A UGA study shows world’s largest anti-poverty program is succeeding politically, not economically

Athens, Ga. — Economic programs can be an effective way for governments to fight insurgents, according to new research from the University of Georgia.

But the biggest success of India’s National Rural Economic Guarantee Scheme, the world’s largest anti-poverty program, has been political — not economic, said Laura Zimmermann, an assistant professor of international affairs and economics in UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs and Terry College of Business.

“A program on this scale was unprecedented, and I wanted to look at the labor market impact it had. What I found was it doesn’t create a lot of benefits. There are some, but they’re not that impressive,” she said. “So, I thought about why else a government might want to implement such a program. Are there other reasons, perhaps in the political sphere?”

As it turns out, there are. NREGS promises 100 days of public-sector employment to every household in rural India. In practice, however, those 100 days were closer to 30 — a helping hand, but far short of a full supplement to the population’s seasonal agricultural jobs. What did get a lift from the jobs program, however, were policing efforts against anti-government rebels.

Since the 1960s a group of Maoists insurgents called the Naxalites have fought the Indian government, which they claim doesn’t do enough for its poor citizens. While the government has long tried to contain the insurgents, military efforts have not been effective, Zimmermann said.

“In developmental economics, there’s an established literature about counter-insurgency tactics, and one of those tactics is a ‘hearts and minds’ approach. It claims you need to do more to win over civilians than forcefully put down insurgents. You need to show civilians that you care, that you are concerned about their needs,” she said. “This seemed like the perfect testing ground for that theory.”

India’s program was rolled out in stages, making it easy to compare its affected regions to a control area. Wherever it was implemented, the program created an immediate uptick in violence by about 70 percent or 360 attacks per year, Zimmermann found.

“We saw that most of the violence was by police against Maoists, but there were also more incidents of insurgents attacking civilians. That tells a story where the police are getting better at tracking down these insurgents, probably thanks to information from civilians. It also says the insurgents are targeting people who they believe may have tipped off the police about them,” she said.

That reinforces the ‘hearts and minds’ theory, she said. The government’s efforts to financially help the rural poor created trust for the police.

“In this type of conflict, civilians have a hard time staying neutral because the insurgents are these guerrilla-type groups that hide and live in forest areas, so they rely on people in surrounding villages for food, supplies and intelligence about what’s going on,” she said. “Civilians generally have a good idea of what’s going on. So, they have this choice: Do they keep quiet and either tacitly or not support the insurgents, or do they share that information with the police and potentially put themselves or their families in danger?”

The paper, “Guns and Butter? Fighting Violence with the Promise of Development” was published in the Journal of Development Economics. It was co-authored by Gaurav Khanna of the University of California, San Diego and Zimmermann, who holds a joint appointment at UGA in the Terry College of Business and the School of Public and International Affairs.


Writer: Matt Weeks, 706-271-6294, [email protected]

Contact: Laura Zimmermann, [email protected]