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nameThis week, I'm joined on the Global Prosperity Wonkcast by Chris Blattman, assistant professor of political science and economics at Yale University and a non-resident fellow here at the Center for Global Development. Much of Chris' research tries to understand what happens after child soldiers return home, with the goal of designing programs that can better reintegrate former combatants into society. He also explores the logic that explains why guerrilla armies in many conflicts use child soldiers in the first place.

Chris has studied extensively the case of the Lord's Resistance Army, a Uganda guerrilla group responsible for some 60-70,000 abductions. Outsiders often despair over the large number of these former child soldiers, calling them a "ticking time bomb".

"That's a very pessimistic view, and it's the dominant view," Chris tells me. "And from what we can see, it's simply not true."

According to his research, only about 10% of former child soldiers suffer debilitating psychological symptoms or have serious problems functioning within their communities. More typically, these youth take on leadership roles, and they are more likely to vote in elections than peers who were not abducted. With this in mind, Chris argues, programs to help the returnees should be structured to target psychological counseling to those who need it, while offering broader opportunities—such as education and job training—to former combatants whose psychological scars are less severe.

Ugandan Local Defense Unit guards

Two young men stand guard at a refugee camp in Kitgum, Uganda. Photo: flickr user melanieandjohn / cc by-nc 2.0

Chris and I also discuss a more basic question: why does child soldiering happen at all, and how can it be prevented? Chris explains the basic theories for why armed groups target children. To break this pattern, he says, countries should continue stiffening the penalties for recruiting children, to create a stronger deterrent effect. They should also better prepare children to resist and to escape if they are seized, for example, by publicizing amnesty laws, creating better educational and job opportunities for youth, and teaching children how to find their way home if they are abducted and run away.

“That only began to get done informally,” says Chris, “It got done by concerned parents, it got done by older brothers and older cousins, and it got done by the church. And so by 2004, people knew about this. This information had gotten out there, and the rebels actually stopped abducting at that point…What if we’d done that in 1994 instead of 2004?”

Towards the end of the interview we pivot from the economics of child soldiering to the economics of the development job market. As a young professor, Chris is often asked for his advice on how to start a career in international development. To compete in a sea of similarly qualified candidates, Chris says, "contact people who aren't normally contacted." Chris lays out a set of strategies—and practical tips—to help new and upcoming college graduates land that all-important first job. Listen to the podcast for his advice.

Chris is also an active blogger—one of only a handful of academics who blog on global development. You’ll find his blog and more information about his research on his homepage.

Have something to add to our discussion? Ideas for future interviews? Post a comment below, or send me an email. If you use iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week.

My thanks to Wren Elhai for his very able production assistance on the Wonkcast and for drafting this blog post.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.