International Organization

Research Article

The Logic of Child Soldiering and Coercion

Bernd Bebera1 and Christopher Blattmana2

a1 New York University, New York. E-mail: [email protected]

a2 Columbia University, New York. E-mail: [email protected]


Why do armed groups recruit large numbers of children as fighters, often coercively? The international community has tried to curb these crimes by shaming and punishing leaders who commit them—in short, making the crimes costlier. Are these policies effective and sufficient? The answer lies in more attention to the strategic interaction between rebel leaders and recruits. We adapt theories of industrial organization to rebellious groups and show how, being less able fighters, children are attractive recruits if and only if they are easier to intimidate, indoctrinate, and misinform than adults. This ease of manipulation interacts with the costliness of war crimes to influence rebel leaders' incentives to coerce children into war. We use a case study and a novel survey of former child recruits in Uganda to illustrate this argument and provide hard evidence not only that children are more easily manipulated in war, but also how—something often asserted but never demonstrated. Our theory, as well as a new “cross-rebel” data set, also support the idea that costliness matters: foreign governments, international organizations, diasporas, and local populations can discourage child recruitment by withholding resources or punishing offenders (or, conversely, encourage these crimes by failing to act). But punishing war crimes has limitations, and can only take us so far. Children's reintegration opportunities must be at least as great as adults' (something that demobilization programs sometimes fail to do). Also, indoctrination and misinformation can be directly influenced. We observe grassroots innovations in Uganda that could be models for the prevention and curbing of child soldiering and counterinsurgency generally.

Bernd Beber is Assistant Professor of Politics at New York University, New York.

Christopher Blattman is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Columbia University, New York.


  We thank Jeannie Annan, Jonathan Blake, James Fearon, Scott Gates, Macartan Humphreys, Stathis Kalyvas, David Leonard, Edward Miguel, Ben Pasquale, Gérard Roland, Jacob Shapiro, Elizabeth Sperber, David Stasavage, Daniel Treisman, Jeremy Weinstein, Justin Wolfers, Elizabeth Wood, the anonymous referees, and numerous seminar participants for comments. Prior versions circulated under the titles, “The Industrial Organization of Rebellion” and “The Causes of Child Soldiering.” The data derive from the Survey of War Affected Youth, collected by the authors with Jeannie Annan, Khristopher Carlson, Dyan Mazurana, UNICEF Uganda and AVSI Uganda. Full replication data are available at and at We thank Robert Blair, Mathilde Emeriau, Sinead Hunt, Alexandra Kendall, and Benjamin Morse for research assistance.