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Why Do Rebel Groups Govern?

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Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgents.

From the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), rebel groups throughout history have undertaken different forms of governance in their efforts to gain legitimacy and contest established states.

While it is widely assumed that rebel groups that govern have an increased military capacity, SIS professor Megan Stewart’s recent research in Conflict Management and Peace Science evaluates the relationship between rebel governance and rebel military strength. We spoke with her to ask a few questions about her new article.

Read Professor Stewart’s full original article, “Rebel governance: military boon or military bust?” with access provided by American University Library.


Q: Your recent research explores the relationship between rebel governance and rebel military strength. How common is it for rebel groups to create governance institutions?

I measure rebel governance by examining whether rebels provide health care or education, meaning they oversee and manage the delivery of these services to civilians, or if they build new institutions to provide these services. About one-third of all rebel groups provide some degree of education or health care.

Q: What government services are rebel groups most often providing?

That is difficult to know with a high degree of certainty because there is no systematic data collection on all the services rebels have provided globally and historically. Typically, rebel groups provide security, but I also examine the provision of education and health care. Some rebel groups tax, hold elections, and undertake land reform. Other rebel groups provide electricity or basic utilities. There is even evidence that a rebel group built a cinema.

Q: Does rebel governance enhance the military strength of rebel groups?

Across much of the research on rebel governance, there is a common assumption that when rebels govern, they generate legitimacy and popularity among civilian beneficiaries. When rebels have legitimacy and popularity, they are thought to more easily gain information, resources, and recruits from civilians.

Q: You analyzed a set of variables among approximately 300 rebel groups that existed from 1945 to 2003. What did you find regarding the relationship between rebel governance and rebel military strength?

When I tested the relationship between rebel strength and rebel governance, I found no systematic relationship and sometimes even a negative and statistically significant relationship. This means that in some model specifications, there was no systematic relationship between rebel governance and rebel strength, but in other specifications, I found that increases in rebel governance were associated with lower levels of rebel military capacity.

Q: If rebel governance does not enhance rebel military strength, do you think that these groups will continue to undertake governance efforts?

Yes, I think that some rebel groups will undertake governance efforts because increasing military capacity is not always the sole objective of rebel governance behaviors. Some rebel groups govern because they seek widespread social and political change that is not always locally popular. In this case, rebel governance activities are not solely driven by strategic calculations to increase the size of the insurgency but beliefs about the necessity of achieving social change during conflict. My book project, Governing for Revolution, which has been accepted at Cambridge University Press, explores this idea further.