Research by Topic

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""Concealing Conflict Markets: How Rebels and Firms Use State Institutions to Launder Wartime Trade"," International Organization, 2021

Abstract: Rebel groups are players on the international stage, but little is known about their financial strategies on this scale. Conventional wisdom expects rebels to operate through informal networks that evade state authority. Yet new data reveal that rebels can better connect to global economies by repurposing state institutions. Drawing on unprecedented data—the internal records of armed groups and their trading partners—I demonstrate how rebels use state agencies in conflict zones to manufacture a legal cover for trade. Whereas states are the recognized actors in the international system, rebels are illegitimate when it comes to international transactions. By using state agencies to provide false certification, rebels can place the stamp of state on their trade deals. This is a fundamentally different model of how conflict markets skirt sanctions and connect to global buyers not by avoiding the state, but by infiltrating its institutions. I develop a framework of how this strategy works. The framework demonstrates how the international context of sovereignty norms and sanctions regimes create incentives for rebels, firms, and bureaucrats along steps the supply chain to coordinate around this legal veneer. Data from a prototypical resource conflict, the Democratic Republic of Congo, enable rare insights and unusually systematic analysis of the actual functions of conflict economies. The framework and evidence contribute theoretical and policy understandings for rebel governance, state building and fragmentation, and illicit global markets.

Book Manuscript: Violent Institutions: Rebellion, Bureaucracy and Wartime State Capture

My book manuscript examines varied patterns of rebel-state engagement during armed conflict and the processes of institutional change that they entail. Conventional wisdom portrays conflict zones as lacking institutions or pitting armed groups and states as competitors. Yet, my dissertation shows that rebels and state agents often negotiate to realize interests on both sides. Drawing on new data the Democratic Republic of Congo, my dissertation examines how state agents maintain institutions that collect revenue and monitor resource flows in rebel-held territories. Through subnational case comparison, it identifies four sets of accommodations—collusion, cooptation, entrenchment, and displacement—that differ according to rebels’ use of the state apparatus and where authority resides. I trace these interactions in the political economy of war as rebels and states co-administer taxation and cross-border trade.
During fieldwork, I negotiated unprecedented access to the internal records of four armed groups', including rebels’ financial transactions, correspondences with business partners and government agencies, as well as budgets, payrolls, and tax ledgers. These unusually comprehensive records provide data to trace the social relationships that governed resources during civil war and offer unprecedented insights into the inner workings of rebel organization.


"Bureaucrats at War: The Resilient State in the Congo," African Affairs, 2020.

Abstract: Rebels often use a state-like image to legitimize their rule, but little is known about their on-the-ground relations with the administrators of state power—official bureaucrats. This article fills this gap by examining bureaucratic practices in conflict zones. Drawing on fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it argues that bureaucrats actively sustain state institutions and recruit rebel support during war. The article develops a theoretical framework to trace how bureaucrats use a strategic resource—their recognized authority to confer state legitimization and legality—to negotiate with rebels. This entails struggles on two fronts. On a first, bureaucrats use official certificates, codes, and paperwork to produce state legitimacy in conflict zones and exchange it with rebels to purchase protection. On a second, bureaucrats aim to preserve their brokerage role over this legitimacy resource. Quotidian practices of noncompliance such as evasions, parallel taxes, and sabotaged information, can prevent rebels from appropriating administrations outright. Original records from four Congolese rebel groups illustrate how bureaucrats maneuver between compliance and resistance. Real-time records demonstrate the continuity of bureaucratic practice during war, and offer glimpses into everyday governance practices. It contributes to literature on rebel governance, public authority, and failed states.

"In Search of Order: State Systems of Property Rights Enforcement and their Failings" in Sandra Joireman, Where there is No Government: Enforcing Property Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Abstract: Accepted wisdom regarding the geography of power in most African countries holds that power radiates outward from the center, with the strength of the state most pronounced in the capital and often barely discernable in the hinterland. With the intense urbanization in many African countries over the past decade we are increasingly seeing areas and populations that are geographically proximate to the center of power, yet as beyond state control as the geographic hinterland. Urban informal settlements are “pockets of statelessness” within capital cities that often have neither formal political representation nor basic public goods. This chapter explores the persistence of one of these “pockets of statelessness,” the Kibera slum community in urban Nairobi, and identifies why attempts to title and enforce property rights there have been bypassed. Four competing enforcement regimes (state courts, NGOs, bureaucratic entrepreneurs, and gangs) are identified within Kibera, and their effectiveness with regard to social welfare is evaluated.


"A Bit of Truth, A Bit of Lie: Methods of Data Validation in Conflict and Covert Settings" (UNDER REVIEW)

Burka or Bandit? Examining (Mis)Information in Civil War Violence, with Evidence from the “Islamic State Province” in Congo (Working Paper)

Conflict is fought not only on the battlefield, but also to control the information that is provided about violence. Growing research examines the role of secrecy in inter-state war, yet little is known about similar incentives to misrepresent in civil wars. This paper develops a methodology of examining “off-stage” politics in covert environments that brings this question into focus. Drawing on field research into mass killings in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, it examines how violence specialists play a role in crafting the narratives that are repackaged and sold at the international level. International onlookers attribute the violence to an Islamist armed group, the Allied Democratic Forces (now called the “Islamic State Central Africa Province”). Using ethnographic methods and an original dataset of 870 witnesses and participants linked to the killings, the paper examines how armed actors tailor information about the violence to specific audiences: representations of violence as foreign jihad, state-led massacres, armed extortion, or ethnic disputes varied by audience identity. Global attributions reflect violent politics, rather than on-the-ground reality. It demonstrates that the ability to market global narratives is a way to build domestic power and organizational survival of diverse violent networks. Theoretically, it builds understandings of how violent politics, information warfare, and international frames and resources intersect. Methodologically, it contributes to understanding sources of error in conflict environments and new approaches of studying clandestine tactics.

"Field Research in Dangerous Environments" In Chris Barrett, Jeffrey Cason, Erin Lentz, Overseas Research: A Practical Guide, 3rd ed. Routeledge, 2020.


"Peace-building as State-building? Lessons from the Democratic Republic of the Congo" in The State of Peacebuilding in Africa: Lessons Learned for Policymakers and Practitioners. Edited volume organized by the Wilson Center, 2021.

"Militarizing the Peace: United Nations Intervention against Congo's 'Terrorist' Rebels" Lawfare Institute and the Brookings Institute, Lawfare blog, June 2019


What are the effects of insecurity on containing public health crises? What governance changes occur locally?


Policy pieces

"Clichés Can Kill in Congo" Foreign Policy, April 2019

Listening to voices from residents in the outbreak area to understand resistance to the response teams:

Media appearances: