Working Paper
Hidden hostility: donor attention and political violence

Political violence is a worldwide problem that has been on the rise over the past decade. The international dimension of domestic repression and dissent is a particularly relevant factor yet surprisingly understudied.

In particular, governments that heavily depend on foreign aid may crack down on political opponents when donors are distracted by major domestic events. In reaction, the opposition may have incentives to reduce agitations to incite such crackdowns.

We study this interaction in a simple strategic model and empirically test the predictions using fine-grained data for Africa. The theory surmises that oppositions will reduce agitations when shocks are anticipated (elections). In contrast, when unanticipated shocks (natural disasters) hit, and when agitations are already underway, the theory surmises that the opposition will substitute visible forms of unrest (riots) for more covert operations on soft targets (civilian-targeted violence).

This pattern is precisely reflected in the data. International inattention hurts political oppositions through the out-of-equilibrium threat of increased repression, and observed political crackdowns may only represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

Enhancing international scrutiny would help safeguard public demonstrations of dissent and reduce violence against civilians.