In many developing countries, government services are allocated and managed by large central bureaucracies. Such centralization of decision-making has the potential to alienate citizens in remote areas, particularly young people, and to contribute to civil unrest. For example, research suggests that Sierra Leone’s prolonged civil war has contributed to citizens’ feelings of exclusion from governance decisions. Governments and NGOs have promoted the decentralization of decision making in order to place more decision making power with those who stand to benefit from well-delivered public services. A key part of this effort is promoting political awareness in communities that traditionally lack access to information, so that citizens can be more effective participants in their own governance.
Radios are one possible cost-effective means to disseminate community, governmental, and political knowledge to groups of people who typically have very little access to this kind of information. Radios have the potential to improve knowledge about different groups and government processes, potentially changing attitudes towards women, outsiders, and authority, and prompting greater participation in local affairs.
After a devastating civil war, the government of Sierra Leone is undertaking an ambitious decentralization program in an attempt to improve local governance. Tasks such as oversight of primary education, health clinics and local investment expenditures are being delegated to 19 local councils, in the hope that the beneficiaries of these services will have better incentives to plan and monitor these services than would government officials. In addition, a program providing villages with small discretionary budgets to spend on locally important projects has been piloted. Given that radios are one of the main routes through which Sierra Leoneans say they have learnt about the decentralization initiative, providing individuals with radios could increase people’s knowledge of politics, current affairs, and the activities of local councils.
In an effort to understand the effects of different ways of promoting awareness of local councils, the government of Sierra Leone and J-PAL researchers designed an intervention to determine if the free provision of radios increases knowledge, leads to more participation at local village meetings and activities, and if such effects spill over to neighbors either through shared use of a radio or through word of mouth.
Approximately 2560 individuals in 400 communities served as the sample for this study. These communities have little access to information because of low radio penetration, with the only other source of information being informal word of mouth. Gifts were distributed to 200 communities by enumerators for the 2007 National Public Services survey in May-June 2007, allowing researchers to distribute radios to a random subset of the population at the same time as they gathered baseline information. Within the 200 “gift” communities, half (640 individuals) were randomly selected to received windup radios, which eliminated the extended cost of batteries. Because the randomization for radio gifts was done at the individual level, the other half of the population in “gift” communities received calendars in order to prevent jealousy. The remaining 200 communities served as a comparison.
Follow-up surveys will determine household and community awareness of politics, current affairs and local councils, as well as attitudes about outsiders, women and local authorities. Participation at local village and council meetings and community activities, and differential impacts on women will also be monitored.
Results and Policy Implications