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Brief 60: Reducing Youth Support for Violence through Training and Cash Transfers in Afghanistan

The study underscores the mixed role of economic incentives in reducing the propensity of youth to support armed opposition groups in a wartime setting, specifically Kandahar, Afghanistan. Although providing either vocational training or unconditional cash transfers did not reduce the inclination of youth to support the Taliban, receiving both interventions resulted in increased support for the government even up to 7–8 months after the program concluded. These political gains were achieved despite the absence of any improvements to beneficiaries’ economic well-being.

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Category: Conflict and Violence

Tags: Afghanistan, political violence, youth, vocational training

Date of Publication: Monday, July 22, 2019

EGAP Researcher: Jason Lyall, Kosuke Imai

Other Authors: Yang-Yang Zhou

Partners: Mercy Corps

Geographical Region: Middle East

Research Question:

Do economic aid interventions—unconditional cash transfers and livelihood training—affect individual support for combatants during wartime?



Despite the limited available evidence that economic interventions can reduce engagement in political violence, billions of dollars go toward programs that seek to improve labor-market outcomes and individual income are a tool widely used by development organizations and militaries to promote stability in conflict-afflicted countries such as Afghanistan. This follows from the conventional wisdom that creating employment opportunities—for youth, in particular—can dissuade individuals from supporting armed opposition groups. Economic interventions are also thought to improve psychological wellbeing, and generate more favorable perceptions of government among program beneficiaries. However, previous studies rarely differentiate across violence types (e.g., gang-related, interpersonal, political, and so forth) and there have been few causally identified studies on the impact of economic interventions in reducing political violence.

Through a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of the US-funded “Introducing New Vocational Education and Skills Training” (INVEST), this research project investigates how Technical Vocation Education Training (TVET) programs, unconditional cash transfers (UCT), or a combination of both these interventions affected youth attitudes toward political violence in Kandahar, Afghanistan, a place that is in the midst of a protracted civil war.

Research Design:

The authors partnered with local village councils (shuras) in Kandahar, Afghanistan to identify 2,597 eligible youth to participate in the study, which was carried out in 2015-2016. Employing a “waitlist” approach to randomization that allows all participants in the sample to partake in the TVET programs, the authors randomly divided the sample into two cohorts. Cohort 1 began the TVET program treatment immediately, receiving a series of three- and six-month vocational training courses. Cohort 2 was invited to participate the following year; in the meantime they served as the control group. At the end of Cohort 1’s TVET program intervention, a sub-sample from both cohorts was given a one-time, mobile-facilitated UCT of USD75 (April 2016), which is approximately four months wages for the average unskilled male laborer. This was followed by Cohort 2 receiving the TVET treatment (May 2016).

Both Cohort 1 and 2 were administered the same baseline (October 2015), endline 1 (May 2016) and endline 2 (November 2016) surveys. The survey instrument measured information concerning subjects’ economic conditions, psychological wellbeing, perception of government, and support for armed opposition groups. Since asking about combatant support is sensitive, the authors used indirect survey techniques.

Fig. 1 Research timeline



The study yielded three main results. First, vocational training barely improved economic livelihoods and had little discernible effect on pro-government sentiment. Second, cash transfers also failed to generate lasting economic effects, but there was a short-term effect on reducing support for the Taliban. However, after 7-8 months, this result dissipated, and UCT recipients even reported increased support for the Taliban, including greater willingness to donate financially to its cause. Cash transfers also increased anger toward the government and led to more frequent disputes with police and local leaders. Finally, beneficiaries who received the combination of vocational training and cash transfers reported increased support for the government up to 7-8 months after INVEST concluded, even though they did not experience greater improvement to their economic well-being. Survey evidence suggests that local political actors were able to claim credit for delivering the INVEST project. 

Fig. 2 Intention-to-treat endline 1 (left) and 2 (right) analysis of combatant support outcomes with 95% confidence intervals. Positive (negative) values indicate pro-Taliban (pro-Government) support.


Policy Implications:

First and foremost, the long-run success of the combined interventions underscores the need to address the multifaceted sources of political violence. Pairing short term (UCT) and long term (TVET programs) interventions can give rise to positive results in reducing political violence, as individuals’ self-efficacy and perception of government improves. The study also offers a cautionary tale for the use of one-time unconditional cash transfers in wartime. They may fail to yield sustainable improvements in recipient’s income while also producing unanticipated negative political shocks.

Economic interventions are therefore far from a panacea in conflict settings. The reasons why individuals participate in or support political violence are complex and do not result from economic motivations alone. Ideology, self-interest, and even altruism can drive youth to engage with armed opposition groups. Interventions to address political violence need to take heed of these non-economic motivators.