Faculty Publications

Topher McDougal

The Political Economy of Rural-Urban Conflict


In some cases of insurgency, the combat frontier is contested and erratic, as rebels target cities as their economic prey. In other cases, it is tidy and stable, seemingly representing an equilibrium in which cities are effectively protected from violent non-state actors. What factors account for these differences in the interface between urban-based states and rural-based challengers? To explore this question, this volume examines two regions representing two dramatically different outcomes. In West Africa (Liberia and Sierra Leone), capital cities became economic targets for rebels, who posed dire threats to the survival of the state. In Maoist India, despite an insurgent ideology aiming to overthrow the state via a strategy of progressive city capture, the combat frontier effectively firewalls cities from Maoist violence. This book argues that trade networks underpinning the economic relationship between rural and urban areas - termed 'interstitial economies' - explain rebel predatory tendencies towards cities.


Excerpt: In the summer of 2003, the rural, ragtag rebel armies of the unironically named Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) converged on the capital city, Monrovia—then controlled by Charles Taylor’s government—and began shelling it. Robert (not his real name), whose family had moved from the countryside to the capital during a previous episode of internal conflict, was caught out across the river from peninsular downtown Monrovia when the rebels attacked. There was no way to cross back over the bridge to the relative protection afforded by the Armed Forces of Liberia. Moreover, Robert’s last name gave him away as a Gola—a small ethnic minority to which Charles Taylor belonged, and for which LURD, a majority ethnic Krahn organization, had little fondness. The combat frontier—that shifting, invisible boundary separating rebel-held territories from government-held ones—had been amorphous in the countryside, often with disastrous humanitarian effects on the civilian population. Only here around the besieged city did it fully coalesce.

Robert changed his name on the spot, living for two months as a homeless, tribeless, urban refugee, scrounging daily for food and water. But he was one of the lucky ones to survive the Liberian Civil War—a neat moniker for a shambolic, sprawling set of interrelated conflicts that reached far into neighboring countries, but which are broadly lumped into two sequential conflicts spanning 14 years. Members of Robert’s family died when their urban apartment was hit by a mortar.


Topher McDougal, PhD, is an associate professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. He is also a research affiliate at the Centre on Conflict, Development, & Peacebuilding at the Graduate Institute for International & Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and a principal of the Small Arms Data Observatory (SADO).

McDougal teaches courses on the relationship between economic development and peacebuilding, and research methodologies. His research focuses broadly on the microeconomic causes and consequences of armed violence, including rural-urban trade patterns in conflict-affected societies; illicit trades, especially in small arms; and urban violence.

An economic geographer by training, Topher has consulted for various organizations including the World Bank, Mercy Corps, Humanitarian Policy & Conflict Research (HPCR) International, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), on private sector development, urban economics, public finance in postwar and developing countries, and economic cost of violence. His articles have appeared in Economic Geography; Political Geography; Economics of Peace & Security Journal; Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy; Law & Development Review; Stability; Business, Peace, and Sustainable Development; among others. His research has been featured in Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and others. His forthcoming book is The Political Economy of Rural-Urban Conflict: Predation, Production, and Peripheries (Oxford University Press).

To access Topher's blog, visit https://resourcecurse.wordpress.com/


The form and function of armed conflict is changing in the twenty-first century. So too are explanations of how wars start, why they endure, and what makes them end. Topher McDougal is in the vanguard of a new generation of economists committed to explaining the drivers of these so-called new wars. In The Political Economy of Rural-Urban Conflict, McDougal takes readers beyond the greed and grievance debates that dominated the 1990s and 2000s. In his rivetting new book he explains how violent predation in settings as diverse as West Africa and South Asia are a function of trade networks at the core and periphery of city systems. This is essential reading for scholars and practitioners alike.

-Robert Muggah, Co-founder of the Igarapé Institute and SecDev Foundation


‘Dr. McDougal has produced an insightful work that usefully challenges a number of disciplinary and conceptual boundaries. The empirical work undergirds the thesis that the economics of transport and the social structure of trade networks jointly determine the degree to which rural-based conflict entrepreneurs can or even wish to prey on urban areas. The main finding is that rural-urban conflict frontiers can be surprisingly supple, or rigid. Many scholars, practitioners, and policymakers will find this book an enriching read to help them think afresh about the political economy of violent conflict.’

-Jurgen Brauer, Professor of Economics, Augusta University

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Melissa Olesen

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