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Understanding Policy: Is Collective Action the Best Logic for Humanitarian Interventions?

Editor's Note: This brief series on Collective Action demonstrates how public policy can be analyzed through the lens of Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action. Each piece looks at a specific humanitarian crisis and how the logic applies for that case. For a brief summary on the theory, see Understanding Policy: Collective Action

By Luke Sanford

Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action has helped us to model the decision-making processes of actors that are trying to achieve some common good. While his analysis is explicitly not strategic, the idea works pretty well in strategic settings too. Actors will participate in collective action if their gains from participating are higher than the costs of participating. Olson’s catch is that not participating doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t gain. This creates a set of governing dynamics that have been thoroughly described by my peers this week.

So far, everyone seems to agree that the logic of collective action applies pretty well to humanitarian interventions, describing their relative success (Libya), their breakdowns (Somalia) and their failure (Myanmar). I argue that humanitarian interventions are not a situation in which a collective action framework works very well. In particular, there is no non-rival, non-excludable good that results from humanitarian intervention. Rather, state-level actors seeking to maximize their own private goods can explain intervention better than Olson’s framework.

 The best arguments for the public goods that humanitarian intervention seeks to provide are human rights and stability. Neither of these is straightforward to conceive of as a true public good. Human rights seem to be at first, but ultimately I’m not sure how the citizens of the US or China benefit from better human rights in Somalia in the same way that everyone in a country benefits from national defense or clean air. Human rights norms might benefit people as a whole, but the mechanism by which they do so is unclear, and the actual people who benefit from those norms are not the actors who decide whether or not to intervene in a conflict.

Regional stability is a clear-cut good for neighboring countries or countries that engage in trade with the country, but that good is not uniformly distributed among the population. Furthermore, that good is generally not accessible to a large number of potential actors. In terms of the public good of stability, the effect of, for example, Libyan stability, is hard to quantify for the US. With the cost of the Libyan intervention approaching one billion dollars for the US, the US could afford to resettle over 60,000 refugees at a cost of $15,000 each—enough for 30 months at an average resettlement cost (North). That’s more refugees than the rest of the world resettles every year.

As a result, I argue that it is better to conceive of humanitarian interventions in terms of private goods and strategic action. The benefit that each country gets is a function of both the outcome of the intervention and of which other actors are involved in the intervention. This creates a situation that looks like a collective action problem, but has a fundamentally different set of governing dynamics.

First, countries have an incentive to intervene based on the benefit that they receive from the expected outcome of the intervention. In practice, this explains situations like Southern European countries intervening in Libya (a humanitarian crisis would saddle them with refugees) or the US intervening in a potential oil interest like Somalia. At this level, there are free-riders who stand to benefit from not acting, but because this good is not evenly distributed, it seems more likely that a set of leaders or “entrepreneurs” will emerge, creating a privileged group (Olson, Dantiki).

The emergence of a few countries that are likely to act regardless of what other actors do should create a situation in which the majority of countries that gain some benefit from a successful outcome do not act, and countries with relatively little stake in the outcome certainly do not act. How do we explain a country like Norway intervening in the Libyan crisis? Norway doesn’t gain significant benefit from either the strengthening of human rights norms or the improved regional stability of not having a civil war in North Africa, but would had to pay some costs to be part of the intervention. Olson’s collective action model would predict either signing up and doing nothing, or more likely, not intervening in the first place. Put differently, why would Norway intervene when it is largely indifferent about the outcome?

The second aspect of a strategic model is the benefit that countries get from participating in intervention that is not a direct result of the outcome. People might disagree about the nature of this benefit—whether states are horse-trading to get other countries to support some other action, or whether states see some value in building their “credibility.”  While not entirely divorced from the outcome of an intervention, credibility comes from the commitment to intervene for the majority of actors. While the leaders are stuck bearing the reputational costs of a failed intervention, the minority members generally don’t pay any reputational costs. Remember Somalia—the US lost credibility, but countries that participated like New Zealand, Pakistan, or Tunisia weren’t blamed for the failure of the mission. For those states, there is generally only a reputational benefit from being involved. UN peacekeeping operations don’t have a great track record, but participants are nearly always lauded for their efforts.

The value of this good to the intervening states is directly dependent on which states, and how many states, intervene. It is also dependent on the outcome of the intervention, but substantially less so than the first aspect. This does a better job of explaining the participation of countries like Norway—the benefit that they get from intervening is almost exclusively credibility. Furthermore, the nature of this good runs directly counter to the dynamics of collective action; the incentives to participate grow with the number of countries involved. This also maps onto different countries in non-uniform ways: the credibility benefit that the US gets from participating in a humanitarian intervention is fundamentally different from the credibility benefit that a country like Saudi Arabia gets—the US benefitted from the strengthening of the Responsibility to Protect norm while the Saudi government benefitted from domestic credibility at a critical time at the rise of the Arab Spring.

In practice, this dynamic looks similar to one in which privileged groups intervene in conflicts when there are actors with private incentives that are big enough that they prefer intervention no matter what. However, a model that uses only states’ private interests in intervention can explain these interventions a little better. It avoids the problem of ambiguous public goods, and explains why countries that appear to have little interest in the outcome still intervene. Olson’s theory of collective action remains a powerful tool for understanding a wide array of problems, but humanitarian intervention is not one of them.


Luke Sanford is a graduate student at the University of California San Diego school of International Relations and Pacific Studies. He is focusing on International Economics, International Politics, and China Studies. He is particularly interested in trans-boundary water issues and applied game theory.


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