Roots and Remedies: Persistent poverty and violence amongst urban street youth in Liberia

Policy Issue:

Poor and underemployed youth can be found at the hearts of riots, revolutions, civil wars, and petty and organized crime. In post-conflict countries, where state capacity is weak, frustrations are many, and jobs are few, policymakers are particularly concerned about these youth’s potential to destabilize society. Liberia, which recently suffered through 14 years of civil conflict, has named “youth disempowerment” as one of two major threats to durable and lasting peace. Liberia’s 2009 Youth Fragility Assessment sums it up this way: “the youth… simply wish for… the prospect of some day earning an income, even a modest one. For many, this is the impossible dream... the challenge is to make it possible, soon and for everyone.” The stakes are extremely high. The World Bank writes: “while much of the world has made rapid progress in reducing poverty in the past 60 years, areas characterized by repeated cycles of political and criminal violence are being left far behind….," and calculates a civil conflict costs the average developing country roughly 30 years of GDP growth. A quarter of the world’s population (1.5 billion people) live in places plagued by recurring and endemic violence.

How can governments and NGOs raise employment and reduce the risk of violence among these poor and risky populations? Aid programs increasingly focus on helping youth through markets, especially through microenterprise development. The logic of this assistance, however, rests on the existence of market failures among the poorest of the poor: imperfect credit markets, or production discontinuities such as minimum start-up costs or low returns to small investments. Cash grants or credit are needed to achieve minimum scale. Street youth with no assets and weak social networks may be particularly vulnerable to this trap. But so far there has been little research proving the existence of market failures or the ability of aid to help.

Meanwhile, both psychologists and economists have begun to explore the extent to which behavioral skills – such as impulse control, time preferences for immediate vs. delayed gratification, risk aversion, conscientiousness, setting and keeping long range goals, and being deliberate in choices – contribute to poverty. In a war zone, being highly present-focused might indeed be the optimal survival strategy. During peacetime, however, the absence of such preferences could in theory constitute a second source of persistent poverty: a behavioral poverty trap, leading to low savings rates, wastage of any windfalls, and high-risk behavior including involvement in drugs, crimes, and violence. Importantly, core principles underlying much economic and psychological theory assume that such preferences are fixed in young adulthood, leading anti-poverty projects to take a paternalistic approach. Again, little research has critically examined these assumptions.

Counter to conventional wisdom, preliminary investigation suggests that a behavioral transformation program, akin to cognitive behavioral therapy, can be successful. This finding, if true, would be groundbreaking, challenging conventional economic and psychological models of behavior, which posit that preferences and behaviors are stable and difficult to change, especially among adults.

Context of the Evaluation:

The study is designed to disentangle how cash and capital constraints versus dysfunctional preferences and behaviors contribute to the poverty and violence of the young men and women living on Monrovia’s streets, and to create an inexpensive and scalable program that will reduce poverty, violence, and social instability among unstable youth in Liberia and beyond.

On the preferences and behaviors side, the questions are (a) What role do cognitive and behavioral traits play in persistent poverty and violence?; (b) Are these cognitive and behavioral traits malleable in adulthood, and is sustained cognitive behavior change possible?; and (c) Will changing them reduce poverty and violence? On the market failures side, the questions are (a) What role does the lack capital and credit play in persistent poverty and violence?; (b) Will unconditional cash transfers relieve this constraint and reduce poverty and violence?; and (c) Do capital constraints and cognitive and behavioral deficiencies interact, and must both constraints be relieved to reduce poverty and violence in sustained way?

Description of the Intervention:

This “Sustainable Transformation for Youth in Liberia” (STYL) program is an experimental program, being jointly run by the research team and two NGO partners: CHF International and NEPI. As of mid-2012, STYL will have enrolled approximately 1,000 youth. Youth are recruited from urban areas where large numbers of underemployed youth congregate, and are targeted for the program on the basis of exhibiting the following characteristics: persistently poor; homeless; lack of self-discipline; angry, hostile, depressed; idle and not busy with productive pursuits; involved in organized or petty crime, and/or conflict with the law; and getting drunk and/or high regularly.

The STYL study is currently experimentally evaluating two interventions, each on its own as well as in concert with the other.

A behavioral Transformation Program (TP), akin to cognitive behavioral therapy (similar to Alcoholics Anonymous) and life-skills programs. The TP has the aims of bolstering the cognitive and social skills necessary for entrepreneurial self-help, raising youth’s aspirations, and equipping the youth to reach them. The TP involves half-day sessions 3-times a week, for 8 weeks, held in groups of 20 led by 2 counselors. The curriculum includes modules on anger management, impulse control, future orientation and planning skills, and self-esteem.

An unconditional cash grant program, in which youth are given a large $200 one-time cash grant disbursement. How the grant is spent is entirely up to the recipient, though a grant orientation session provides some basic training on financial management and business planning.

Individual youth are randomly assigned to either receive the TP; the cash grant; the TP and then the cash grant; or neither.

The plan is to conduct both short-term and long-term endline surveys to capture treatment effects, through surveys and behavioral games. If the basic interventions are shown to be effective, the research team hopes to further improve program design through iterative tweaking and testing, including varying cash grant size and TP length and intensity, and trying additional potentially complementary interventions, in order to help policymakers achieve goals most cost-effectively.

Results and Policy Lessons:

Forthcominng

 

Media coverage of this project:

Chris Blattman Talks with NPR's Planet Money team here.

Chris Blattman and Paul Niehaus in Foreign Affairs here.

Jason Margolis interviews ex-combatants and researchers Tricia Gonwa and Chris Blattman.

Ex-combatant Reintegration in Liberia

For post-conflict societies, the challenges of reintegrating ex-combatants and war-affected youth are likely to far outlast and outsize the formal demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants. These programs, conducted in war’s immediate aftermath, form an important part of a policymaker’s post-conflict toolkit. While ex-combatants receive special policy attention, poor and underemployed men are also widely considered a threat to political stability.

Find a more in-depth policy report here. 

Context of the Evaluation:

In Liberia, where the bulk of the population is young, poor, and underemployed, many rural youth continue to make their living through unlawful activities, including unlicensed mining, rubber tapping, or logging. Many of them are ex-combatants, and some remain in loose armed group structures, doing the bidding of their wartime commanders. While the security situation has steadily improved since 2003, the government, the UN, and NGOs fear that these youth are a possible source of instability, particularly in hotspot regions where mining, rubber tapping, or logging and the allure of “fast money” attract young men from around the country. These youth may also be recruited into regional conflicts as mercenaries. Agriculture is and will continue to be a major source of employment and income for rural Liberians. The international NGO Landmine Action (LMA, now known as Action on Armed Violence) runs an innovative and intensive agricultural training program, targeting ex-combatants and other high-risk youth in rural hotspots.

Description of the Intervention:

The LMA program is broader and more intensive than most ex-combatant reintegration programs, and is designed to rectify some of the main failings of prior demobilization programs: it is oriented towards agriculture (the largest source of employment in Liberia); it provides both human and physical capital; and it integrates economic with psychosocial assistance. It also targets youth at natural resource hotspots that presented the most immediate security concerns.

LMA took youth selected for the program to residential agricultural training campuses, where they received 3-4 months of coursework and practical training in agriculture, basic literacy and numeracy training, psychosocial counseling; along with meals, clothing, basic medical care, and personal items. After the training, counselors facilitated graduates' re-entry with access to land in any community of their choice.  Graduates received a package of agricultural tools and supplies, valued at approximately US$200. The program's total cost is approximately $1,250 per youth, excluding the cost of constructing the campuses. The program was designed to give youth a sustainable and legal alternative to illegal resource extraction, ease their reintegration into society, reduce the risk of re-recruitment into crime and insurrection in the future, and to improve security in hotspot communities.

LMA recruited twice as many youth as it had space for in its programs, and researchers randomly assigned half of the youth to treatment (receiving the program), and half to a comparison group (not receiving the program). By comparing these two groups 18 months after the program, researchers can see the effect of the intervention on agricultural livelihoods, shifts from illicit to legal employment, poverty, social integration, aggression, and potential for future instability.  Despite massive migration, 93% of the youth were found at the time of the endline survey. The qualitative study included observation and a series of interviews with 50 of the youth.

Results and Policy Lessons:

Engagement in agriculture: More than a year after completion of the program, program participants are at least a quarter more likely than the control group to be engaged in agriculture, and 37% more likely to have sold crops. Interest in and positive attitudes toward farming are also significantly higher among program participants. 

Illicit activities:The program had little impact on rates of participation in illicit activities like mining, but those who participated in the program do spend fewer hours engaged in illicit activities, as agricultural hours seem to substitute somewhat for hours spent in illicit activities.

Income, expenditures, and wealth:  There was a sizable increase in average wealth from the program, especially in household durable assets, but no change in current income (last week and last month), savings or spending for the average program participant. Overall, the evidence suggests that cash cropping provides periodic windfalls from sales, and that these are mainly invested in durable assets (and not necessarily in agricultural inputs or equipment).  Qualitative observations also suggest that access to markets may have been an important constraint on success.

Social engagement, citizenship, and stability:  There were small but positive improvements across most measures of social engagement, citizenship, and stability. While not all of the estimated impacts are large enough to be statistically significant, they nevertheless suggest a small but broad-based reduction in alienation and some gains in stability. The evidence on aggression and crime, however, does not point to a significant reduction in illegal or aggressive behaviors among program participants.

Interest and mobilization into the election violence in Cote d’Ivoire:Conflict broke out in Cote d’Ivoire shortly before the launch of the program evaluation.  Self reported rates of interest in the violence and mobilization were fairly low among the sample population, but they were especially low among program participants – they tended to report a third less interest in or links to recruiters and recruitment activities. Given the difficulty of shifting such behaviors, these impacts of the program are regarded as extremely promising.

For a policy memo with detailed results, as well as recommendations for reintegration, livelihoods, and poverty alleviation programs in Liberia, please see here.

Improving SME Market Access via Local Content Marketplace Services in Africa

Governments, multilateral agencies, and corporations, have touted local content policy (the requirement for multinational organizations to develop local supply chains and source in-country) as a means for fostering the growth of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). However, evidence for the positive linkage effects of local procurement remains mixed. This pilot – originated as a result of conversations between the principal investigator and the partner organization at the first SME Initiative working group – will evaluate via a quasi-experimental study the impact of the Building Markets' business facilitation services in Liberia. Findings will assess the viability of the design, will set the stage for future RCT and quasi-experimental studies, will improve understanding of the impact of local sourcing on SMEs, and will contribute to knowledge on the role of market access on SME growth.

Matthew Bird

Peace Education in Rural Liberia

For new democracies and societies emerging from conflict, encouraging tolerance and dialogue, strengthening non-violent conflict resolution systems, and increasing understanding of human rights are key priorities. Governments and NGOs commonly try to change the political culture, civic values, and practices of conflict resolution at the local level through widespread dialogue, education, and information campaigns.  But do these dialogue and education programs actually work as intended? Do they change norms and behaviors, and if so, how? How are new patterns of conflict resolution formed?  And how do they contribute to national reconciliation? How do new state structures integrate with pre-existing local bodies to jointly support security goals and human rights, especially where traditional structures are in conflict with the later? In short, what programs are most useful in helping post-conflict countries achieve lasting peace?

Find a more in-depth policy report here.

Context of the Evaluation:

More than five years after the end of Liberia’s fourteen year civil war, underlying tensions between tribes, over land, and between youth and elders continue to pose threats to a fragile peace. The UN’s Peacebuilding Commission and the Government of Liberia are working together to promote non-violent dispute resolution and inter-group reconciliation, but how best to do this is unknown. This study was jointly designed by the UN, the government, and the research team to assess whether civic education and conflict resolution programs can contribute to this broader peacebuilding agenda.

Description of the Intervention and Evaluation:

Target communities for the program were identified within Liberia’s three most conflict-prone counties: Grand Geddeh, Lofa, and Nimba. The researchers randomly assigned half to receive the program as the “treatment” group, and half to not receive the program as a “control” group. The program took place in 67 villages and town quarters. The program mobilized and trained community members in order to achieve three main goals: (1) educate people on their rights and to respect the rights of others; (2) encourage community collective action towards shared goals; and (3) foster non-violent dialogue and conflict resolution. The program is notable for its intensity and reach: in each community, roughly 10% of adults participated in an eight-day long interactive workshop held over the course of several weeks. Workshops had between 20 to 30 participants, both men and women, were led by a professional facilitator, and were conducted in local dialects. Multiple workshops were held in most communities to reach the 10% coverage target.

Pre-program baseline data was collected in 2009, and the endline took place between 1 and 22 months after the program. Data came from more than 5,000 individuals with three main surveys. In each community, the team interviewed: 20 randomly-selected “community members”, 4 “community leaders”, and 3 people identified by local chiefs as potential trainees, including a “troublesome” person. The study measures the impact of attending the program on potential trainees, random community members, and community leaders, and the impact on the community of having the program take place in their community. An in-depth qualitative study in 14  of the communities was conducted alongside the randomized evaluation to determine the mechanisms of impact. The study focuses on four major outcome classes: community and political participation; attitudes to rights; civic knowledge, attitudes and beliefs; and the prevalence and resolution of conflict.

Results and Policy Lessons:

Community and political participationCommunity participation was measured through contributions to public goods and community projects, membership in groups (from farming to sports), membership in a peace group, and leadership in groups.  Across all measures, the only treatment effect was on membership in peace groups. On political participation, the only statistically significant treatment effect was seen on an index measuring whether potential trainees feel free to speak their minds to “big people” in the community and whether they feel community members have the right to speak out to elders: Those trained are 4% more likely to feel empowered to speak freely. This effect is concentrated among the “troublesome” individuals, who see a larger increase of about 8%.

Attitudes on human rights: Across multiple measures, nearly all the treatment effects are positive, indicating that respondents in trained communities generally report more progressive beliefs. For community members, however, these impacts are fairly close to zero. The impacts on trainees and leaders are modest in size – often in the range of 1 to 10% —and seldom statistically significant at conventional levels.

Civic attitudes and knowledge: The civic education component provided information on citizenship, civic rights and responsibilities and Liberia’s political structure. At endline, amongst potential trainees in the control group, only about 12% correctly understood the statutory requirements for citizenship. This understanding nearly doubled among treated trainees. Little change was seen in political knowledge, and the program also appears to have little to no impact on perceptions of equity in community governance as well as on perceptions towards the national government.

Prevalence and Resolution of Conflict: The most striking program impacts were on conflict and its resolution. In treatment communities (i.e. those that received the program), the evaluation found sizeable increases in non-violent inter-personal and inter-group disputes; suggestive evidence of a decrease in violent disputes; increasing levels of land conflict since the program, though also suggestions of lower rates of violence, and increased rates of dispute resolution and of satisfaction with those resolutions in trained communities. At the community level, leaders reported a 93% increase in conflicts (typically disputes and disagreements) between youth and elders in treated communities.  Treatment communities were also twice as likely to have a peaceful strike or protest, and three times as likely to have a witch killing (though the latter result is not statistically significant).

Violent strikes, protests, and inter-group violence are 59% less likely in treatment communities, however, though this result is not statistically significant (partly because the events are rare, making it difficult to estimate their prevalence precisely with such a small sample of communities).

In addition to the policy report detailing the impact evaluation results, the team has produced a second policy report analyzing patterns of conflict.

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