Debates: The Impact of Voter Knowledge Initiatives in Sierra Leone

While political debates are often considered an integral part of campaign strategy, there is little definitive evidence on whether they affect how people vote. In Sierra Leone, researchers partnered with the civil society organization Search for Common Ground to evaluate how the dissemination of political information through debates impacts voter behavior, campaign spending, and the performance of elected politicians. The study found that watching debates substantially increased political knowledge, policy alignment, and vote shares for higher-quality candidates. The debates also encouraged politicians to invest more in their constituencies, both during the campaign and one year later.

Policy Issue:

Political debates are often considered an integral part of campaign strategy in contemporary democracies. Debates can reveal information about the relative quality of candidates and their differing policy positions. By creating a public record of their pre-election commitments, they may enhance the subsequent accountability of elected officials. In developing countries where voters may have very little information about candidates, publicizing debates could have a large impact on electoral outcomes. Yet there is little evidence on whether debates affect actual voting behavior. To address this gap, researchers examined the impact of showing public debates leading up to the 2012 parliamentary elections in Sierra Leone on voter knowledge, voter behavior, and politician behavior. This research sheds light on the above topics. In addition, it investigates if information swings voters from voting based on ethnicity to voting based on policy.

Context of the Evaluation:

Voting patterns in Sierra Leone have historically been based on ethnic ties and pre-existing party affiliations; the two largest political parties are closely associated with ethnic groups in the north or south. The country has 112 Parliamentary constituencies, in which one Member of Parliament (MP) represents approximately 40,000 residents in the national legislature. Search for Common Ground (SFCG), a nonpartisan civil society organization, operates programs designed to promote civic engagement and dialogue to build sustainable peace. The 2012 Parliamentary elections presented an opportunity for SFCG to test new electoral programs that could increase transparency, voter knowledge of candidates, and engagement between voters and MPs.

Details of the Intervention:

In the run-up to the November 2012 parliamentary elections in Sierra Leone, researchers partnered with SFCG to evaluate how the dissemination of political information through debates impacted voter knowledge and behavior, campaign spending, and the performance of elected politicians.

After identifying what they predicted would be 28 relatively competitive races, SFCG organized and filmed debates organized in a standardized format between the major candidates in a randomly selected half of these constituencies. After the debates, both the debate audience and an expert panel of government and civil society representatives separately determined the debate winner. From a total of 224 polling centers in the 14 constituencies where debates were filmed, 112 were randomly assigned to host public screenings of a video of the debate, between one and five weeks before the election. In total, an estimated 19,000 people viewed the videos. Surveys of voters before and after—in some cases only after—the screenings measured how their perceptions of candidates, knowledge of candidates, and voting intentions changed.

In a separate group of forty polling centers, the research team showed the debates to individual voters in order to test the effects of different kinds of information, such as policy positions, personal characteristics, or persuasive speeches, on voter behavior. Voters were randomly assigned to one of the following groups:

1.)   Full debate: 400 individuals watched the entire video of the debate on a personal handheld device.

2.)   Get-to-know-you only: 400 individuals watched a video clip of the candidates speaking informally about their hobbies and interests.

3.)   Radio report: 400 individuals listened to a journalistic summary of the main policy positions articulated by the candidates during the debates.

4.)   Surveyed comparison: 600 individuals were surveyed before the election, like those in groups 1-3, but were not shown any media.

5.)   Pure comparison: The rest of the voters registered at these polling centers viewed no media and were not surveyed until after Election Day.

On or immediately after Election Day, researchers conducted exit polls among a random subset of all voters. They used these polls, as well as the Election Commission’s official voting records, to measure voting outcomes. Once the elected MPs took office, they tracked their performance in both treatment and comparison constituencies.

Results and Policy Lessons:

Overall, exposure to the debates significantly increased voters’ political knowledge and changed their voting behavior. Candidates who participated in the debates increased campaign expenditures in communities where the debates were screened. The debates also caused politicians to engage with and invest more in their constituencies once they were in office.

Voter knowledge: The public debate screenings led to substantial improvements in voter knowledge, including general political knowledge as well as knowledge of specific candidates and their policy positions. For example, the proportion of voters who knew which candidate (if any) had been an MP in the past increased by 11 percentage points (from 49 percent to 60 percent) and the proportion of voters who could correctly identify candidates’ top priority for government spending doubled (from 14 to 29 percent).

Voting choices: Exposure to the public debate screening significantly increased policy alignment, measured as a match between the voter’s reported policy position and that of the candidate they voted for. Debate viewers were 9 percentage points more likely (from 43 percent to 52 percent) to have voted for a candidate whose top priority issue aligned with theirs. Policy alignment improved not only because voters became more likely to select candidates with views similar to their own, but also because voters changed their views to match those of their preferred candidate after watching them speak.

The debate screenings also made some voters more likely to vote for high-quality candidates. There was a 5-percentage-point increase in votes for the debate winner (as judged by the audience at the debate) relative to the comparison group. This increase was in part driven by voters who switched votes across ethnic-party lines when the debate winner was from a rival party. For voters historically aligned with the party of the debate winner, the screening had no effect on their vote choice.

The individual treatment arms aim to unpack which types of information—from “hard facts” about policy to more intangible information about charisma—drive these changes in voter behavior.  All three treatments (the full debate, radio report, and get-to-know you video), increased political knowledge, although the get-to-know-you was (as expected) only half as effective. Only the full debate, however, had a significant impact on voters’ policy alignment with their preferred candidates and their vote choice. The fact that the radio report treatment was as effective in building knowledge as viewing the debate, but only the full debate treatment impacted policy alignment, suggests that personality plays a key role in persuading voters.

Campaign spending: In communities that viewed the debates, candidates subsequently increased their level of campaign spending relative to the comparison group. Voters reported receiving more and more valuable gifts from the particular candidate, and the candidate visited the communities significantly more than in comparison communities.

Performance of elected officials: MPs who participated in the debates spent 2.5 times as much on verifiable development expenditures for their constituency. This corresponded to average gains of roughly US$6,000 per constituency from a base US$4,070 spent in comparison constituencies, and was close to the total of US$11,000 that MPs had available. In addition, these MPs conducted an average of 4.2 community visits, compared to 2.9 in the comparison group, and held 2.1 public meetings, compared to one in the comparison group. Constituents of MPs that participated in the debates were more likely to say their MPs were doing “a good job in promoting” various sectors in their constituency.  However, MPs who participated in the debates were not more likely to promote the sectors that they had ranked as  their top priority during the campaign, nor were they more active participants in Parliament than those who had not participated in the debates.

Policy implications: In sum, this research suggests that publicizing candidate debates can significantly increase voters’ political knowledge, which can then influence their vote on Election Day. Debates may also encourage politicians to invest more in their constituencies, both during the campaign and after they are elected.  Finally, this project demonstrates that publicized interparty debates can be a cost-effective and logistically feasible method of improving voters’ knowledge; fixed production costs for the debates were roughly US$5,000 each. In settings with higher mass media penetration, debates could be televised, reducing dissemination costs.

Enterprises for Ultra-poor Women After War: The WINGS Program in Northern Uganda

What’s holding back impoverished women? Can small grants programs help the most vulnerable women develop sustainable livelihoods? Do employment and poverty relief empower them and improve their lives? This evaluation assessed the impact of a program that gave cash grants and basic business skills training to the poorest and most excluded women in post-war northern Uganda. The program led to dramatic increases in business and reductions in poverty. Despite these economic gains, however, there was little change in social integration, physical or mental health, or empowerment.

Find a policy note with more detail here and a full in-depth policy report here (PDFs)
Policy Issue:
According to one view, women have the ability to run businesses and make profits, but they are held back by too few assets, too little access to loans, too few skills, and a host of social barriers. What happens, then, when these economic barriers are removed? This study evaluates a program that gives cash, business skills training, and ongoing advising to some of the poorest women in the world, in northern Uganda, to understand its effect on new business development and poverty.
Another view holds that for women, with economic success comes empowerment - more independence, more decision-making power in the household, and the freedom to leave abusive relationships. This study also tests whether an entrepreneurship program that reduces poverty also empowers the women in other aspects of life.
Evaluation Context:
The study takes place in northern Uganda, which is emerging from twenty years of conflict and displacement. Young women and girls in particular suffered economically and educationally from the war. The women who participated in this study were displaced from their homes and lands for years, and are returning and rebuilding a life. Thus this study can inform strategies for post-war reconstruction for women and for the society in general.
In 2007, the NGO AVSI Uganda and two of the IPA Investigators surveyed more than 600 young females aged 14 to 35 affected by the conflict in northern Uganda, including more than 200 women formerly abducted by an armed group. The evidence from the survey, along with program experience among NGOs in northern Uganda, suggests that the development of new economic opportunities and building social capital will be crucial ingredients in reducing poverty and improving the health, education and psychosocial well-being of youth, especially young women. 
AVSI and the investigators worked together to design a program that would relieve the most serious economic constraints on women: The Women’s Income Generating Support (WINGS) program.
Description of the Intervention:
AVSI identified the 15 poorest and most vulnerable women in 120 villages that they wanted to support - 1800 in all. To each, they delivered WINGS’ three core components:
1.       Four days of business skills training (BST)
2.       An individual start-up grant of roughly $150
3.       Regular follow-up by trained community workers
Additional optional components of the program include group formation, training, and self-support; and spousal inclusion, training, and support. Based on records provided by AVSI, the total cost of the intervention is estimated at approximately $688 per person.
Evaluation Design:
The evaluation combined a randomized design with qualitative data collection. AVSI could help no more than 900 people in 60 villages at first - serving 900 already required them to triple their usual capacity. Thus AVSI and IPA held public lotteries with village leaders. 60 villages were selected to participate immediately, while the remaining 60 participated 18 months later. This design allowed for assessing 18-month impacts by comparing women in participating villages to those just about to receive the program.
Economically, the program was transformative. For example:
Cash Earnings: Earnings nearly doubled. For the average WINGS beneficiary, monthly cash income increased by UGX 16,211 to 32,692 UGX, a 98% increase over controls. In absolute terms, an increase of UGX 16,211 does not seem large (about $6.50 a month at market exchange rates). However, relative to the average income in the control group, UGX 16,481 ($6.60), it is huge. 
Consumption, Assets, and Savings: Participants in the WINGS program had a 33% increase in household spending, a value of UGX 11,741 ($4.72). There is also an increase in wealth, and the results imply that WINGS clients substantially increase their durable assets. Savings for program beneficiaries tripled on average, going from UGX 40,740 ($16.36) to UGX 169,862 ($68.22). 
These economic gains, however, were not matched by gains in health or empowerment. In fact, there was almost no effect on non-economic measures. For instance:
Physical and mental health: There was no significant difference in psychological distress. Women in both the program and comparison groups reported a reduction in psychological distress over time, which is not surprising because the overall quality of life in northern Uganda improved after war and displacement. Women in the WINGS group did not improve more or faster, however. If anything, they were sick about a half a day more in the previous month. 
Child investments: Woman are often targeted by anti-poverty programs because they are believed to be more likely than men to use the profits to benefit the household, especially children’s education and health. Women in the program spent slightly more on children’s health and education, but there was no corresponding improvement in children’s health status or school enrollment, at least after 18 months.
Empowerment: The conventional wisdom also assumes that lending to women will enhance their status in the household. Data from this study, however, showed no evidence of resulting empowerment for women in household decision-making, independence, gender attitudes, or rates of intimate partner violence. This pattern has been seen before, and is often referred to as the “impact-paradox.” 
Overall, the WINGS program impacted women’s economic standing significantly, but the data show that translating these gains into improvements in psychological health, physical health, or empowerment is more complex.
For more, you can read a first person account of the project on the Freakonomics Blog.

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 detailed policy brief here (PDF) and the full paper 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.

More information can be found in the policy brief here (PDF) and full paper here.

Northern Uganda Social Action Fund – Youth Opportunities Program

Youth unemployment is a persistent problem in the developing world, particularly in post-conflict settings, posing both economic and security issues. In growing, stable economies such as Uganda, what holds back youth from reaching their potential?  One theory suggests that youth unemployment is due primarily to the lack of sufficient capital to support entrepreneurship. If this is true, cash transfers or cheap credit could lead to a burst of self-employment. Evidence from other areas, such as studies on microcredit, suggests that alleviating these constraints with loans has little effect on earnings. In Northern Uganda, which is returning to peace after twenty years of war, the government’s Youth Opportunities Program offered cash transfers to groups of youth to increase employment and reduce conflict. Follow-up surveys two and four years later found a shift from agricultural work towards skilled trades and strong increases in income. Women in particular benefited from the cash transfers, with incomes of those in the program 84% higher than women who were not. There were no differences, however, in social outcomes such as community participation, aggression, and social cohesion.

See the full paper herea policy note for the World Bank here, and Chris Blattman’s blog discussion here.

Policy Question:
In developing countries, high unemployment - particularly among youth - is a pressing concern. Jobs, particularly higher-skilled labor and productive small enterprise, provide incomes and reduce poverty. For governments, transitioning from an economy based on small-scale agriculture to one based on entrepreneurship and production is critical for long-term growth. Employment is also seen as important for building social stability and political engagement in communities uprooted by long-term conflict.
One form of intervention offers cash in the hopes that youth will invest it in the training and assets to learn a trade or form a business. In the development community, anxiety persists over whether this is an effective approach: will youth with little or no financial or business training be able to direct the money towards successful long-term entrepreneurship?  Previous research also raises questions about the ability of women in particular to invest aid into increasing lifetime earnings, given occupational constraints and pressure to share windfalls.1
Uganda’s largest employment program sought to test if an intervention as simple as giving cash could help accomplish the country’s long-term economic and social goals for its youth.
Context of the Evaluation:
Twenty years of insurgency, instability and conflict led to high rates of poverty and unemployment in northern Uganda, but by 2005 a measure of peace and stability had returned to the region. The centerpiece of the post-conflict recovery plan was a decentralized development program, the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF). In 2006, to stimulate employment growth through self-employment, the government launched a new NUSAF component: the Youth Opportunities Program (YOP), which provided cash transfers to groups of young adults with the goal of encouraging trade-based self-employment. 
Description of the Intervention:
The YOP intervention had two official aims: to raise youth incomes and employment and to improve community reconciliation and reduce conflict. The program, targeted at youth from ages 16 to 35, required young adults from the same town or village to organize into groups and submit a proposal for a cash transfer to pay for: (i) fees at a local technical or vocational training institute of their choosing, and (ii) tools and materials for practicing a craft.
The average applicant group had 22 members. Group cash transfers averaged nearly UGX 12.8 million (US$7,108), and varied by both group size and group request. The average transfer size per member was UGX 673,026 (US$374) – more than 20 times the average monthly income of the youth at the time of the baseline survey.
Due to vast oversubscription, the 535 eligible groups were selected at random, using a lottery, to either receive the YOP program or be part of the comparison group. A baseline survey was conducted with 2601 individuals in 2008, and 87 percent were successfully followed and interviewed in the endline surveys two and four years later.
Results and Policy Lessons:
Overall, the program seemed to have strong economic effects. Four years later, beneficiaries of the YOP program had 41% higher income and were 65% more likely to practice a skilled trade, such as carpentry, metalworking, tailoring, or hairstyling. Hours worked were 17% higher, nearly entirely accounted for by these new professions – while most still farmed part-time, hours spent in agriculture were not different. They were also 40% more likely to keep records, register their business, and pay taxes.
Within the sample, gains were highest for those who had the highest initial credit constraints, those with fewest initial assets and access to loans. The effects were particularly strong for women. Women who received the cash grants four years later had 84% higher incomes than women who did not, while men were earning 31% more than their counterparts in the comparison group. This gender difference may reflect particular capital constraints faced by women.
While employment programs including this one are often implemented by governments with the aim of reducing social instability or promoting cohesion, the data show no evidence for impacts in these domains. After four years there were no measurable differences in cohesion, aggression, or community and political participation between participants in the YOP program and those in the comparison group.
Overall, the data show that the poor used the money effectively; investing in training and tools needed to start businesses and experienced a significant growth in income, even after four years. Even though impacts in social domains were negligible, the economic outcomes show the potential of alleviating capital constraints for spurring economic growth among the poor. 
Read the full paper here.
A midterm policy report here and policy note by the World Bank here were based on the initial 2-year follow up data.
[1] Fafchamps, M., McKenzie, D., Quinn, S., Woodruff, C., 2011. When is capital enough to get female microenterprises growing? Evidence from a randomized experiment in Ghana. Unpublished working paper.

The Impact of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Cash Transfers on High-Risk Young Men in Liberia

In many fragile states, poor young men with limited economic opportunities drive high rates of crime and violence, and are easily mobilized into destructive activities such as rioting and rebellion. A large body of largely observational evidence in psychology research in the United States demonstrates that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a therapeutic approach to improving a wide range of harmful beliefs and behaviors, is an effective way to reduce violence and criminality among children and adolescents. To understand the potential effectiveness of CBT among adults in fragile states, researchers evaluated the impact of a short-term CBT program and the distribution of unconditional cash transfers on the behavior of high-risk young men in Liberia. Results demonstrate that CBT reduced criminal behavior and improved self-control and self-image among participants; these results were greater for participants who received both CBT and cash grants, but cash grants alone had no impact.

Find a four-page policy brief here, and the full paper here.

Policy Issue:

In many fragile states, poor young men with limited economic opportunities drive high rates of crime and violence, and are easily mobilized into destructive activities such as rioting and rebellion. For weak governments, these young men often pose one of the greatest risks to stability and economic growth. A large body of largely observational psychology research and experience in the United States suggests that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a therapeutic approach to improving a wide range of harmful beliefs and behaviors, is likely an effective way to reduce violence and criminality among children and adolescents. However, less evidence exists on the impacts of CBT on adults, or in other country contexts. To understand the potential effectiveness of CBT among adults in fragile states, researchers evaluated the impact of a short-term CBT program and the distribution of unconditional cash transfers on the behavior of high-risk young men in Liberia.

Context of the Evaluation:

In the past three decades, Liberia suffered two civil wars that killed ten percent of the population, displaced a majority, and recruited tens of thousands of people into combat. Though the last armed conflict ended in 2003, the country still remains very poor; most young men have limited employment, and so some turn to criminal activity. The men who were targeted and participated in this study were considered at highest risk for this type of criminal or violent behavior. The sample enrolled in the CBT program had an average of eight years of schooling and earned about US$68 in the past month working 46 hours per week (mainly in low skilled labor and illicit work). Thirty-eight percent were former members of an armed group, and 24 percent were homeless.

Details of the Intervention: 

Researchers conducted a randomized evaluation to measure the impact of the Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia program (STYL), a short-term CBT program targeting high-risk young men to reduce destructive behaviors, such as criminality and substance abuse. STYL was developed organically over the past ten years by the Network for Empowerment and Progressive Initiatives, a local organization led by reformed combatants and other formerly high risk youth. Among a random sample of 999 young men living in Monrovia, half were randomly enrolled in STYL.

The eight-week STYL program combined frequent group therapy sessions with one-on-one counseling, conducted by program facilitators who were graduates of a previous STYL program. Through a combination of discussion, reflection, and practical homework assignments, the program aimed to improve participants’ self-image and self-control. Participants were given lunch during session days to compensate for time spent in session.

Researchers also examined the impact of unconditional cash transfers on the young men’s behaviors and beliefs. Shortly after the therapy program ended, another random half of the 999 young men received one-time unconditional cash grants of US$200. Thus, one group of the men received cash, a second group received therapy, a third group received both cash and therapy, and a fourth comparison group received nothing.

To measure both short- and longer-term impacts on participants’ beliefs, behaviors, and economic outcomes, researchers conducted follow-up surveys two and five weeks, and twelve and thirteen months after the cash grants were distributed. Since most data were self-reported, they validated the behavior of a subsample with intensive qualitative observation.

Results and Policy Lessons:

STYL participation had large and significant impacts on participants’ behaviors and beliefs, both in the short and long term. This effect was even greater for participants who received both the therapy and the cash grant. The cash grant alone had no behavioral effect on participants. Neither the therapy nor the cash grant impacted long-term economic outcomes.

Behaviors and beliefs

Receiving therapy with or without the cash reduced the likelihood of aggressive and criminal behavior among participants. Those who received therapy were 8.6 percentage points (55 percent) less likely to carry a weapon and 8.0 percentage points (47 percent) less likely to sell drugs in the short term, relative to the comparison group. These reductions persisted over the long term, and were even greater for individuals who received both the cash and therapy. In the long term, those who received both therapy and cash reported conducting 0.72  (38 percent) fewer thefts in the past two weeks.

Receiving therapy with or without the cash also improved some measures of self-control and self-image. On an index assessing impulsive behavior, therapy recipients reported a long-term reduction in impulsivity of 0.17 standard deviations and those who received therapy and cash reported a reduction of 0.21 standard deviations. Those who received both therapy and cash also reported a long-run improvement on an index measuring self-esteem of 0.19 standard deviations. These are large changes by the standards of most therapeutic interventions.

Economic outcomes

Receiving therapy had no impact on the usage of the cash grant. Regardless of receiving therapy, cash recipients reported using roughly a quarter of the grant on consumption and rent, a quarter on business investments, and about one-fifth on savings and debt payments. Only 4 percent of the grant was allocated to drugs, alcohol, and other temptation goods.

The cash grants increased recipients’ short-term incomes and business investments, relative to those who did not receive cash grants, but these effects did not persist into the long run. In the short term, cash recipients invested approximately US$57 more on average in their businesses, and weekly business profits increased by US$4.40, or 30 percent. Interviews with participants suggested that at least part of the reason they were not able to sustain these profits in the long run was due to insecure property rights. At each survey round, about 70 percent of the men reported a robbery or stolen belongings in the past month.

These results demonstrate that cognitive behavior therapy, combined with unconditional cash transfers, can be an effective method of reducing criminality, violence, and drug use. The program was fairly low cost, at US$530 per participant, suggesting that this program could be implemented on a larger scale.

Media coverage of this project:

Chris Blattman writes on The Washington Post Monkey Cage Blog.

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.

The Impacts of Psychosocial Support and Cash for Work on Vulnerable Youth in Liberia

To foster economic productivity and stability in post-conflict countries, many development organizations have created economic programs and psychosocial programs for youth. Yet little evidence exists on ways to increase economic opportunities for young people and reduce their risk of participating in violence and risky behaviors. In this study, researchers evaluate the impact of both a cash-for-work program and a psychosocial support program for young people in urban Liberia. This research will contribute evidence on how to best enable highly vulnerable youth in post-conflict settings to pursue productive opportunities.

Policy Issue:

Youth development programs are widely viewed as a critical tool for preventing the re-escalation of violence in post-conflict countries. Ninety percent of violent onsets occur in countries with a previous conflict,1 and when conflicts end, young people have the potential to contribute to future development, but they may also be a force of instability in their societies.2 In situations of armed conflict, youth are more likely to be recruited into fighting forces, become targets for violence, be forced to generate a livelihood for themselves and others, and miss out on an education.3 Many organizations therefore identify youth development as an urgent priority for building peace and spurring economic development, and investment in such programs has risen substantially in recent years.4  Yet little evidence exists regarding the impact of these programs, and which interventions are most effective in increasing economic opportunities for youth or reducing their risk of participating in violence and risky behaviors. This study will contribute evidence to help fill this gap.

Context of the Evaluation:

Liberia emerged out of a 14-year long civil war in 2003, and the security situation remains fragile and economic development has been slow.5 In Liberia, where people between the ages of 15 and 35 years constitute over 60 per cent of the total population,6 the government has identified youth unemployment as a major challenge.7

Mercy Corps, a global aid agency, is implementing a three-year program in Liberia called Promoting Sustainable Partnerships for Economic Transformation, or PROSPECTS. The program combines life skills training and workforce development via apprenticeships, technical training, financial education and mentoring, and aims to help participants find gainful employment while also developing positive social ties with their communities. Mercy Corps has worked in Liberia since 2003.

PROSPECTS includes a Cash for Work (CFW) program that centers on paying youth to collect recyclables in their communities and a Sports for Change (SFC) program that combines sports with life skills sessions for groups of youth. These interventions are designed with the aim of preparing highly vulnerable youth in Monrovia, Liberia for the employment market by developing self-confidence and resilience.

Details of the Intervention:

This study tests the impacts of the Cash for Work and Sports for Change programs, and any synergistic effects of both programs, on risky and violent behaviors and labor outcomes of vulnerable youth. Researchers are carrying out the randomized evaluation with 3,000 out-of school youth, ages 16 to 25, in urban Monrovia.

Through a public registration and lottery, participants were randomly assigned to a group of peers. There were a total of four groups, which serve to compare different programmatic options:

  • Cash for Work program only
  • Sports for Change program only
  • Both Cash for Work and Sports for Change
  • No program

Both programs will run for approximately three months with two sessions typically held per week. Researchers will measure the different programs, and any synergistic effects of the two, on enabling vulnerable Liberian youth to become economically productive adults, and resist risky behaviors over a one-year period. Additionally, researchers will evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the programs, both together and separately.

Data will be collected on the participants’ stress levels (measured using biometric data), risk preferences, labor outcomes, aggression, and self-reported risky behaviors. Social network mapping – how youth interact with one another – will also be used to provide a rich perspective of linkages and ties of Liberian youth within and outside of their traditional communities.


Reconciliation, Conflict and Development: A Field Experiment in Sierra Leone

Reconciliation programs aim to help communities heal after war, but we know little about how effective these programs are and which approaches best serve post-conflict communities. In this study in Sierra Leone, researchers measure the impact of a community-based reconciliation program designed to address social divisions that remain following the 11-year civil war. Researchers will analyze how the program impacts individuals’ attitudes toward violence, the incidence of disputes and crimes in the community, and the mechanisms used to resolve disputes.

Policy Issuce:

Civil war has disrupted the lives of millions of people living in post-conflict countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  Communities are left with physical destruction to village infrastructure and social divisions amongst combatants and victims. How do community members, once in conflict with neighbors, move forward with the traumatic memories of war?  Every year, development dollars are allocated to transitional justice programming in these war-torn countries, yet the effects of this programming have not been addressed in development economics literature.

Context of the Evaluation:

Sierra Leone’s eleven-year civil war ended in 2002, affecting the entire country.  Despite the passage of almost a decade since the end of the war, many parts of the country have not fully recovered from the conflict.  Physical damage to public goods, such as buildings and water pipes, remains.  Many former combatants, who were children during the war, have not returned to their villages—possibly fearing they will not be accepted.

Fambul Tok International has developed a community-based reconciliation initiative to help communities rebuild. Fambul Tok’s programming provides an alternative to commonly accepted transitional justice mechanisms, such as retributive war crimes courts or truth and reconciliation commissions, both of which have had a presence in post-conflict Sierra Leone. Few community reintegration and reconciliation models, like that of Fambul Tok, have been rigorously evaluated, and evidence on best practices are lacking.

Description of the Intervention:

Fambul Tok’s approach to reconciliation engages community leaders to organize a forgiveness bonfire and cleansing ceremony in the village. At the ceremony, victims, perpetrators and witnesses all have the opportunity to publicly describe their experiences.  Perpetrators are given the opportunity to ask for forgiveness and victims the opportunity to forgive.  After the ceremony, the community is brought together through activities such as communal farming and designating a peace tree for dispute resolution. These ongoing activities are designed to promote social interconnectedness and build social capital.

One hundred sixty randomly selected villages will receive this intervention.  Twelve individuals in each of these villages, as well as in another 160 comparison villages that do not receive the program, will receive a baseline survey collecting data on socioeconomic status, trust, psychosocial well-being, social networks, and specific war-time experiences. An additional village-level survey will be administered in each village to a group of community leaders to garner information on the village’s war experiences and active community projects like communal farms and schools. A follow-up survey will be administered to the full sample one year later.

To understand how reconciliation affects conflict, researchers will analyze how the program impacts individuals’ attitudes toward violence, the incidence of disputes and crimes in the community, and the mechanisms used to resolve disputes. An assessment of whether reconciliation serves as a base for economic development will be conducted through analysis of how the program affects economic activity. The study will further measure whether individuals within treatment communities are more willing to work together or contribute resources for communal ends.

In addition to seeing if reconciliation improves social and economic outcomes, we hope to identify the mechanism through which it affects behavior.  We plan to identify the mechanism through the use of behavioral games, which will be conducted in a subset of the communities.  Behavioral games are complementary to respondent interviews, insofar as they measure differences in observed rather than reported behavior.  The behavioral experiments are designed to disentangle four different components of intra-group behavior: in-group altruism, out-group altruism, reputation and trust. By overlaying four different types of experiments, we can test for different mechanisms through which a change in perceptions and beliefs leads to changed behavior. 

Results and Policy Lessons

Results forthcoming. 

Predicting Local Violence in Liberia

Many post-conflict countries suffer from high rates of crime, violence, and unrest. Early warning systems, if viable, would help police and peacekeepers anticipate violence before it happens. But is it possible to predict where violence will occur? In response to this question, researchers built a statistical model based on data IPA gathered over four years in the most conflict-prone areas of Liberia. The model correctly predicted 88 percent of violence two years into the future, albeit at the expense of many incorrect predictions that violence would occur.  The study also found that of 56 potential risk factors, only a handful consistently predicted violence over time—especially ethnic diversity and polarization. The study should be replicated to determine whether these results generalize beyond these communities and time periods.

Policy Issue:

Weak and war-torn states are especially vulnerable to violence and political instability. Fragile governments typically fall short in delivering services to citizens, in controlling corruption, and in holding law-breakers accountable, and many punishments for wrong-doing occur outside the law.1  In post-conflict settings, governments often focus their efforts and resources on communities that are perceived to be at high risk of violence based on their past history. In some settings this may be a sensible rule of thumb. However, is prior violence the best predictor of future violence? What risk factors, if any, predict future violence? Answering these questions could help in the development of early warning systems that identify hot spots and anticipate violence before it occurs. Such systems could help police and peacekeepers allocate scarce resources to the places that need them most.

Context of the Evaluation:

In 2014, Liberia celebrated over a decade of peace after 14 years of civil war. Yet incidents of local violence continue to threaten life and property, and even apparently small-scale disputes easily spiral out of control. While violence has decreased steadily since 2008, the decline has slowed over the last two years, and the prevalence of violence remains moderate to high. Seventeen percent of the communities in this study suffered at least one destabilizing incident of violence in 2012.

Details of the Intervention:

Researchers tested the feasibility of an early warning system for predicting violence in Liberia using data collected in three waves (2008, 2010 and 2012) from 242 Liberian towns and villages in three conflict-prone counties: Lofa, Nimba and Grand Gedeh. The researchers, from Columbia University and Yale University, focused on the most destabilizing forms of local violence:2 violent strikes and protests, violent clashes between ethnic groups, murders, rapes, fights or assaults involving weapons, and extrajudicial punishments.  

In each survey year, IPA interviewed an average of 20 randomly selected residents per community and four non-randomly selected local leaders—typically a town chief, youth leader, minority group leader, and women’s group leader. IPA collected data on seven types of violence and 56 potential risk factors, including demographics, availability of social services, presence of natural resources, exposure to wartime violence, and incidence of adverse economic shocks, such as droughts and floods.

Researchers used the first two waves of survey data, from 2008 and 2010, and a variety of different statistical techniques to build models for predicting violence. They then used the models to generate predictions for where violence was most likely to occur two years later, in 2012. Then, in 2012, IPA collected data from the same 242 communities to see where violence had actually occurred, and researchers compared the models’ predictions to reality.

The models were intentially designed to overpredict violence, the reason being that if a model predicted violence would occur somewhere and it didn’t, the cost could be wasted resources (e.g. from pre-emptively sending police to an area). Whereas, if a model predicted violence would not occur and it did, the consequence could be loss of life, destruction of property and persistent tensions between groups. To manage this trade-off, the researchers’ goal was to maximize correct predictions of violence (“true positives”), while maintaining an accuracy rate of at least 50 percent.

Results and Policy Lessons:

The best statistical model correctly predicted 88 percent of violence two years into the future, though this performance came at a high price in terms of over-predictions. The model predicted violence four times more often than actual incidents occurredResearchers believe that with further research this model or a similar one may be improved, generating fewer “false positives” while still correctly predicting most actual incidents of violence.

The model also found five risk factors out of 56 that reliably predicted violence:

1)    Power-sharing, measured by an indicator for whether or not minority tribes and religions are represented in local leadership

2)    Town population

3)    Ethnic polarization, measured as the proportion of residents who describe other ethnic groups as “violent”

4)    Ethnic diversity, measured as the proportion of residents who belong to the majority ethnic group in town

5)    Collective action, measured as the proportion of residents who report contributing money or labor to public facilities

Violence was more likely to occur in communities that were larger, more diverse and more polarized. More surprisingly to researchers, violence was also more likely where multiple ethnic groups and religions were represented in local leadership (i.e. power-sharing). In fact, local-level power sharing was the single best predictor of violence in the best model. However, it is important to note this finding is a correlation,not evidence that power-sharing causes conflict. (One should consider that power-sharing is sometimes the outcome of negotiations following conflict, for example.) Investigating the roots of this correlation should be a priority for future research.

While it is unclear whether these models would perform well in other time periods or settings,the results suggest that relatively simple statistical models to predict violence may indeed be feasible. Peacebuilding researchers and practitioners should replicate similar exercises to identify which risk factors, if any, reliably predict violence across different time periods and settings. Replication will help develop fast, effective, and low-cost early warning systems for the future.


[2] Researchers identified the most destabilizing forms of local violence through a combination of formal qualitative research (e.g., interviews with local leaders) and informal conversations with peacebuilding actors.


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.

Reduction of Gender-Based Violence Against Women in Cote d’Ivoire

By adding a component of gender discussion to Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) and including males in the proposed intervention, this study assesses the potential for improving the physical, social and economic outcomes for women in Côte d’Ivoire. Does including men in gender discussions in the context of financial decision-making help to reduce gender-based violence and increase economic outcomes for women?

Policy Issue:

Gender-based violence toward women and girls represents a violation of human rights and organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are actively engaging in rigorous research to determine the most effective ways to reduce this abuse.  Evidence from South Africa suggests that combining gender dialogue components to economic interventions can reduce partner violence.[1] Another program tying discussions of household dynamics to regular microfinance groups in Burundi also yielded promising findings[2]. While many programs that aim to reduce women’s exposure to gender-based violence focus solely on women, few interventions incorporate males to change their attitudes toward gender and their roles in the perpetuation of violence. This study addresses the potential to reduce gender-based violence within the post-conflict context by supplementing economic programs with a gender-training component for men and women.

Context of the Evaluation:

Côte d’Ivoire has experienced two civil wars in the past decade, most recently in November 2010 after a disputed presidential election. As of May 2011, the country has returned to a period of peace and internally displaced peoples (IDPs) are slowly returning to their homes. A recent report from Oxfam, Care and the Danish Refugee Council highlighted the potential humanitarian crisis IDPs represent in Cote d’Ivoire—over 450,000 Ivoirians remain displaced inside Côte d’Ivoire and abroad. About 58% of returnees and 82% of displaced Ivoirians report complete loss of revenue streams, and these populations remain highly susceptible to attacks, harassment and intimidation.

As part of its mission to respond to humanitarian crises and help post-crisis communities rebuild, the IRC uses Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) to increase savings opportunities and capital accumulation for self-selected groups of men and women. VSLA groups are composed of 15-30 community members who decide to contribute to a collective savings fund that members can borrow from, with the loan interest allowing the fund to grow over time. VSLA groups agree collectively on a payout date, when all members will receive a share of the common fund plus interest. The IRC provides initial training and resources such as a lockbox and notebooks, meaning that administrative costs are low and decision-making is driven entirely by the VSLA itself.

Description of the Intervention:

This study assesses the impact of a socio-economic program and discussion group on the incidence of physical and sexual violence and women’s individual agency. A randomized evaluation will be conducted in 24 villages across Côte d’Ivoire, reaching 48 newly-established VSLA groups. Village groups will be randomly assigned to either a treatment arm (gender dialogue program in addition to the VSLA program) or a comparison arm (VSLA program only).  Women will be surveyed before and after the program is completed, while men will be invited to participate in in-depth qualitative interviews. Additional midline quantitative and qualitative data collection activities were added to capture changes in household well-being as a result of the post-election instability in late 2010 and early 2011.

Gender dialogues will be facilitated through the IRC’s current structure for VSLA groups.  In addition to regular VSLA activities, groups assigned to the gender dialogue treatment will encourage men and women to discuss the processes by which economic decisions are made within the household and their current systems of control over household resources. By challenging gender norms within the dialogue groups in the context of savings and spending decisions, women’s position in the household may be strengthened over time.


Results forthcoming.

[1] (Proynk et al, 2006)

[2] (Iyengar and Ferrari 2011)

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