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Building institutions at the micro-level: Results from a field experiment in property dispute and conflict resolution

By: Christopher Blattman, Alexandra Hartman, Robert Blair

To secure property rights and reduce conflict, states must build institutions of rule of law and conflict resolution. The resolution of local land, contract, and family disputes are central to keeping the peace and encouraging development. Can states and international organizations change local institutions on the margin? Can a common international intervention—centralized, elite-driven education campaigns— change behavior in high-stakes property disputes? We experimentally and qualitatively investigate an intervention in Liberia, where more than 25% of households had a serious (often violent) dispute over land or money in the previous year. The program trained 15% of residents to instill informal, mediated, and egalitarian norms and practices of conflict resolution. 68 of 247 communities randomly received the intervention. We observe striking impacts on conflict one to two years later. The campaign had little effect on the number or severity of disputes—if anything, disputes increase. Nevertheless, residents report a 27% increase in dispute resolution and 12% more satisfaction with resolutions, typically among longstanding war-related disputes. We also see a reduction in discriminatory attitudes. The impacts are large enough they imply behavior change of people not directly trained—an indication of changes in generalized practices and norms (or “institutions”). Qualitative work suggests the intervention was successful because the incentives and traditional practices of residents were congruent with the largely foreign curriculum. The results support “push” or advocacy-focused theories of norm and behavior change, and suggest that education and other modest, aid-based interventions have potential to build fragile states.