Winning Proposal to the Pierce Scholar's Fund: 2008 Competition

Project Title: International Non-Governmental Organizations and Government Repression: When Is Campaigning Effective?

Faculty Sponsor and PI: Jana von Stein

Ph.D. Student: Johannes Urpelainen

Project Description

International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become increasingly visible actors in world politics in recent years. Their activities blur the line between "domestic" and "international" in interesting ways. Indeed, NGOs lobby not only in Washington, but also in New York and Geneva; they monitor behaviors that have traditionally fallen within the purview of nation-states but now have important international implications; and they push both for the international creation of agreements and for domestic ratification.

Although NGOs are only now beginning to attract widespread interest in the IR literature, some research – particularly in the sociological and/or constructivist traditions – has for a number of years been interested in what these groups do and what effects they have. With few exceptions, these scholars concur that NGOs "matter" – i.e., they have an impact on important outcomes such as human rights, economic development, and/or environmental protection. Domestic activists can channel information and provide evidence of "bad behavior" to powerful NGOs such as Amnesty International. The latter, in turn, can exert pressure on powerful democracies to sanction the very governments that are engaging in "bad behavior."

The existing theoretical literature has only a limited understanding of the strategic interactions that take place between repressive governments, NGOs, and powerful democracies. In equilibrium, a government should not engage in repression if NGOs are sufficiently likely to mount a successful sanctions effort. Under what conditions does the expectation of NGO lobbying deter repression? Similarly, NGOs presumably choose their campaigns strategically. Does their unwillingness to campaign when failure is likely encourage repression? Finally, all else equal, democratic governments are least likely to sanction repression if doing so is very costly. Can repressive governments and NGOs anticipate the likelihood of sanctions, and how does this affect repression and campaigning?

The empirical literature on NGOs is also underdeveloped. Most accounts rely on case studies, which, although useful for uncovering possible causal mechanisms and communicating intuitions about process, pose well-known problems for generalization. The little quantitative research that exists faces substantial data limitations: with only a few exceptions, it relies on measures (such as a simple count of the number of NGOs in a country) that provide only a very crude assessment of NGO lobbying, strength, and resources.

We propose to combine our substantive interests and respective methodological skills to produce research that sheds light on some of the most pressing questions about NGOs. Put more simply, we are both interested in how NGOs work and whether they "matter"; Johannes's comparative advantage is in game theory, whereas Jana's is in statistical methods. By collaborating on this project, we hope to: (1) develop game-theoretic models of NGO/state interactions, with observable empirical predictions; (2) test those predictions quantitatively.

Specifically, we apply the game-theoretic technique known as "global games" to investigate formally the behavior of governments and advocacy networks in interaction. We use the model to generate a rich variety of comparative statics that we use to subject the theory to a stringent empirical test. The project has three stages. First, we construct and analyze a game-theoretic model that incorporates the essential actors and the strategic choices they face. Second, we employ the model to develop hypotheses and a statistical research design. Third, we collect/compile data and conduct statistical analyses. We focus on the issue area of human rights in order to make the project feasible.

Johannes will construct and develop the game-theoretic model. He will also generate the hypotheses. In both tasks, he will collaborate closely with Jana on substantive questions (e.g., relation to the extant literature, appropriateness of assumptions, stating the model's intuition in a manner that is digestible to non-specialists, tying the theoretical story in to relevant examples). As needed, he will also consult with CPS and other Political Science faculty who have an expertise in game theory. Jana's role will be more intensive once we begin the quantitative component of the project, although we wish to emphasize that we do not intend to "divide" the tasks so that Johannes conducts all the game-theoretic work and Jana all the quantitative analysis. Rather, we plan to have a dialog throughout the process and to work jointly as much as possible. We have found this useful in both Johannes's dissertation research and Jana's research.

Our central variables of interest are government repression, activist pressure, and sanctions by democracies. Data on government repression are readily available from sources including Amnesty International and the State Department. Until now, data on activist pressure and sanctions have been more difficult to obtain, but fortunately Jana's co-author (on an unrelated project) Emilie Hafner-Burton (Princeton) now has a good dataset on this question, which we will be able to use. Numerous other variables will be necessary, and these will depend to some extent on the empirical predictions of our game-theoretic models. We anticipate that these will include regime type, ratification of relevant human rights agreements, economic development, foreign aid, international governmental organization linkages, economic sanctions, and NGO memberships. With the exception of NGO memberships, these variables can be compiled from existing sources with the help of an undergraduate RA. For NGO memberships, the traditional approach is to simply employ a count of the number of NGOs in a country in year t. We think this is a very blunt measure, and so intend (with the help of an undergraduate RA) to collect data on national memberships in key human rights NGOs.

The project allows Johannes, whose dissertation research focuses on formal modeling, to participate in a collaborative research project that develops and quantitatively tests a formal model. Collaborative research between theoretically and empirically oriented scholars is increasingly important in the field, so early exposure to this type of research is a valuable asset for a young scholar. We plan to present the resulting paper at the annual International Studies Association convention and intend subsequently to submit it for review at a top journal. We think the combination of an underexplored issue-area, game-theoretic analysis, and careful quantitative evaluation will make the article attractive to our subfield.