Delivering justice to the poor: Theory and experimental evidence from Liberia
with Justin Sandefur
Can progressive, statutory legal reform improve the lives of the poor in places where formal legal institutions have limited reach? In most parts of the world, the poor and socially disadvantaged remain outside the ambit of formal law and rely on customary institutions for their justice needs. We present a simple theoretical model of constrained forum choice that highlights the trade-off faced by such plaintiffs—women, subsistence farmers, etc.—when choosing between a repressive customary system and a costly, punitive formal system to resolve their justice problems. Original survey data on over 4,500 legal disputes in rural Liberia shows, consistent with our model, that plaintiffs facing a disadvantageous pairing under the custom—e.g., women suing men—are more likely to choose the formal system and are relatively happier when they do. We then present results from a randomized controlled trial of a legal aid program designed to overcome this trade-off by lowering the costs of accessing formal legal remedies. Plaintiffs receiving legal aid display significantly better case outcomes, pay fewer bribes, and report greater household and child food-security. Our results suggest that there are large socioeconomic gains to be had from improving access to formal law, by making its institutions more competitive with those of the custom.
“White Man’s Burden”? A field experiment on generosity and foreigner presence
with Jacobus Cilliers and Oeindrila Dube
We experimentally vary white foreigner presence in dictator games across 60 villages in Sierra Leone, and find that the simple presence of a silent white foreigner increases player contributions by 19 percent. To separate the impact of the white foreigner’s race and nationality from other characteristics, we test additional predictions. First, the white foreigner’s presence may heighten demand effects, prompting players to impress the white foreigner by being more generous. This should make behavior in the game less indicative of true generosity. Consistent with this, we find that game contributions are no longer predicted by real-world public good contributions when the white foreigner is present. Second, the white foreigner’s presence may make those more familiar with aid perceive the games as a form of means testing, and therefore give less to signal that they are poor. Consistent with this, in the presence of the white foreigner, players in more aid-exposed villages give less and are more likely to believe that the games are testing them for aid suitability. Together, these results suggest that players’ giving decisions respond to the white foreigner’s race and nationality. Our findings hold direct implications for how to measure altruism, target aid, and evaluate aid effectiveness in the developing world.
Two key challenges plague Sierra Leone’s criminal justice system: police extortion and lack of resources to provide due process. We evaluate a program providing pro bono legal aid to police detainees and prison inmates. We find a statistically significant 13\% increase in detainees released without charge or on bail, and a 20\% reduction in the share of prisoners held on remand. By comparing the program to a limited monitoring intervention, in which enumerator-observers monitor police stations on a daily basis, we find suggestive evidence that the impact of the legal aid intervention comes from addressing resource constraints in the system. In contrast, we find no evidence that the legal aid intervention affected police extortion. While corruption appears to be a key source of the system’s ills, preventing it does not appear to be the crux of the solution offered by paralegals and human rights lawyers
Can community-based transitional justice programs improve conflict resolution, generate social cohesion and foster economic development within societies emerging out of civil war? We conduct a randomized controlled trial of a novel intervention in Sierra Leone, which facilitates truth-telling to help resolve past war-time grievances, and forges institutions designed to improve conflict resolution and build social capital. Preliminary results based on a quarter of our study sample (80 villages) point to potentially large gains in forgiveness, improved attitudes towards ex-combatants, and improved gender attitudes. In addition, we observe greater use of traditional authorities for conflict resolution, and greater satisfaction with outcomes of conflicts and disputes. We also find suggestive evidence of gains in community participation and public goods provision. However, we find strong indications of negative effects on psychological wellbeing, including depression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Our study has direct implications for the design of transitional justice programs, as well as programs that aim to promote institutional change.
We use a regression discontinuity design to estimate the long-run impacts of historical institutions that govern land rights. The subject of study is 528 Pakistani villages settled by the British colonial state under two distinct policy schemes in neighboring areas of one district. One scheme created proprietary landed estates that concentrated control of land rights in the hands of local elites. The other created peasant smallholder (‘chak’) villages with a more egalitarian arrangement of land rights. Irrigation technology determined the common boundary between the two schemes, creating a discontinuity. We compare development outcomes on both sides of the boundary, and find that being in a proprietary landed estate lowered literacy by 10 percentage points and public goods provision by 0.5 standard deviations over a hundred-year period. Our estimates withstand to boundary checks, sensitivity tests, and a wide range of specifications and bandwidths. Effects are most pronounced for discretionary public goods most subject to manipulation by politicians, suggesting that political economy concerns played a significant role in determining outcomes. Thus in contrast to recent empirical findings in this area, we find robust evidence that initial concentration of land rights hinders long-run development.