Corrupt village chiefs provoke disinterest in rural Liberian farmers
A corrupt village chief in rural Liberia has a crippling effect on investments made by the farming community. However, if such a chief is entirely honest then this is reflected in his villagers' willingness to invest and desire to work. Relief programmes in Africa also benefit from anticorruption measures at a micro level, according to development economist Gonne Beekman in her doctoral thesis entitled 'Local Institutions and Rural Development: Evidence from Liberia'. The research was funded by the NWO Conflict and Security programme.
On paper Liberia is a very rich country with a wealth of natural resources. Diamond and gold mines, timber and rubber plantations could provide wealth had previous rulers – former president Charles Taylor who resigned in 2003 is the most infamous – not granted far-reaching concessions to foreign companies. They did that in exchange for personal rewards instead of taxes that would fill the state treasury. The current democratically elected government has made a start on reconstructing the country. Anticorruption measures are a vital part of that.
'The effect of a development project that aims to strengthen the food security of villagers and the trust between them is at best marginal,' says Gonne Beekman. 'Local institutions play an important role in this: but they are obstinate and difficult to change because they are embedded in the history of the area. Policy makers can, however, support alternatives. This requires a good understanding of the far-reaching influence of local customs and practices. Corrupt behaviour is particularly difficult to investigate: questions about this always lead to subjective answers. I found a way of making corruption measurable.'
Agricultural seeds and tools
After the 14-year civil war, Beekman and her assistants visited 74 Liberian villages over a period of four years. From a locally active development organisation they received part of the agricultural seeds and tools allotted for distribution in these villages. In the villages they gave a measured quantity of seeds and tools to the local chiefs, with the announcement that they would return two days later to start the distribution. In half of the cases there was less seed to distribute when they returned. Where had the missing seed gone? In all probability the chiefs, an unpaid job, had taken some of the supply.
Beekman: 'In villages where the chiefs were found to be corrupt, villagers contributed less to the project. In villages with an honest chief, the villagers participated more actively and achieved a better and larger production. We investigated this phenomenon using games. For example, we publicly handed out money and the villagers could determine whether they kept it for themselves or put it in a communal pot. In turn, we promised to double the content of the pot. In villages with an honest chief far more was put into the communal pot. In brief, there is a significant effect: corrupt behaviour at the top of the village results in less communal spirit and inefficient investments. The quality of the local administration is therefore vitally important for rebuilding the country: corruption among village leaders has a detrimental effect on villagers' decisions to invest.'
Beekman also suspects close family ties in agricultural communities lead to disinterested farmers. Family ties often result in a moral obligation to share each dollar of profit with less well-off relatives. In an underdeveloped country like Liberia the family therefore functions as a pension, income and health insurance facility in one. Whoever has money must support the others. That elicits the question: why should you work hard if you still have to share? With a lottery game in which the participants could pay to keep any profit from the game secret, the researchers found a similar relationship. Close family ties in villages lead to more secrecy and ultimately inefficiency.
Beekman: 'The conclusion is that support often fails to reach the right people. Relief programmes can be far more effective if they are better matched with local customs and we offer alternatives for institutions that have become stuck in their ways.'