Working Paper 131

Armed groups tax. Journalistic accounts often include a tone of surprise about this fact, while policy reports tend to strike a tone of alarm, highlighting the link between armed group taxation and ongoing conflict. Policymakers often focus on targeting the mechanisms of armed group taxation as part of their conflict strategy, often described as ‘following the money’.

We argue that what is instead needed is a deeper understanding of the nuanced realities of armed group taxation, the motivations behind it, and the implications it has for an armed group’s relationship with civilian and diaspora populations, as well as the broader international community. This paper builds on two distinct literatures, on armed groups and on taxation, to provide the first systematic exploration into the motivation of armed group taxation.

Based on a review of the diverse practices of how armed groups tax, we highlight that a full account of their motivation needs to go beyond revenue collection, and engage with key themes around legitimacy, population control, institution building, and the performance of public authority. We problematise common approaches towards armed group taxation and state-building, and outline key questions of a new research agenda.

This paper has also been published in the Studies in Conflict & Terrorism journal.


Tanya Bandula-Irwin

Tanya Bandula-Irwin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation focuses on civilian-armed group dynamics surrounding taxation, with a focus on the Philippines. She is a Fellow at the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Justice and Conflict, a Junior Fellow with the Defense and Security Foresight Group, and Vice-President of Women in International Security-Canada, Toronto.

Max Gallien

Max Gallien is a Research Fellow at the ICTD. His research specialises in the politics of informal and illegal economies, the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa and development politics. He completed his PhD at the London School of Economics. Max co-leads the informality and taxation programme with Vanessa, as well as the ICTD’s capacity building programme.

Ashley Jackson

Dr Ashley Jackson is co-Director for the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups, and author of ‘Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan’ (Hurst & Co., 2021).

Vanessa van den Boogaard

Vanessa van den Boogaard is a Research Fellow at the ICTD and a Senior Research Associate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She completed her PhD thesis on informal revenue generation and statebuilding in Sierra Leone, and has ongoing research on the topic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. Vanessa leads the ICTD’s new programme on civil society engagement in tax reform and co-leads the research programme on informal taxation.

Florian Weigand

Florian Weigand is the Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at ODI and a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His work focuses on armed groups, illicit economies and international interventions and explores the politics and societal dynamics of conflict zones, borderlands, and other complex environments. He has conducted extensive research in South Asia and Southeast Asia and is the author of Waiting for Dignity: Legitimacy and Authority in Afghanistan (Columbia University Press, 2022) and Conflict and Transnational Crime: Borders, Bullets & Business in Southeast Asia (Edward Elgar, 2020) and the co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Smuggling (Routledge, 2021).
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