The Young and the Restless: Dynamics of Violent Youth Mobilization in Sri Lanka and Nicaragua, 1960-2010
Degree awarded: Ph.D. School of International Service. American University
What are the factors that motivate youth to take up arms and mobilize in organized violence? That is the central question of this project, applied to two case contexts, Sri Lanka and Nicaragua. The project's integrative system dynamics methodology synthesizes competing causal explanations that are often considered in isolation within the literature. Three mechanisms are hypothesized to influence the "attractiveness" of armed mobilization for at-risk youth sectors: 1) Groups and Identity; 2) Grievances and (Perceived) Injustice; and 3) Greed and Incentives, with expected shifts across time and institutional context. Causal loop diagrams communicate the model's conceptual framework, key variable relationships, and interactive feedback effects across mechanisms. For purposes of testing, the model is contextualized to initial values for both cases, simulated across time (1960-2010), and then examined against the available empirical data for Sri Lanka and Nicaragua. Case illustrative narratives link quantitative and qualitative analysis of violent mobilization (and demobilization) for targeted historical periods. In Sri Lanka, analysis highlights the relative "attractiveness" for Sinhalese young people joining armed insurrections of the JVP (the "People's Liberation Front", a radical Maoist group with Buddhist roots), or for young Tamils joining ethno-nationalist armed groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In Nicaragua, model analysis traces the "attractiveness" of youth joining Marxist-nationalist Sandinista revolutionaries in the 1970s, with counter-revolutionary Contra forces in the 1980s, and fragmented neighborhood gangs from 1990. Project results show strong correspondence between the applied model simulations and the case historical record, for estimating the number of youth militants and their period-specific causal factor explanations. Model "leverage points" are highlighted across both cases, and then applied to a shadow case study (Israel-Palestine) as a proof-of-concept model extension (without simulation). From there, the text offers critical discussion of model limitations and potential extensions, and delineates key implications for policymaking, programming, and peacebuilding applications. The project concludes by highlighting the necessity of considering multiple causal explanations for a comprehensive understanding of armed youth mobilization. Moreover, it provides a systematic and rigorous framework to test these explanations' relative strength and their variance across time.
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