Rachel V. Sweet

Program Area(s):  Comparative Politics; International Relations

Regional Specialization(s):  Africa

Dissertation Title:

Institutional Choice in Civil War: Rebel Tactics for Managing Political Disorder

Dissertation Committee:  William Reno (Chair),Hendrik Spruyt, James Mahoney, Rachel Riedl, Koen Vlassenroot

Selected Fellowships:

  • Harry Frank Guggenheim Dissertation Fellowship (2015-2016)
  • Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Award (2013-2014)

Dissertation Overview

My doctoral dissertation probes the effects of state institutions on wartime resource governance strategies during conflict.   Rather than opposed, state and rebel agendas often intersect and collude in politically consequential ways.  My dissertation argues that when state institutions endure into conflict, they shape the causal logic of governance and confront rebels with consequential choices on how to co-govern, usurp, or reform the preexisting administrations they confront.  It asks under what conditions they persist, and how bureaucrats and rebels compete and share rule-making authority and material resources in zones of rebel control. 

I place central explanatory importance on the nature of how state institutions are weak.  The two-step model builds from the premise that elite regime strategies for building—or destroying—state administrations often differ from the actual uses of the state apparatus for day-to-day governance and distributional outcomes.  The first step links variation in the effects of the state apparatus on rebel governance to the trajectory of institutional decline that unfolds as central power fades.  Ironically, fragmented institutions provide bureaucrats tools to preserve a semblance of state control in ways that make it difficult for rebels to install their own brands of order.  Higher-quality institutions with closer linkages to the political center lack this transformative capacity and fare less well against rebel power.  The second step traces patterns of strategic engagement between rebels and bureaucrats in these conflicts that vary according the degree to which these actors share or contest revenue and the extent to which prior institutional practices remain durable.

An empirical puzzle from Democratic Republic of Congo motivates my research.  Given that Congo is a prototypical case of state failure with notorious war economies, one would expect rebel groups to successfully displace state institutions in their military strongholds.  And yet, local bureaucrats interposed themselves into armed systems of taxation, siphoned money from rebel coffers, and compelled rebels to negotiate and share authority.  Drawing on extensive field experience and three research languages, I pair cross-group and within-group comparisons of thirteen cases of rebel taxation to demonstrate that armed groups systematically confronted these challenges in ways across vast territories and varied resource chains. This medium-N case selection couples with four detailed case studies of the bargains bureaucrats and rebels strike to manage parallel markets. 

My research draws on twenty-six months field experience in Congo (fourteen devoted to my doctoral research) and work in Swahili, Lingala, and French. 


  • “Bureaucrats at War: Public Authority in Conflict Zones” (Revise and Resubmit)
  •  “Set Diagrams and Qualitative Research.” 2014. Comparative Political Studies. 48(1): 65-100. with James Mahoney.
  •  "Religious Equality in Kenya? Adjudicating the Constitutionality of Kenya’s Kadhis’ Courts.” Regulating Religion. 2012 (August).
  •  “In Search of Order: State Systems of Property Rights Enforcement and their Failings.” In Sandra Joireman, Where There is No Government: Enforcing Property Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa. 2011. Oxford: Oxford University Press.