Why Resource-Exploiting Rebels Are More Likely To Forcibly Recruit Children

Why Resource-Exploiting Rebels Are More Likely To Forcibly Recruit Children

Contraband and forced recruitment: How rebels' exploitation of natural resources can increase their willingness to forcibly recruit children.

Why resource-exploiting rebels are more likely to forcibly recruit children

To sustain their operations, armed groups must have a steady supply of recruits to fill their fighting ranks and to replace those lost to injury, death, or desertion. Most rebel groups rely initially on volunteers but resort to some form of forced recruitment when they can no longer attract enough voluntary recruits. This strategy is particularly prevalent among rebel groups that recruit children. Yet the extent of forcible recruitment of children differs across rebel groups and conflicts and evolves over the course of a conflict.

Child soldiering has garnered significant attention in academic research, but few studies have considered the factors that lead rebel organizations to use forcible recruitment strategies. To the extent that any distinction between voluntary and forced recruitment of children has been addressed, a prevalent assumption is that coercive recruitment is a “cheap alternative” to voluntary recruitment and a strategy that “rebel groups will choose to employ…if given the opportunity”. Our recent work suggests such a presumption is problematic, however, given that some rebel groups forcibly recruit large numbers of children and others do not.

"Rebel groups that profit from natural resources are more likely to forcibly recruit children."

Natural Resources Fueling Forcible Recruitment

Building on research about natural resources and conflict, we argue that one important factor influencing rebels’ incentives to forcibly recruit children is the exploitation of natural resources. We posit that rebel groups that profit from natural resources are more likely to forcibly recruit children for several reasons. First, some rebellions are more dependent than others on civilian support to sustain their operations, which can influence their behavior. Groups that lack steady funding tend to rely more heavily on locals to contribute to their rebellions and have strong incentives to refrain from coercive recruitment in order to maintain this support. Second, rebel groups that exploit natural resources are likely to attract a higher proportion of “opportunistic” recruits who are primarily motivated by a desire for personal benefit. In seeking to maximize their own personal gains, they may be especially reluctant to share group assets with other members. In this context, the forced recruitment of children becomes an attractive way to expand the manpower and capabilities of the rebel unit without having to divide assets equitably. Third, rebels that profit from natural resources generally want to sustain and even increase resource revenues, but may need additional labor to do so. Coercive recruitment strategies can assist rebels in achieving this objective. Even so, the incentive to forcibly recruit children is likely to be limited to situations where the natural resources being exploited do not require much skill or equipment to extract. Children can be especially useful in the exploitation of these lootable resources. Historical and contemporary examples illustrate our points. The Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone used forcibly recruited children to mine and smuggle diamonds in addition to fighting. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a number of organizations have forcibly recruited children to aid in their exploitation of valuable minerals.

Digging Deeper

To examine our expectations in more detail, we combined information on the level of forcible child recruitment by rebel groups with information on whether the group was profited from the exploitation of natural resources. Analyzing data across rebellions active between 1990 and 2012, our analysis revealed that the probability of forced child recruitment increases by 41 percent when a group profits from natural resources as compared to groups that do not profit from such resources. We also found robust evidence for the linkage between forcible recruitment of children and the exploitation of lootable natural resources; rebel groups exploiting lootable resources were 27 percent more likely to forcibly recruit children than groups with only non-lootable or no natural resource funding.

Overall, our findings underscore the importance of identifying rebel revenue streams in an effort to better predict which groups will engage in the forcible recruitment of children. Given that resource-exploiting rebels are significantly more likely to forcibly recruit children at high levels, our project raises concerns about the second and third order effects. Research has shown that conflicts that involve the use of child soldiers are more likely to recur. Moreover, it is incredibly difficult to reintegrate former child soldiers, both in society and in the education system. Policymakers seeking to mitigate child soldiering may want to focus first on those groups that exploit natural resources.Among other possible responses, the international community can seek to make it more challenging for rebels to profit from the commodities they exploit, particularly those for which they need children. While certain commodities (i.e. those which are illegal) are more difficult to police than branded manufactured goods, markets can usually identify the origins in the process of determining the quality. Efforts such as the Kimberley Process, although imperfect, have helped inhibit the flow of conflict diamonds and curtail rebels’ demands for laborers, including children. Of course, the international community will never be able to halt the illicit economy in its entirety, but opportunities exist to force illicit activities to the fringe of markets. Rebels might then be compelled to sell their products at deep discounts or not at all, thereby rendering the forcible recruitment of children a less lucrative endeavor.


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