers this question by analyzing climate change lobbying trends from 2000 to 2016. He concludes that the majority of corporate or PAC-based political contributions come from donors opposed to additional climate change measures, while individual contributions are almost evenly split between donors on both sides of the issue (Brulle, 2018). Ans Kolk and Jonatan Pinkse (2017) delve further into this question by examining the demands of corporate donors with regards to climate change and find their political activities can be characterized as an information strategy to steer policymakers toward market-based solutions as opposed to increased regulation.

The available literature showed that individuals, corporations, and policymakers believe in the power of political donations to effect policy change on climate change. However, the exact influence of big money is hard to quantify given the confluence of other variables affecting a legislator’s calculus, such as their thoughts on the issue, public sentiment, and competing interests. The literature also indicates that donors get more attention from legislators and have a greater likelihood of shaping the political discourse around a particular policy by pushing more money toward individuals with the highest authority or regulatory power. Finally, the existing literature describes how campaign contributions have polarized the debate around climate change and provided a glimpse into the profiles of pro-climate and anti-climate change donors. There has been much academic progress studying both big money in politics and climate change, and this study will bridge the two issues together by quantifying the impact of political contributions on legislators’ voting proclivities on climate change.

III. Methodology and data

A multiple linear regression model is the preferable method for quantifying the impact of campaign contributions on legislators’ voting proclivities. For this study, an ordinary least square (OLS) method of estimation was employed for time-series data between 1990 and 2016. A legislator’s opinion expressed through voting can vary significantly due to a myriad of considerations. Limiting the study to one issue such as climate change makes the analysis monumentally easier because it reduces the quantity of potential variables to include in the model. To further narrow the scope of this study, the term “legislator” is defined as a United States Senator. Similarly, the term “voting record” will describe a ratio of pro-climate change votes to total votes cast on climate change legislation. The raw data utilized in constructing this variable rated every senator based on whether they voted in favor of climate change-related policy, against climate change-related policy, or did not vote at all (absence or abstention). Senators who were absent and did not vote were excluded from the construction of this variable to correct for outliers and avoid skewness in data.

The first group of variables included in this study encompasses various political considerations that would be typical for any legislator. These are a senator’s voting record on climate change issues, a senator’s political party, the party in control of the Senate, and the party in control of the executive branch. While the dynamics of these variables are specific to the climate change issue, they are also critical questions that would be considered by most senators when voting on legislation regarding any issue. The next group of variables are economic indicators, which include GDP, inflation, the unemployment rate, and instance of recession. These are particularly applicable to the subject of climate change since much of the policy debates surrounding this issue are rooted in a country’s economic health. For example, large swaths of voters in France opposed recent energy tax hikes to make the country more environmentally friendly because of inflation alongside skyrocketing costs of living (Goldhammer, 2018). The final group of variables is specific to the issue of climate change, including land surface air temperature, an internationally recognized indicator of climate change, and public interest in the matter. Each of the variables used for this study is listed below: 

Senator’s voting record: This is a ratio of every senator’s pro-climate change votes to all votes cast on climate change-related legislation per year, compiled using 2017 data from the League of Conservation Voters (CLV). This is the dependent variable.

Senator’s political party: This is a dummy variable compiled from 2017 LCV data on each senator’s voting record, including years individuals switched parties or retired. The variable is 0 for Democrat and 1 for Republican.

Control of the Senate: This is a dummy variable that shows which party holds the majority of seats in the United States Senate. The variable is 0 for Democrat and 1 for Republican.

Control of the executive branch: This is a dummy variable that represents the political party of the President of the United States. The variable is 0 for Democrat and 1 for Republican.

GDP: This is a continuous variable that measures the percent change in real GDP. This data was accessed through the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank Economic Data (FRED) database. 

Inflation: This is a continuous variable and represents the annual percent change in the cost of a basket of goods and services; it was accessed through FRED.

Unemployment rate: This is a continuous variable and a measure of the number of unemployed as a percentage of the overall labor force. This data was accessed through the FRED.

Instance of recession: This is a dummy variable that represents whether there was a significant decline in economic activity that lasted longer than several months. The variable is 0 for no recession and 1 for the presence of a recession. The data was accessed through the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Contributions from climate change interests: This represents a dollar figure of climate-related special interest donations to senators above $200, as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. According to the Federal Election Commission, campaign contributions aggregating to over $200 are considered large donations and subject to specific reporting requirements (OpenSecrets.org, 2018). This is the primary independent variable of the model.

Land surface air temperature: This is a measure of actual climate change and the only variable that is an indicator of climate change relative to senators’ votes on policies that address it. The data was retrieved via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2016).

Public interest: This is a percent change in public attention toward climate change as an issue. It was collected from a study by researchers at Princeton and Oxford University that employed a publicly available dataset of worldwide web search term volumes to detect temporal patterns of interest in climate change between 2000 and 2014. For years outside this time period, a three-year moving average method of estimation was applied (Anderegg and Goldsmith, 2014).

In all, this model is comprised of four discrete variables, four dummy variables, and three continuous variables. There were 10 observations where senators’ political contributions or voting record were unavailable; these estimates were removed from the dataset to prevent the sample statistics from skewing. Figure 1 is a graphical display of the raw data for six of the 11 variables within the model; senator’s voting record was excluded because it is a ratio that varied per senator, and data aggregation techniques would have obscured the values too much. There was a 106% spike in climate change-related campaign contributions in 2008, but this could possibly be explained by the timing, since 2008 was a contentious election year for both the presidency of the United States and the Senate. GDP and the unemployment rate smoothly fluctuated from year-to-year, and the latter appears to move in tandem with inflation.

Spikes in the unemployment rate from 1990 to 1992, 2000 to 2002, and 2008 to 2010 align closely with the directional movement of inflation. Land surface air temperature doubled over the time period, while public interest in the subject remained constant, but never dipping below 50%. While the data behind this variable was taken from an academic survey, it shows that a median of around 60% of people (and at times as high as 78%), were at the very least attentive to the climate change issue, showing it to be an important topic in American political discourse. By applying an Augmented Dickey-Fuller (ADF) test, we confirmed that all of these variables are stationary. 

Figure 2 shows the results of the ADF test for all 11 variables. For this test, the null hypothesis is the presence of a unit root that the observations within a dataset coalesce around, otherwise known as non-stationarity. The alternative hypothesis is stationarity, which is the desirable outcome indicating that the statistical properties (variances and means) of the dataset do not change with time. Each of these variables posted a p-value of 0.01, thereby indicating stationarity. After determining the stationarity of each variable, the next step is to test for cointegration. For this test the null hypothesis is no cointegration within the time series while the alternative hypothesis is that cointegration is present. The results are displayed in Figure 3. Since the p-value is below 0.01, the null hypothesis is rejected, indicating that presence of cointegration cannot be rejected. These newfound properties of stationarity and cointegration do not completely eliminate the possibility of a spurious relationship between the dependent and explanatory variables, which means further analysis must be conducted.


III. Results and analysis

Many different models were tested to determine an accurate relationship between senators’ voting records and the donations they received from climate change special interests. These models included different combinations of the 11 independent variables mentioned above, including lagged or transformed versions of them. Cointegration was a significant issue and was particularly prominent within the economics-related variables: GDP, inflation, unemployment rate, and instance of recession. This is to be expected, as these variables have well-known relationships. During instances of recession, GDP decreases and when there is no recession, it increases. As per the Phillips Curve, the unemployment rate decreases as inflation increases and vice versa. Control of the senate and control of the executive branch had the highest fluctuating significance; when combined with some variables, they had a high explanatory power and when combined with others they were relatively insignificant. While these two variables do not have any obvious correlation with any other variables within the model, there is reason for them to be cointegrated. If one party controls the Senate and executive branch, their legislative power is significantly enhanced which would make donations to senators more insignificant than if power was split between two parties controlling one policymaking apparatus each. In light of this, subsequent models contained either control of the senate or control of the executive branch as variables, but not both. The rest of the analysis will focus on the results of Figures 4 and 5, which highlights the best model.


A mathematical representation of the final model is also shown below:


where Y is the dependent variable for Senator i in time t;  is a vector of political controls that includes senator’s political party and control of the Senate;  is a vector of economic conditions, including the unemployment rate and instance of recession; T refers to the global land surface air temperature; I represents public interest; and  is the error term.  is the key independent variable and represents donations by interest groups.

In this model, contributions from climate change interests, senator’s political party, control of the Senate, the unemployment rate, instance of recession, land surface air temperature, and public interest are all significant variables that determined a senator’s voting record on climate change issues from 1990 to 2016. This model sports a 0.74 R-Squared employing a total 1,350 observations. It is essential to note that a senator’s voting record is the percent of climate change-friendly votes on pending pieces of legislation; an increased/generally high voting record indicates the senator will vote for climate change policies and vice versa. All else constant, the following observations can be made from this model:

  • A senator’s political party significantly affects their vote on climate change issues; specifically, since this is a dummy variable (0 for Democrat and 1 for Republican), the regression indicates that Republicans are 65% less likely to vote for climate change-related matters than Democrats.

  • A one-unit increase in the land surface air temperature is associated with a 16% increase in a senator’s voting record. This is as expected because higher temperatures associated with climate change would be disconcerting to voters who would be expected to persuade their senator to vote in favor of climate change policies.

  • A 1-unit increase in public interest is associated with a 93% increase in a senator’s voting record, as this is the most direct variable for connecting public interest to a senator’s proclivities on an issue. The more a senator’s constituents advocate a particular issue, the stronger the likelihood they will vote in favor of it.

The most important observation within this regression is that each dollar in contributions from climate change interests is associated with a decrease of 0.00000001% in a senator’s proclivity to vote in favor of climate change policies. While modest on a per-dollar basis, the relationship could be significant for large donations from multiple donors in a hotly contested election year. According to OpenSecrets.org, the average amount of donations given to senators from climate change-oriented special interests in 2016 was $185,000, which is associated with an average of 2% decrease in a senator’s voting record. The effect of a modest 2% change in a senator’s voting record is put in better context when considering the number of climate change-related votes in the Senate. In 2016, there were 17 pieces of climate change-related legislation that received a full vote in the Senate; the five-year average was 14. Therefore, a 2% difference could potentially have a major impact by costing votes on individual pieces of legislation.

Figure 6 examines the 2016 average, as well as the first, second and third quartiles of data to illustrate how this model would estimate a senator’s voting record on climate change-related legislation in 2016. On average, senators are likely to vote less on climate change-related legislation if they are on the higher end of the campaign contributions spectrum.


As mentioned earlier, there were concerns of a spurious relationship between a senator’s voting record and the donations they received from special interest groups. This would mean that the dependent variable, a senator’s voting record on climate change, would be causally related to the donations they receive from climate change interests but is only by coincidence or due to a lurking variable. The chances of this scenario were already unlikely because the variables were proven to be stationary through via an Augmented Dickey-Fuller Test; however, cointegration was detected via the Phillips-Ouliaris Test. Figure 7 shows the ACF of the residuals, showing them to have near-perfect white noise and to not be correlated. Therefore, the results from this regression show that political donations to a senator have an impact on their votes toward climate change-related legislation, but this is not a casual or by-chance relationship.



IV. Limitations

One limitation of this paper was the institutional bias of the dependent variable – senators’ voting records on climate change-related legislation. This paper used data on senator’s votes on climate change from the League of Conservation Voters, which advocates for policies to combat climate change. Alternative measures of senators’ voting records on climate change-related issues were not readily available.

There are also a few caveats worth noting about the public interest variable. First, public interest – the degree to which he public is interested in an issue – is different from public opinion – what the public actually thinks about an issue. Furthermore, there is disagreement on the effectiveness of discerning public interest using Google searches issues. The merits of employing online searches as an indicator for Public Opinion have been hotly contested in academic literature, as well as whether such opinions are driven by elite partisan messaging from the media or influential public figures (Gramlich, 2017).

Finally, next steps for further analysis might entail replicating these experiments for the United States House of Representatives, as well as state legislatures. While including multiple legislative bodies in this experiment would have complicated the results of this study since they are affected by different politics, building separate models which equitably test their susceptibility to political donations may enhance the external validity of this study.

V. Conclusion

Big money in politics is a poignant issue in contemporary American political discourse. According to a Pew research poll, 77% of Americans believe that big money has an impact on the legislative process, and stronger laws would ensure a more equitable system (Jones, 2018). In spite of significant public attention to this issue, there has been little academic study to assess quantitatively the effect of big money on driving political change via legislators’ voting proclivities. This paper attempted to supplement this important discussion by offering a glimpse into the effect of big money in politics through the lens of a single issue, climate change. The paper determined that political donations have a significant influence on a legislator’s voting proclivities on climate change. Legislators are more likely to vote in the interests of their donors, which affirms that deep pockets are an effective vehicle for driving legislative change. Having ascertained political donations to have a major impact on legislators’ voting proclivities within the realm of climate change, one can only wonder if our elected officials on Capitol Hill would change their minds on gun control, healthcare, and abortion for only a few dollars more.


+ Author biography

Noah Yosif is Assistant Vice President for Economic Policy & Research and Deputy Chief Economist at the Independent Community Bankers of America. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, as well as a Master of Arts in Applied Economics from the George Washington University.

+ Footnotes

1 Longer-serving senators or senators who hold party or committee leadership positions.

+ References

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"Party Division." U.S. Senate: Party Division. January 19, 2017. Accessed December 05, 2018. Persily, Nathaniel, and Kelli Lammie. "Perceptions of corruption and campaign finance: When public opinion determines constitutional law." U. Pa. L. Rev. 153 (2004): 119.

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"Real Gross Domestic Product." GDP/GNP. December 21, 2018. Accessed December 28, 2018. “The Top 10 Things Every Voter Should Know About Money-in-Politics.” OpenSecrets.org, OpenSecrets.org Accessed March 26, 2018.

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Somalia in the age of the war on terror

Somalia in the age of the War on Terror

Somalia in the age of the war on terror

Somalia in the age of the War on Terror

 Somalia in the age of the War on Terror: An analysis of violent events and international intervention between 2007 and 2017

Christopher D. Zambakari and Richard Rivera

Abstract: This study sought to investigate the geographic location and frequency distribution of three event types – violent events, nonviolent events, and events characterized by riots and protests – and the distribution of political and military events and death rates by region. We provided an assessment of various international interventions in Somalia between 2007 and 2017. Our results showed that violent events (N = 17,539, 86.9%) were by far the most common event type, followed by nonviolent events (N = 1,372, 6.8%), with riots and protests accounting for just N = 1,278 or 6.3% of total events. We found that almost one half (48.7%) of the events involved political or ethnic militias, and over 42.95% of events involved rebel forces, with slightly less than this accounted for by the government (40.2% of events) and 29.4% of the events involved civilians. The northern and central regions of Somalia registered the lowest number of events and fatalities, with most violent events and fatalities occurring in the southern regions. There was a burst of fatalities in 2010, and a steady increase in death rate from 2011 until 2017. External intervention has not halted this violence; instead, intervention has led to internal division in Somalia by subverting power dynamics, encouraging political polarization and radicalizing the insurgency and distribution of power, while lacking the resources and political will to sustain the preferred winning faction.

Keywords: Terrorism, peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, African Union, Somalia, state-building, conflict data

I. Introduction

The international community has been concerned about violent events and the impact of violence on the civilian population in Somalia for several years. This study investigates the geographical location and distribution of three types of events: violent events, nonviolent events, and events characterized by riots and protests. The distribution of fatalities in the general population and death rates by administrative region also are examined. An overview of political developments in Somalia is provided and the impact of various interventions in Somalia between 2007 and 2017 is assessed.

II. External interventions in Somalia

Political instability in Somalia has led to several external military and security interventions in the country, notably the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) (1993–1994), Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia (2006–2009), The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) from 2007 to the present, and unilateral interventions by the United States as part of the War on Terror after the September 11, 2001 attacks (Hesse, 2014; Hirsch, 2018; Malito, 2016; Menkhaus, 2004). There have been interventions by Kenya, Ethiopia, and later Uganda (Hesse, 2014). The number of troops deployed has varied over time but has been significant. For instance, UNOSOM had around 22,000 troops, while AMISOM grew from its initial 7,200 in 2010 (Africa Research Bulletin, 2010), to currently six African countries deploying approximately 21,564 combat troops on the ground (Uganda with 6,223 troops, Burundi 5,432, Ethiopia 4,395, Kenya 3,664, Djibouti 1,000, and Sierra Leone with 850) (Hesse 2015). These numbers are likely to decrease slightly in the near future, as a recent U.N. resolution extended the AMISOM mandate but trimmed the upper limit of troop numbers to just over 20,500 (United Nations Security Council, 2018). The fatalities incurred by the peacekeepers have been heavy on contributing countries with 3,000 soldiers killed as of 2015, which approaches the 3,096 killed in all U.N. peacekeeping missions from 1948 to 2013 (Hesse, 2014: 350).

These interventions have all had to contend with a wide range of problems, including lack of a central government (since 1991), poverty and insecurity, the country emerging as a breeding ground for militant groups, and temporarily thriving piracy due to the power vacuum created by instability, and the ongoing war between clan-based fiefdoms.

This has been combined with the rise of militant groups like Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin – commonly known as Al-Shabab, the militant wing of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts. Since 2006, the group has taken control of most of southern Somalia and waged several campaigns of destabilization in other parts of the country. It was also responsible for carrying out attacks in neighboring countries, including in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda (Ingiriis, 2018; Vidino, Pantucci, and Kohlmann, 2010).

In a report for Saferworld, Suri’s assessment of external intervention in Somalia is mostly negative. He noted three key failures: (1) International actors have failed to underpin their military assertiveness with a coherent long-term peace strategy, (2) the military focus of defeating Al-Shabab has not succeeded; it has instead militarized society and locked international actors into a militarized approach to resolving the Somali conflict, excluding alternative approaches by key local stakeholders, and (3) the global counterterrorism agenda has reinforced a range of counterproductive outcomes, worked against local initiatives, and undermined efforts to build lasting peace (Suri, 2016: iv). Suri notes that, for example, the counterterrorism narrative has often served to harm ordinary Somalis more than it has diminished the capacity of Al-Shabab and, worse yet, there has been evidence that humanitarian assistance had been diverted to strengthen armed actors (Ibid., v). He also comments that there has been a lack of functioning oversight structure in the transitional government, a failure to understand the importance of clan membership in Somali society, and a focus on imposing structures from outside instead of building one from within.

A World Bank report noted that the root causes of Somalia’s conflict over resources and power were clannism and clan cleavages. The report also stated that traditional clan elders are “a primary source of conflict mediation, clan-based customary law serves as the basis for negotiated settlements, and clan-based blood-payment groups serve as a deterrent to armed violence” (World Bank, 2005: 9). It indicates that mixed relationships between the business sector and violence are at times a force for peace and stability, and at other times perpetuate violence. However, the report is silent on the negative role that an externally imposed intervention has played in the conflict and the mixed roles of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and regional and international actors in the Somali conflict. Instead, it assumes that Somalia needs a centralized state, without questioning the history of centralized power in Somali society and historicizing the failures to build a stable government in the country.

The United Nations has been intermittently involved in the ongoing conflict in Somalia for several decades. The current U.N. role is through the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), which is intended in part to aid in the democratic process and elections in Somalia as well as in part to aid the peacekeeping mission undertaken by AMISOM. It is noteworthy that even AMISOM – led by regional African states – has faced challenges operating in Somalia, and not just due to Al-Shabab. In part this is due to the relationship with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). At first, the government irked family-based clans as a result of a perception that the government had infringed upon their territory in Mogadishu, making the situation more precarious; however, when AMISOM realized how the government had strained its relations with the clans, it restored power to the clans, which made the fight against Al-Shabab easier within Mogadishu (Roitsch, 2014; Escobar, 2011). It is clear that not only do AMISOM and the TFG need to fight Al-Shabab forces, but they must also provide support for civilians in need of aid, which remains a difficult task due to the lack of resources available to both AMISOM and the TFG (Anderson, 2016).

The international counterterrorism campaign has also had an impact within Somalia, given the relationship between Al-Shabaab and other Islamist extremist groups such as al-Qaeda. However, it has not always been clear whether Al-Shabab poses an imminent international terrorist threat (as opposed to a threat within Somalia), making it difficult to determine a proper course of action by external actors. Prior to 2009, the United States set up the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism, in which the United States allied with Somali warlords to fight al-Qaeda (Ibrahim, 2010). However, as the United States allied itself with the Somali government, drone attacks that kill civilians have unwittingly fueled anger against the Somali government. This has encouraged further rebellion and armed resistance, leading to more conflict and violence (Ibid; Malito, 2015; Suri, 2016).

An assessment of the effectiveness of the various U.S., U.N., and AU deployments to Somalia is often rather dispiriting. The results have not only been mostly failures, but also materially expensive. Hagmann’s study shows the impact of coercive intervention in Somalia in the periods between 1991–1995 and 2006–2016 in south-central Somalia. There have been recurrent negative relationships between external intervention designed for stabilizing the regions in Somalia and political settlements. Moreover, “coercive external state-building has encouraged violent attempts to produce a political settlement within the country” (Hagmann, 2016: 6). This is supported by Menkhaus’ research. He writes that “in virtually every instance, key actors took decisions that produced unintended outcomes which harmed rather than advanced their interests, and at a cost in human lives and destruction of property that continues to mount” (Menkhaus, 2007: 357).

Scholars have rightly pointed out the shortfalls of the current American approach to the War on Terror in other regions where the United States has carried out military operations. In the Horn of Africa, these have included a combination of, and reliance on: special operations without a coherent political strategy, the lack of effective diplomatic presence, little expertise on Somali domestic and regional politics, and a reliance on proxy countries for interventions on behalf of the United States, notably on Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda. The result has been a quasi-reproduction of Cold War-era proxy politics, with Ethiopia supporting the TFG, Eritrea lending its support to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), also known as the Union of Islamist Courts (UIC), and Uganda and Kenya all taking part in military operations inside Somalia (Menkhaus, 2003).

Malito (2016), in her study of the peace initiative in Somalia and Somaliland between 1991-1995, concludes that the impact of externally imposed peace has failed. Moreover, the U.N.-U.S. external intervention has led to internal division in Somalia by subverting the power dynamic, encouraging political polarization, and radicalizing the insurgency and distribution of power while lacking the resources and political will to sustain the preferred “winning” faction (Malito, 2016: 1-24).

De Waal (2012) has observed that the international community’s preoccupation with uprooting terrorism and its insistence on establishing a western-style government (such as the TFG) is based on false assumptions: The belief that Somalia necessarily needs a highly centralized state, a preoccupation with suppressing the UIC and destroying Al-Shabab, and a failure to recognize the reality of the region and what already works (Elliot and Holzer 2009; Malito 2015). The central government cannot exist without foreign backing (AU, U.N., U.S.). This is supported by Suri, who shows that the focus on building a liberal state in Somalia has resulted in tensions and conflict. This externally driven approach, focused on reestablishing the national government’s centralized authority, has worsened instability and armed conflict, because it assumes that Somalia requires and desires a centralized authority and ignores the voices of the Somali people in the process (Suri, 2016: 35-37).

The last few decades have driven home a bitter lesson: Somalia is a hostile environment for an externally brokered and externally imposed peace. The various interventions have been based on the international community’s preoccupation with building a liberal nation-state, uprooting terrorism, and establishing a Western-style government in Mogadishu. However, attempts to militarily impose law and order and build a centralized or Western-style state have failed. Some scholars believe this failure has been due to a preoccupation with suppressing Islamic insurgents and preventing the insurgents such as Al-Shabab from gaining a stronghold in the Horn of Africa. The frequent changes in territory between AU-backed government forces and Islamist insurgents reflect both a failure to militarily defeat the insurgents and the financial challenges faced by the Somali AU-U.N.-backed forces (Ibid.). The inability to defeat Al-Shabab or sustain the cost of a perpetual peacekeeping mission raise questions about the viability of an international intervention in Somalia.

Ibrahim (2010: 283-295) argues that the very rise of Islamic insurgents such as Al-Shabab is partly a factor of the policy follies of regional and international players in Somalia. In addition, Somalia has been a field where other countries can demonstrate their own credentials. It has been argued that the justification among key contributing countries toward the AU peacekeeping mission was likely driven less by an interest in stabilizing Somalia than by attempts to deflect from domestic issues for some countries (such as Burundi); improve regional leadership credentials, for example by Ethiopia; and enhance participants’ international image and secure resources from key donors like the European Union and United States, as illustrated by Uganda and Djibouti (Elliot and Holzer, 2009). In many regions of Somalia undergoing conflict, external interventions have militarized local population groups, creating strong incentives for a small number of the Somali elites to remain involved in the conflict (Suri, 2016: 37-39). 

According to De Waal (2012), the international community has failed to appreciate the fact that Somalia’s informal private sector is thriving and successful and has a major role in curbing violence. It has demonstrated remarkable adaptive capacity and resilience, with, for example, remittance transfers of US $700–800 million each year handled by Somali remittance companies. Elites have realized they can gain more from commerce than an unstable marketplace (Menkhaus, 2003; De Waal, 2012).

Somalia has suffered from another drawback of internationally mediated peace processes and an externally imposed peace, namely that external intervention has been prioritized over Somali-led internal processes, with only a narrow group of elites being engaged. One important lesson that the United States and those carrying out military operations in Somalia have yet to learn is the importance of the local context in building sustainable peace (Richmond, 2013). More than anything else, local rule matters greatly in matters of security and prosperity. Nowhere is this difference more pronounced than the differences between the northwest region of Somalia, Somaliland, and southern Somalia. One has developed into a relatively peaceful and democratically governed entity; the other has been ravaged by violent events. One has a viable self-sustaining government and the other is fragmented and controlled by competing clan-based groups (Harsch, 2017).

III. Micro-level analysis of violent events

The paper attempts to answer five research questions:

  1. How frequently did different types of violent events occur in Somalia from 2007 to 2017?

  2. How frequently were different actor types involved in violent events that occurred in Somalia from 2007 to 2017?

  3. (a) What were the frequency of events in Somali regions from 2007 to 2017? (b) What were the frequency of violent events in Somali regions from 2007 to 2017?

  4. Where were violent events concentrated in Somalia?

  5. What were the annual event trends and death rates across the 11-year period? 

One of the difficulties of studying violence is collecting data on conflicts from within a conflict environment. This challenge has motivated different agencies to adopt a variety of methods to collect conflict data, which has allowed more researchers to study violence using quantitative techniques. In recent years, social science research and conflict studies in particular have focused on a variety of factors that have been linked to the causes or effects of violence, or which can be used to categorize a conflict itself, including conflict outbreak, regime type, ethnic diversity and population composition, civil wars (Fearon and Laitin, 2003), and military coups d’état (McGowan 2006). More prominent in economic studies has been the study of the relationship of natural resources to conflict (Collier and Hoeffler, 1998). The use of quantitative techniques to study violence has led to development of matrices and indices to measure violence (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2016; Messner et al., 2014). Within these, geographically, African conflicts are increasingly represented in cross-national conflict event datasets.

One major development in the study of violent events has been the use of micro-level analysis. Frequently, micro-level data includes greater details about events: precise information about their location, geo-reference data, identification of the actors involved, and estimates of the severity or intensity of the violence.

Several factors have contributed to the growth of these micro-level and wider political event datasets. The first comprise the advent of technology and availability of information on the internet, as well as decentralization of information and reduction in the cost of gathering, coding, and storing data. The creation of specialized systems for automated coding, such as machine-assisted systems, has also facilitated the creation of event datasets. There has been increased interest and research focused on subnational variations in violence, and the involvement of non-state actors, making these some of the most active research areas in conflict studies (Ibid). This has all been accompanied by greater investment in institutions such as the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), and the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), which collect and disseminate data on conflicts (Schrodt, 2012).

The second characteristic of conflict event data is that researchers rarely collect primary data themselves. Instead, they use secondary data collected by agencies like ACLED and UCDP. Most of these violence datapoints rely on media reporting (Weidmann, 2016). News and media agencies seldom cover all events, and consequently media-based conflict event data suffer from selection biases that affect their accuracy (Weidmann, 2015, 2014). Weidmann’s study of the accuracy of media-based conflict event data confirmed “the expectation that events with a low number of observers tend to have higher reporting inaccuracies” (Weidmann, 2015: 1129).

Another study confirmed the media’s tendency to systematically underreport or over-report certain types of events. Baum, Zhukov, and Weidmann (2015) found that reporting bias depends on how news organizations navigate the political environment. In democratic regimes, news reporting reflected a preference toward “traditional journalistic standards of newsworthiness to maximize audience attention and revenue” and a pro-challenger bias (Ibid., 387). In non-democracies, the bias was toward reporting with a clear pro-incumbency view, with underreported protests and nonviolent collective action by regime opponents, while largely ignoring government atrocities (Ibid., 397). These types of biases are not just limited to the media, however, and they can also affect development, government and nongovernmental organizations that are increasingly collecting conflict data around the world.

Recent improvements in data collection techniques and increases in the number of agencies collecting localized or disaggregated conflict events data have helped track violent events as well as nonviolent events (Demarest and Lange,r 2018). These agencies use publicly available sources such as news media reports to compile information on different types of conflict events. The two leading large-scale data-collection projects are the UCDP Georeferenced Events Database (UCDP GED) and Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). It is worth noting these two sources have different strengths and focuses.

An important difference among conflict databases is what constitutes a conflict event. This in turn shapes how collected data is coded. UCDP restricts its domain to events that result in at least one fatality while ACLED includes fatal, non-fatal, and nonviolent events (arrests, troop movements, and demonstrations, for instance). One comparative study notes that those interested in nonviolent events only have ACLED to choose from, given that UCDP does not code such data (Eck, 2012: 126). Eck (2012) argues that the limitation of ACLED is its reliance on events (violent or nonviolent) as a unit of analysis, whereas researchers “rarely theorize about events…rather the production and targets of violence” (Ibid). The UCDP GED also uses an “event” as its selector, namely an instance of fatal organized violence as a unit of analysis (Williams, 2017). Eck claims that ACLED’s lack of any assessment of the nature, severity, or intensity of violence means that, for instance, a case like the massacre at Srebrenica is given the “same weight in the database as a sniper attack in Sarajevo” (Eck, 2012: 126). She criticizes ACLED for not providing users with information required to study theories of civil war, including whether the actor is a military or police force, or identifying an actor so that the behavior of a warring party can be analyzed. However, in this study, we were able to collapse the various events into clusters, e.g., violent and nonviolent events, riots and protests based on the classification that the ACLED offers. In other studies, we were able to create other clusters such as government forces, rebel forces, political and ethnic militias, battles or violence committed against civilians (De Waal, 2007; Zambakari, Kang, and Sanders, 2018).

IV. Method

We analyzed data for Somalia from the ACLED Project for 2007 through 2017, including the number of events, the type of events, and fatalities from such events. For those years, the ACLED collected the “types of violence,” agents, dates, and locations of political violence and protest (Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, n.d.). These data are based on several secondary sources, including local and regional news sources, the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), Relief Web, Factiva, and various humanitarian agencies (Raleigh et al., 2010, 656).

An event was defined in the ACLED codebook according to several different components: location, actor type, event type, event date, and several other variables (Raleigh and Dowd, 2016). That is, an event is an incident that occurs between designated actors, at a specific named location and on a specific day (date) (Raleigh et al., 2010: 655). An event is defined as an interaction involving at least two actors (Ibid.). For example, an interaction can consist of skirmish or battle between Al-Shabab and Somali government forces. A data entry for a specific event includes the description of the event, the number of fatalities, and several other variables.

In the ACLED database, actors are defined as a group, such as a government entity or a rebel force, but actor types are not mutually exclusive. Even though the ACLED is useful because it provides data about actors in Somalia, it has some limitations (Raleigh and Dowd, 2016). First, due to the security situation in Somalia, it is possible that some events are unreported and hence unrecorded. Secondly, no direct causal relationship can be determined between the event and location or date when it occurred because the study was designed as a descriptive study. Finally, because the ACLED databases rely heavily on media sources, the data used for the study may be biased, resulting in greater measurement error.

Despite these limitations, ACLED offers a comprehensive database that contains incidents of political violence in Africa with a specific focus on tracking the activities of armed and unarmed actors. ACLED works

 through local partnerships with Somalia’s “Local Source Project” to maintain access to a network of local Somali reporters who release daily information on the status of political (in)stability in the country. ACLED’s ability to work through partner organizations on the ground improves the quality of the data collected by the agency and its access to the field where data are collected. ACLED also covers a wider range of events than other databases: it compiles information from over 50 sources, more than many of its competitors. Like the UCPD database, ACLED also records one-sided violence toward civilians by both government or rebel actors as well as conflicts between rebel groups.

The ACLED Project collects data on nine different types of events that are political in nature (see Table 1 for descriptions) (Ibid.). For purposes of analysis, the nine categories of events were collated into three event types: violent events, riots and protests, and nonviolent events. See Table 1 for further details on the event types we investigated.


Using the coding rules in the codebook, multiple events that occur on the same day may be coded as a single event, although events that involve the same location on the same day may also be coded separately. If, for example, rebels launched missiles at a government barracks and later that day the government took over the rebel compound that launched the attack, the first event would be coded “remote violence” whereas the second event would be labeled “battle –government regains territory” (Ibid.). Although an incident may have the same date and location, it could have been coded by ACLED as multiple events. In addition, these similar events could have redundant or repeated information, such as fatalities, which consequently would inflate the numbers. To mitigate this, events with the same date and same latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates were collapsed in the same event for this study. Instead of computing the sum of the fatalities, the average was computed across multiple events before they were collapsed.

Death rates were calculated for each administrative region and annually for the whole country: These death rates (per 100,000) were computed by dividing the number of fatalities by 2014 population estimates for whole country as well as yearly estimates for each region (United Nations Population Fund and Federal Republic of Somalia, 2014). In this study, we used the “Population Estimation Survey 2014 for the 18 pre-war regions of Somalia,” the first comprehensive estimation of the Somali population in over four decades conducted by The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and The Federal Republic of Somalia. The survey collected information from 250,000 households in urban, rural, and nomadic settings and camps for the internally displaced people (Ibid.). Our analyses of the ACLED data focused on event type, number of events, and fatalities. The analysis was conducted on data for all 18 administrative regions within Somalia. For yearly estimates, death rates were computed by dividing the number of fatalities by yearly population estimates.

This study sought to investigate violent events, nonviolent events, and events characterized by riots and protests in Somalia between 2007 and 2017 by analyzing ACLED data. We examined the percent distribution of the types of events and types of actors. We investigated the geographic distribution of all events and death rates by region, as well as geographic locations of only violent events. In addition, we longitudinally examined death rates across an 11-year period (2007-2017).

V. Results

Descriptive statistics for the number of political and military events as well as death rates for the country’s administrative regions across an 11-year period were examined. We report the frequency and percent distributions of types of event and actors. Moreover, we report the geographic regions’ distributions first for all events and then for only violent events. Finally, we report annual fluctuations of political and military events across the 11-year period.

Event and actor types:

Analysis of ACLED data indicated that violent events were the most common type of event reported in the database (N = 17,539, 86.87%). About 6.8% of events were nonviolent (N = 1,372) and 6.3% of the events were riots and protests.

Table 2 summarizes the number of political and military events for each actor type.[1] The percent of actor types is displayed graphically in Figure 1. The actors were primarily political and government entities, ethnic militia and rebel forces. Political or ethnic militias were involved in 48.73% of the events, rebels were participants in 42.95%, and government forces in 40.24% of all events. About 29.36% of the events involved civilians.

Figure 1.  Percent of actor types in Somalia ( N  = 20,189 events)

Figure 1. Percent of actor types in Somalia (N = 20,189 events)

Regional distribution of all events:

Table 3 contains the number of political and military events, as well as the fatality rates per 100,000 people that were computed by dividing the number of fatalities by population estimates. There were estimated 33,649 fatalities for 20,189 events that occurred in Somalia during the 11-year period. The number of events that occurred in each administrative region ranged between 172 and 6,085. The death rate ranged from three to 738 deaths per 100,000 people.


The number of political and military events as well as death rate for each region is displayed in the maps in Figure 2. Based on the number of events reported in the ACLED database, all the regions with more than 1,000 political and military events were located in the southern part of the country, while all but one of the regions with less than 500 events were located in Somalia’s northern region.  

There is a similar regional pattern for fatalities. The death rate for the period 2007-2017 is higher in the southern regions than the northern regions (see Panel B). The five regions with death rates higher than 300 per 100,000 are all located in the southern region of Somalia.

Figure 2 . Number of events and fatalities for each region of Somalia between 2007 and 2017.  Data Source:  Armed Conflict Location and Event Data ( N  = 20,189 events). Regional boundaries and names do not imply endorsement by the authors or  GPPR .

Figure 2. Number of events and fatalities for each region of Somalia between 2007 and 2017. Data Source: Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (N = 20,189 events). Regional boundaries and names do not imply endorsement by the authors or GPPR.

Regional distribution of violent events:

Nonviolent events, as well as riots and protests, appeared to have occurred across the entire country. Because these types of events occurred at lower frequency, the number of events, deaths and death rates were recomputed for violent events (see Table 4).


The four regions with the highest number of violent events and fatalities – Banaadir, Shabeellaha Hoose Bay and Jubbada Hoose – had 5,716 violent events and 9,594 deaths, 2,798 events and 4,303 deaths, 1,316 events and 2,643 deaths, and 1,254 events and 3599 deaths, respectively. Death rates are the same for violent and all events (see Figure 3). The region with the highest death rate was Jubbada Hoose (736 deaths per 100,000). Four additional regions, Banaadir, Gedo, Hiiraan and Bakool, had death rates greater than 400 per 100,000.

The ACLED database contained the location of all the violent events that are recorded as having occurred in Somalia, which made it possible to plot the locations of the violent incidences on a map. The results of this can be seen in Figure 4. Clusters of violent events appeared to have occurred in the more densely populated areas of southern Somalia.

Figure 3 . Fatality rates per 100,000 for aggregated events ( N =20,189) and violent events ( N =17,539) for administrative regions.

Figure 3. Fatality rates per 100,000 for aggregated events (N=20,189) and violent events (N=17,539) for administrative regions.

Figure 4. Number and location of 17,539 violent events. Excludes riots/protests and nonviolent events. Data Source: Armed Conflict Location and Event Data. Regional boundaries and names do not imply endorsement by the authors or GPPR.

Regional distribution of violent events:

Nonviolent events, as well as riots and protests, appeared to have occurred across the entire country. Because these types of events occurred at lower frequency, the number of events, deaths and death rates number of events, deaths and death rates were recomputed for violent events (see Table 4).

The four regions with the highest number of violent events and fatalities – Banaadir, Shabeellaha Hoose Bay and Jubbada Hoose – had 5,716 violent events and 9,594 deaths, 2,798 events and 4,303 deaths, 1,316 events and 2,643 deaths, and 1,254 events and 3599 deaths, respectively. Death rates are the same for violent and all events (see Figure 3). The region with the highest death rate was Jubbada Hoose (736 deaths per 100,000). Four additional regions, Banaadir, Gedo, Hiiraan and Bakool, had death rates greater than 400 per 100,000.

The ACLED database contained the location of all the violent events that are recorded as having occurred in Somalia, which made it possible to plot the locations of the violent incidences on a map. The results of this can be seen in Figure 4. Clusters of violent events appeared to have occurred in the more densely populated areas of southern Somalia.

Events across time:

To compare annual fluctuations in violence in Somalia, political and military events were plotted by year from 2007 to 2017 (see panel A of Figure 5). The numbers of political and military events did not change much from one year to another, except for 2009 when there was a 49% decrease. After 2011, however, there was a two-year climb in the number of events before dropping back in 2014 and 2015, and increasing again in 2016 and again in 2017 (albeit at a lower rate of increase than in 2011-2014).

Figure 5-a.png
Figure 5 . Number of events and fatalities (Panel A) and death rates (Panel B) are plotted as a function of time from 2007 to 2017 ( N  = 20,189 events).

Figure 5. Number of events and fatalities (Panel A) and death rates (Panel B) are plotted as a function of time from 2007 to 2017 (N = 20,189 events).

Death rates from 2007 to 2017 had a pattern of fluctuation from year to year (see Panel B of Figure 5). Death rates remained at the same level between 2007 and 2008, decreased in 2009, and spiked substantially in 2010. From 2009 to 2017, death rates followed the same pattern of decreasing one year and then increasing the following year, with the rates steadily increasing annually until 2017. It should be noted that although the number of violent and military events remained stable after 2013, the fatalities and death rates kept increasing through 2017.

VI. Discussion

In summary, violent events were by far the most common event types. Ethnic and political militia forces were engaged in almost one half of the events, whereas rebel and government forces were each engaged in at least 40% of all events. Moreover, violent events were concentrated in the southern regions of Somalia. There was a surge of fatalities in 2010, and a steady increase in death rate from 2011 until 2017.

Event Types: Riots, protests, and nonviolent events account for a low proportion (13%) of political and military events. Violent events (86.9%) were the most common types in the 11-year period. These consist of remote violence (e.g., long-range missiles or IEDs), violence against civilians (e.g., pillaging or rape), and battles involving seizing territories.

Actor Types: Ethnic and political militant forces were engaged in almost half of the events, whereas rebel and government forces were each engaged in at least 40% of all events. Given the political and military nature of the events reported in the ACLED database, it is not surprising that the majority of actors were political, military, government, or rebel entities.

Regional distribution of violence: There were more political and military events, as well as higher death rates, in southern Somalia than in the northern regions. The Banaadir Region in southeastern Somalia had the highest number of events, is one of the smallest and most densely populated areas, and contains Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. Similarly, violent events were concentrated in more populated areas of the southern regions of Somalia and along the Shebelle River, which divides the regions of Hiraan, Middle Shabell and Lower Shabelle, and is near the cities of Oddur or Xuddur (south western Bakool region) and Baldoa (capital of the southwestern Bay region). These two towns experienced a combination of the worst drought in 40 years, conflict-induced displacement of civilians, and were battlegrounds between the TFG and the various rebel groups between 2007 and 2017.

Annual fluctuations: Between 2007 and 2011, the numbers of all events did not change much from one year to another, except for 2009, when there was a sharp decrease. After 2011, however, there was a two-year climb in the number of events before somewhat stabilizing from 2014 to 2017. Although the number of events had a moderate increase from 2009 to 2010, there was a sharp increase in death rates in the same time period. Though the number of events remained stable after 2013, death rates kept increasing through 2017.

VII. Conclusion

Several events contributed to the level of fatalities between 2007 and 2017. These included military operations by U.N.-AU forces to drive Al-Shabab out of Mogadishu in 2010, fighting between rival armed groups like Hizbul Islam and Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a outside the capital, Kenyan military intervention in 2011, and the TFG and its allies taking over the port city of Kismayo in 2012 (Human Rights Watch 2010).

Al-Shabab has been determined to expel foreign forces from Somalia. When Ethiopia pulled its forces out in 2009 ahead of the U.N.-backed agreement between the TFG and the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), the group turned to fighting the TFG and AMISOM troops. In addition to fighting at home, the group also managed to carry out high-profile attacks in the region: The double bombing of an Ethiopian restaurant and a rugby club in Uganda (2010), the attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya (2013), the attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College (2015), and a more recent attack at a Nairobi luxury hotel complex (2019). The attacks in Uganda and later in Kenya were designed to force Ugandan and Kenyan troops’ withdrawal from Somalia (Sevenzo, Karimi, and Smith-Spark 2019; Stanford University 2016).

The general geographic distribution of events is not a surprise, given the comparative stability in Somaliland and Puntland. However, the increasing levels of violence and rising casualties in central and southern Somalia raise serious questions about the international strategy in Somalia and the various military interventions by regional countries.

The challenge in Somalia is how to stabilize the country and form a government of national unity with buy-in among the warring factions. Political initiatives that emphasize a workable balance through inclusive processes are needed to make sure any new government has sufficient resources and capacity to manage a transition. Furthermore, state legitimization and capacity, building trust among political adversaries, and ensuring the security of the populace require knowledge of the local context and sound judgment in order to offer the best prospects for peace (Call 2008).

Any effort to stabilize Somalia must closely examine the heavy emphasis on the reconstruction of a centralized state, the top-down technical exercise in institution building, and a focus on an externally-imposed peace. Diplomacy and a broad-based political strategy must focus and prioritize civil engagement with key Somali stakeholders and not just military elites. Other countries’ single-minded focus on weakening Al-Shabab’s fighting capacity must be balanced with a more pragmatic approach to open dialogue with all key stakeholders. Any dialogue must balance what the Somali people want versus the interests of Britain, the United States, France, or regional powers, such as Kenya and Ethiopia.

In lineage-based Somalia, where clans define social relations, working with clan and religious leaders can be another effective approach to preventing violence and providing a traditional method of conflict management for clans. Clan identity also serves as a functional mechanism for the collective organization of economic interests in the pursuit of state access and control of political power (Ibid., 235).

Paradoxically, the only recent example of an alternative to external intervention in Somalia was the Islamic Courts movement (in 2006) that organized the merchant class (Ibid.). This effort was driven by the interests of the Mogadishu business class. Unfortunately, local Somali hostility toward the Islamic Courts Union and internal challenges forced it to dissolve. However, it offered an alternative model for stabilizing Somalia by uniting different strata of the business class around common interests (Ibid., 236).

The United States’ sole focus on security in Somalia comes at the expense of nation-building activities, development efforts, and democratic peace building activities between and within warring clans (Suri, 2016: 42). Repressive counterinsurgency, conducted largely by external actors, has been counterproductive and reactive, lacking in both inclusive approaches to resolving conflict and a shared political strategy supported by intervening actors in Somalia. The stabilization of Somalia is in the long-term interest of the region (stability, democratization and development), the United States (regional security and trading route), and the European Union (forced displacement and migrants). Furthermore, the geopolitical consequences of a protracted conflict in Somalia has detrimental effects on Somalia, the Horn of Africa, and the maritime traffic from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Given that Somalia’s conflict has multiple dimensions and is at local, national, regional, and international levels, sustainable peace and stability will require a long-term political strategy. This strategy should address governance deficits and establish stability by including local and regional stakeholders and international guarantors. In the absence of a decisive military victory over insurgents, it may be realistic to open dialogue with all the armed insurgents, including Al-Shabab, while supporting reconciliation between other armed and unarmed groups. This will require working with local organizations, cross-clan associations such as civil society organizations (CSOs), and cross-clan businesses in the private sector to work as potential partners in efforts to promote peace in Somalia.

+ Author biographies

Christopher D. Zambakari, MBA, MIS, LP.D., is the CEO of The Zambakari Advisory.

Richard Rivera (MA), Statistician & Psychometrician, The Zambakari Advisory.

+ Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Michael Summerton, Dr. Margaret Camarena, Matthew Edwards, Kyle Anderson, Jinzhou Zhang, Cleophus Thomas III, and consultants at The Zambakari Advisory, the anonymous reviewers and members of the Editorial Team for The Georgetown Public Policy Review for their contributions and readings of earlier drafts of the manuscript.

+ Footnotes

[1] The type of actor is not mutually exclusive because an event could consist of multiple actors.

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