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Can UN troops influence economic development? The case of South Sudan

The debate about the role and effectiveness of peacekeeping forces around the world is never-ending. The primary stated goal of United Nations peace operations is to enforce peace amongst fighting groups. It might also be claimed that the presence of UN troops—or ‘blue helmets’—leads to a ‘security spillover’ which has a benign impact on productive activities. In general, insecurity discourages economic growth and actual wars are extremely detrimental for economic development. Furthermore, we know that post-conflict economic recovery is actually a fundamental driver of stable peacefulness. Therefore, the possible effect of UN peacekeeping troops on economic recovery is a crucial issue for both scholars and policymakers.

South Sudan is the world’s newest country, established on 9 July 2011 after a referendum affirming its independence from Sudan. The two countries, divided by ethnic, religious, and natural resource differences, share a common past of conflict. In the last 60 years they have fought 2 civil wars—in the periods 1955–72 and 1983–2005—and are still involved in skirmishes over land claims along the border. Needless to say, this conflict has led to economic underdevelopment, thwarting South Sudan's attempt to escape from poverty.

South Sudan is largely dependent on oil exports, which account for around 80 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). According to the World Bank, GDP per capita in South Sudan in 2011 was equivalent to $1804. 

South Sudan’s demographics are also very revealing. It has a population of 8.3 million people, 72 per cent of whom are under 30. In addition, 83 per cent of the population resides in rural areas. The literacy rate for men is 40 per cent compared to 16 per cent for women. The infant mortality rate is 102 (per 1000 live births), the maternal mortality rate is 2054 (per 100 000 live births), and only 17 per cent of children receive full immunization.

In 2005 the United Nations commenced a peacekeeping mission in Sudan (United Nations Mission in Sudan, UNMIS). Since South Sudan gained independence, the mission has been renamed UNMISS (United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan), and its mandate has been updated. Its aim now is to ‘support the Government of the Republic of South Sudan in exercising its responsibilities for conflict prevention, mitigation, and resolution and protect civilians’.

In a recent paper, we analysed the relationship between the deployment of blue helmet troops and cereal production in an effort to determine whether UN troops have helped to secure crops in South Sudan. We used an original dataset including all 78 South Sudanese counties and estimated a cereal production function including UN troops as an explanatory variable.

For the purpose of estimating a cereal production function, we collected data from institutional sources (e.g. the National Bureau of Statistics in South Sudan) and international organizations (e.g. the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Juba, South Sudan). We compiled this information into a panel dataset for the period 2008–11. The explanatory variables include demographic, socioeconomic and geographical characteristics of the country, as well as information on the number and location of UN troops. 

The results confirmed that there is a significant positive association between the deployment of UN troops and the increase in cereal production. Put differently, deployment of blue helmet troops is associated with higher cereal production. We are also able to provide a quantitative insight. If we assume a net cereal production of 10 000 tonnes and the presence of 100 UN troops, a 10 per cent increase in the size of the troop deployment leads to the production of an additional 650 tonnes of cereal.

This effect is not negligible in light of the widespread food insecurity that strikes the country, and the whole region’s dependence on food imports. In fact, according to a report by the World Food Program, in 2010 more than one-third of South Sudanese people suffered from moderate or severe food insecurity, and child acute malnutrition was about 13 per cent. 

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first empirical evaluation of the relationship between troop presence and improved economic security in South Sudan. The results have a low external validity—we don’t know whether we would see the same results in other areas or situations.

Future research is needed to test the hypothesis in different environments and answer the more general question: do peacekeepers actually improve the economic performance of war-torn countries?


This blog post is published as part of a collaborative partnership between SIPRI and Economists for Peace and Security (EPS).