Researchers based at Yale and Princeton have teamed up with the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps in a project that challenges decades of American foreign policy.

For years, many global powers have bought into the narrative that addressing Afghanistan’s economic woes could prevent Afghans from turning to the Taliban, said Kosuke Imai, co-author of the study. As a result, the U.S. has invested billions of dollars into cash offers and vocational training for Afghans in tumultuous regions; however, the researchers found neither of these methods, when implemented alone, has a significant impact on Taliban support in the volatile Kandahar region. The study was published in the electronic journal SSRN on April 3.

“This really challenges the notion that people become insurgents or support the Taliban because they don’t have jobs,” said Jason Lyall, lead author of the study. “A lot of our models are based on this notion, that if you give people employment, that’ll dry up support for extremism. I think that this basic planning notion that we’ve been building a lot of our aid around is just not right, or at least badly misspecified.”

The project began a few years ago, when Mercy Corps enlisted the help of the researchers to study the efficacy of an ongoing vocational training program the agency ran in Afghanistan. In spite of the war-torn nature of the country, the training program had been relatively successful in helping Afghans improve their economic conditions, said Rebecca Wolfe, director of Mercy Corps’ Peace and Conflict team. However, Wolfe, noted, the program was funded in large part by the U.S. government, who viewed it as part of a plan to reduce insurgency.

According to Lyall, the fact that Mercy Corps chose to collaborate with their team is a testament to the integrity of their organization. By showing that economic aid may not have a significant impact on Taliban support in Afghanistan, the organization risks losing some of their funding, especially from government sources.

“We should be using tax dollars well, so, we shouldn’t be doing ineffective interventions,” Wolfe said. “Employment programs are important, but they’re important for employment reasons. They may not necessarily be linked to stability.”

She went on to add that earlier work by Mercy Corps on this topic had led to policy changes on the part of governments.

The Mercy Corps team had conducted previous research that gave them reason to believe that economic development would not necessarily lead to political stability. To further test that hypothesis, the researchers conducted an experiment in the region.

The 2,597 participants in the study received one-time payments of $75, a few months of vocational training, neither or both. The study found that vocational training did not significantly increase government support and that one-time cash gifts can actually provoke people to turn against the government — and embrace the Taliban — once the money runs out, Imai said. However, a combination of the two had a slightly positive impact, which Imai conjectures may be because people draw a connection between their local government and the economic gains.

“It’s a really bad idea to be handing out cash in a war zone as a one-time shock to people,” Lyall said. “This is a model that the U.S. military likes, handing out aid in Afghanistan and Iraq. What we found was that people are more supportive of the Taliban after receiving the cash than before.”

While the study included both men and women, Lyall told the News, the experiment does not fully capture women’s support for the Taliban. Often, Lyall said, women do not take militant roles themselves, but rather support the Taliban with information, planning or by allowing children to run errands for the group.

The project faced with a number of logistical challenges, arising from the region’s war-torn status. The team came up with a complex data collection process to protect participants and data collectors from any retribution for the beliefs they hold. For example, rather than ask participants directly about their support for the Taliban or the local government, the researchers asked the participants to spin a spinner — and tell the truth if the space the needle landed on instructed them to do so. According to Lyall, the duty of an ethical researcher is first and foremost to not put participants in exceedingly dangerous circumstances.

Lyall and Wolfe traveled to the Pentagon to brief staff there on the study’s findings, including the conclusion that long-standing policies and programs may not be working.

Maya Chandra | maya.chandra@yale.edu