Can rapid and dramatic changes in foreign aid trigger political violence? Yes, says a team of researchers at Harvard and Brigham Young University. In a new article in this month’s American Journal of Political Science the research team argues that “aid shocks” and dramatic decreases in aid shifts the domestic power balance in these states and increases the changes of rebellion.

In some states foreign aid comprises a significant percentage of the central government’s budget. Governments often use the money to either deter rebellions by strengthening their own capacity or appeasing potential rebels by providing development programs or direct payoffs. Sudden decreases in foreign aid can make governments unable to afford to do either and not provide them with enough time to look for alternative sources of funding. With these governments weakened or unable to “buy off” political enemies, there is a greater likelihood that these political opponents will attempt to redress their grievances through violence.

The authors claim their findings highlight the dangers of dramatic reductions in aid, and “if donors decide to remove aid, they should do so gradually over time because sudden large decreases in aid could be deadly.”

The recommendation is particularly timely; last week Republican legislators in the United States proposed cutting the budget of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) by approximately 84%.  Last week, U.S. Senator Rand Paul suggested that the United States end all foreign aid. Full stop.

USAID head Rajiv Shah has been avidly defending his agency – arguing USAID plays an important role promoting, among other things, global security. This new research lends strength to Shah’s claim. These finding suggest that cutting USAID’s budget could trigger aid shocks around the world and cause a global increase in civil conflict.

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