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Development Aid and Social Cohesion after Civil War in Liberia

Development Challenge

Civil war is a common feature of fragile, developing countries, and the devastation it causes is thought to destroy social capital, impede economic development, and lead to recurrent violence.  In response, donors have dedicated a significant share of aid to “community-driven reconstruction” (CDR) programs that help to establish new local institutions to promote social reconciliation. CDR programs comprise a key component of “community-driven development” (CDD) efforts to reduce poverty.

Despite billions of dollars invested in CDD, there is little evidence on whether small-scale, foreign-funded efforts to build local institutions actually improve local patterns of cooperation.  Prior research suggests that such brief and externally driven interventions are unlikely to alter norms of social interaction, which are primarily defined by slow, internally driven processes, critical junctures in history, or relatively fixed characteristics of communities.1  In addition, there is evidence that foreign aid benefits are vulnerable to elite capture.2   The present study addresses the dearth of evidence on the effectiveness of CDR interventions on social cohesion by conducting a randomized field experiment in post-conflict northern Liberia.


The researchers used a randomized evaluation design to determine whether brief exposure to participatory politics can have a lasting effect on local patterns of cooperation.  The CDR program, implemented by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), took place between September 2006 and February 2008 in 42 villages across Northern Liberia.  The study region figured centrally in the violence that engulfed Liberia between 1989 and 2003.  Baseline data from 1989 suggested that over 4 percent of individuals living in the region at that time died directly from war-related violence, another 6 percent suffered injury or maiming, and 85 percent were displaced during the conflict.  A follow-up survey conducted in 2008 by the researchers found that 25 percent of respondents still considered themselves internally displaced.

The CDR program had the following core components:

  • First, villages were grouped into approximately equal-sized “communities” based on geographic proximity and pre-existing ties.
  •  Then, the IRC undertook initial activities to sensitize communities to the new development project.
  • In each community, the IRC oversaw the establishment of a new institution – a community development committee (CDC) – that was responsible for managing a community-wide process to select and implement a quick-impact project (approximately $2,000-$4,000 in value), followed by a larger development project (approximately $17,000 in value).

Members of the CDCs were selected in direct elections from among all voting-age adults in the villages. CDCs oversaw implementation and continue to have responsibility for project maintenance over time. 

Evaluation Strategy

Social cohesion is often measured by qualitative surveys designed to assess levels of trust, cooperation, and social relations.  However, program recipients may learn how to adjust their responses to please funders.  Therefore, the researchers supplemented this standard survey approach with an innovative behavioral measure -- a community-wide public goods game tied to a new development intervention – to test the hypothesis that the introduction of local institutions and exposure to their operation in Northern Liberia would enhance the amount of funding the community would raise for a collective project.

The IRC agreed to randomly assign (via a public lottery) communities to participate in the CDR program.  42 communities were assigned to the treatment group and 41 to the comparison group.  Upon completion of the program, researchers implemented the game.

In the game, community members were told at a community meeting that they could collectively earn up to 25,200LD (approximately USD 420) to spend on a community development project.  The specific amount earned would depend on how much money a random sample of 24 community members anonymously contributed to the project when each was given 300LD (approximately USD 5 or the equivalent of an average individual’s weekly earnings).  Each individual could decide how much of the 300LD she or he wished to contribute. Receipt of funds was dependent on whether the community completed a form naming three representatives who would handle the funds and state how the funds would be spent. 

To determine the effect of different social rates of return, 12 randomly assigned players in each community were told their contributions would be doubled, while the other 12 were told their contributions would be multiplied by five.  The researchers also ran a cross-cutting gender experiment wherein all 24 players in half of the communities were women, while in the other half of communities there were 12 men and 12 women. 

Results and Policy Implications

The results show that villages exposed to a CDR program subsequently exhibited higher levels of social cooperation than comparison villages, as measured through a community-wide public goods game.

Key Results
Outcome Treatment Communities Comparison Communities Difference
Share of available funds earned 82.5 75.9 +6.5 p.p.*
Average Share of 300LD contributed 80.8 75.1 +5.7 p.p.*
Share Contributing Full Amount 71.3 62.3 +9.1 p.p.*

Across all villages, the average amount earned was 20,022LD.  Exposure to the CDR program resulted in a 6.5 percentage point increase in the share of available funds earned by the community.  This result is partially a function of higher individual contributions; the average share of the 300LD contributed by players was 5.7 percentage points higher in treatment communities than in comparison communities. To get a sense of the magnitude, this value is similar to the 5.8 percentage point increase in the average share contributed by players when the social rate of return on contributions went from being doubled to quintupled.  Similarly, the share of players contributing the full 300LD was 9 percentage points higher in treatment communities than in comparison communities.  All of the results are statistically significant and presented as average treatment effects on the treated, matching on gender treatment because of a slight gender imbalance between the treatment and comparison groups. 

These results suggest that changes in community cohesion can develop over a short time period, in response to an external intervention, and without fundamental changes to economic and political structures. While this study does not shed light on the mechanisms of these findings, it does suggest that post-conflict development aid can have a measureable impact on social cohesion. 


2006 - 2008

See Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. 2004. “Persistent Parochialism: Trust and Exclusion in Ethnic Networks.” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 55(1): 1–23.  Also see Nunn, Nathan. 2008. “The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 123(1): 139–76.  Also see Alesina, Alberto, and Eliana La Ferrara. 2005. "Ethnic Diversity and Economic Performance." Journal of Economic Literature, 43(3): 762–800.

See Gugerty, Mary Kay, and Michael Kremer. 2008. “Outside Funding and the Dynamics of Participation in Community Associations.” American Journal of Political Science, 52(3): 585–602. Also see Murphy, William P. 1990. “Creating the Appearance of Consensus in Mende Political Discourse.” American Anthropologist, 92(1): 24–41. 

Photo credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District via Flickr