How Do Economic Sanctions (Not) Work?
This page contains information about my three-year, ESRC-funded research project on international sanctions, which
was completed in 2015.
The purpose of the project was to find out how sanctions operate in practice. What effect do they actually have on the
countries on which they are imposed, in political terms? This question has - surprisingly, perhaps, - received far too
little attention. The vast majority of the sanctions literature treats target states as coherent units, asks questions like
‘how much GDP was lost in the sanctions episode?’, and asks whether sanctions ‘worked’ to deliver their stated goals -
rather than how economic pressure translated (or did not) into political concessions. Of course, much has been written
on the humanitarian costs of sanctions, but assessing how many people are harmed is very different from asking how
power relations, politics and the state in the targeted country are affected. Articles and books on this question can
almost be counted on the fingers of a single hand. We therefore have virtually no idea of how sanctions are actually
meant to work to compel political changes in target states. As authors like Jonathan Kirshner have argued, without this
extremely basic piece of knowledge, we can have no idea of whether sanctions are likely to succeed or not - we are
literally imposing them on a wish and a prayer.
This project therefore developed a theoretical approach to analyse how sanctions operate, and deploy this in a small
number of detailed case studies. The “Social Conflict Approach” focused on how sanctions affect the interests,
ideologies and strategies of social forces operating on the target state. It considers how sanctions give rise to new
class forces, new alliances between groups, and attempts to transform target states. A working paper containing a
preliminary outline of this framework is accessible here. The main scholarly output of the project is Societies Under
Siege, published in 2015 by Oxford University Press. Here the framework is applied to three case studies: South
Africa, Iraq, and Myanmar. I have also written about Israel/ Palestine. The case study of Myanmar has also generated
several publications that lay the groundwork for that part of the book.
‘How Do Economic Sanctions (Not) Work’ was funded by an ESRC First Grants award of £127,557 (RES-061-25-
Understanding Myanmar’s Ceasefires: Geopolitics, Political Economy and Statebuilding, in Mandy Sadan (ed.) War
and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar: The Kachin Ceasefire, 1994-2011 (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2016),
Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work (Oxford: Oxford University
Governing Borderless Threats: Non-Traditional Security and the Politics of State Transformation, co-authored with
Shahar Hameiri (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) - section on money laundering and sanctions in
Regulatory Regionalism and Anti-Money-Laundering in Asia (co-authored with Shahar Hameiri), Australian Journal of
International Affairs 69:2 (2015)
Explaining Myanmar’s Transition: The Periphery is Central,
Democratization 21:5 (2014), 780-802
The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition, Journal of Contemporary Asia 44:1 (2014), 144-170
Evaluating the ‘Success’ of International Economic Sanctions: Multiple Goals, Interpretive Methods and Critique (with
Clara Portela), Centre for the Study of Global Security and Development working paper 3, 2014.
Sanctioning Apartheid: Comparing the South African and Palestinian BDS Campaigns, in David Feldman (ed.)
Boycotts: Past and Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming, 2016)
Political Economy: An Overview, in Adam Simpson, Nicholas Farrelly and Ian Holliday (eds.), Routledge Handbook of
Contemporary Myanmar (London: Routledge, in press, 2016).
Conference Papers/ Invited Talks
Myanmar: Still a Disciplined Democracy?, Myanmar and the International Community, LSE, 27 November 2015.
Myanmar's Transition amid International Economic Sanctions, public lecture, University of Melbourne, 15 September
Explaining FATF’s Superficial Success and Deep-Seated Failure (co-authored with Shahar Hameiri), From Anti-Money
Laundering to Global Governance: Consequences and Outlook of 25 Years of Financial Action Taskforce Activities,
International Studies Association workshop, New Orleans, 17 February 2015.
International Sanctions for Peace-making? Reflections on South Africa and Palestine, Global Conflict and Conflict
Management: Israel/Palestine and Beyond, Oxford, 18-19 May 2014.
How Do Economic Sanctions (Not) Work? Lessons from Myanmar, ECPR’s 8th Pan-European Conference on
International Relations, Warsaw, 16-18 September 2013; SOAS, 29 January 2014.
Economic Sanctions and Domestic Politics: The Case of Myanmar, Australian Political Studies Association, Perth, 30
September-2 October 2013.
Regulatory Regionalism and Anti-Money Laundering Governance in Asia (with Shahar Hameiri), Workshop on
‘Regionalisation, Regionalism and the Rescaling of Economic Governance in Asia’, Asia Research Centre, Murdoch
University, Perth, 3 October 2013.
Explaining Myanmar’s Democratisation: The Periphery is Central, workshop on Challenging Inequalities: Contestation
and Regime Change in East and Southeast Asia, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia, 12-13 July 2013
Sanctioning Apartheid: Comparing South Africa and Palestinian Campaigns for Boycotts, Disinvestment and
Sanctions, Boycotts – Past and Present, International Consortium for Research on Antisemitism and Racism, Pears
Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck, University of London, 20-21 June 2013
The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition, conference on Inequality, Conflict and Political Regimes in East and
Southeast Asia, Vietnam National University, Hanoi, 22-24 November 2012
Understanding Myanmar’s Political Transition, to Asian Studies Seminar, St Antony’s College, Oxford, 6 November
How Do Economic Sanctions “Work”? Towards a Historical-Sociological Analysis, British International Studies
Association/ International Studies Association joint conference, Edinburgh, 20-22 June 2012
Policymaker and Public Engagement
Myanmar’s Transition to ‘Disciplined’ Democracy: What Hope for the New Government?, London, 29 March 2016.
Invited talk for the Britain-Burma Society.
Rakhine and the Rohingya, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), 23 March 2016. Participant in day-long policy
planning conference on Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis.
Myanmar and Bangladesh: Politics, Priorities and Regional Relations, FCO, 11-12 February 2016. Organised and
delivered training for UK Diplomatic Academy with team of international experts.
The Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions Campaign, presentation to Independent Jewish Voices, London, 31
Burma After the 2015 Elections: Where To From Here?, Chatham House, 4 December 2015. Roundtable discussions
with officials from FCO and DFID on political situation in Myanmar and Western policy options.
International Economic Sanctions, Royal College of Defence Studies, 25 November 2015. Keynote lecture on training
course for 100+ senior military officers.
How Do International Economic Sanctions (Not) Work?, Foreign Policy Centre briefing, 9 November 2015.
Research Advice on Myanmar to Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Research Analyst, 16 March 2015: advised
on the production of a five-year assessment of Myanmar’s post-2010 reforms to inform policymaking.
The Impact of Western Sanctions on Myanmar: Delaying Democratisation, 7 January 2015: evidence submitted to the
UK Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
Consultant, UK Department for International Development’s Legal Assistance for Economic Reform Programme, 4-23
December 2014: provided political economy analysis and policy recommendations for Myanmar.
Public Debate on Israel Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions, Queen Mary, University of London, 1 December 2014:
chaired and helped organise.
Burma Roundtable, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), London, 25 November 2014: half-day expert input to
scenario scoping and policy planning meeting on Myanmar’s 2015 elections, with staff from the Whitehall Burma Unit
(FCO, DFID, MoD).
Research Advice on Myanmar to FCO Research Analyst, London, 11 and 15 September 2014: guidance on peace
process and religious nationalism.
Briefing on Israel/Palestine and BDS for Fateh, 26 May 2014: submitted two briefing papers on the prospects of
Boycotts, Disinvestment and Sanctions in Israel/Palestine to Fateh’s Commission for International Relations.
Briefing on Israel/Palestine and BDS for FCO Research Analyst, London, 26 May 2014: submitted two briefing papers
on the prospects of Boycotts, Disinvestment and Sanctions in Israel/Palestine.
Consultation with British Ambassador to Myanmar, London, 12 May 2014: consulted by HMA Yangon on recent
developments in Myanmar.
Policy Development Workshop on International Economic Sanctions, FCO, 4 April 2014: Organised and led workshop
on the use and evaluation of targeted sanctions, for policymakers and analysts from the FCO and HM Treasury.
Regime Transitions in Southeast Asia: Lessons for Myanmar?, Oxford, 22 March: Convened and chaired roundtable
for audience of policymakers, diplomats, businesspeople, scholars and students.
How Do Economic Sanctions (Not) Work? Lessons from Myanmar, SOAS, London, 29 January 2014: Presented
analysis to an audience including FCO research analyst. Submitted three research papers to the FCO’s Burma Policy
Briefing on Myanmar for Deputy Head of ASEAN Department, FCO, 13 January 2014: Briefing/ policy consultation on
UK/EU approach to Myanmar to 2015.
Consultation on UK/EU Burma Policy, 15 October 2013: Consulted by UK FCO on British and EU policy towards
Burma in the run-up to its elections in 2015.
Ceasefire: Reflections on Community, Politics and Social Change in the Kachin Region of Burma (Myanmar), 1994 to
the Present, SOAS, 12 October 2013: Participant in public conference with ethnic-minority activists on Myanmar’s
internal conflicts and development.
Briefing for Malaysian High Commission, London, 2 August 2013: Briefing on Myanmar’s transition.
Briefing for British Ambassador to Myanmar, FCO, 24 July 2013: Briefed the new British ambassador-designate prior to
him taking up his posting.
Sanctioning Apartheid: Comparing the South African and Palestinian BDS Campaigns, 10 July 2013, Perth, Australia:
Presented and discussed research findings with Israel/Palestine BDS activists and their implications for activist
Myanmar: A New Future Through Higher Education? A Myanmar-UK Policy Dialogue, London, 9 May 2013: Provided
political and economic analysis and policy advice to a delegation of senior Myanmar politicians and officials on the
reform of higher education as part of a British Council-led study tour and dialogue.
Roundtable on the Future of Myanmar, Oxford, 9 March 2013: Co-organised and chaired this panel debate, which
included representatives from business, UK and Burmese NGOs, diplomats and academics and an audience including
senior FCO officials, the chair of the UK Parliament’s All-Party Group on ASEAN, senior diplomats from Indonesia,
Malaysia and Vietnam, businesspeople, academics and students.
FCO Brainstorming Session on EU-ASEAN Relations, 14 August 2012: Briefed UK diplomats in London and Jakarta
and participated in an internal planning session.
Rethinking Economic Sanctions, British Council, Yangon, 25 July 2012: Disseminated research and facilitated
discussion on international economic sanctions among Myanmar civil society activists and NGOs.
EU Sanctions Against Myanmar: Proposals for Change, 7 March 2012: Briefing paper submitted to the UK Foreign
Burma: Long-Term Challenges and International Responses, 5-6 March 2012, Wilton Park, UK: Participation in
discussions with UK Foreign Office, Department for International Development and British Council officials on future
UK and EU policy towards Burma.
Is BDS Working? Exploring the Impact of Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 30
January 2012 SOAS, London: Participant in public panel discussion.
Selected Media Appearances
On the Myanmar elections: France 24, 6 November 2015; 938 Live, 9 November 2015; Radio France Internationale, 7
Roundtable debate on economic sanctions, Russia Today, 8 June 2012.
Myanmar’s liberalisation and international sanctions, BBC World, 30 April 2012; Cape Talk Radio, 3 May 2012.
Burma: sanctions won’t help, Le Monde Diplomatique, 9 November 2010; republished as Time To Work With the
Burmese People, The Australian, 10 November 2010.