Publication - Project Report
In a developing country context such as Sierra Leone, political information is scarce, in part due to limited media penetration. Citizens often vote for candidates with little knowledge of the candidate’s future role, policy stances, qualifications, or past performance.
Debates offer a unique platform for candidates to communicate a wide range of information to their constituents, including hard facts on qualifications and policy stances, as well as “soft” information on more intangible characteristics such as persuasiveness and charisma.
Increasing constituents’ exposure to candidate debates can thus improve voter knowledge in a way that makes their electoral participation more responsive to politician quality and effort, which in turn strengthens the incentive for politicians to perform better in office.
Findings from an IGC study during the 2012 parliamentary elections in Sierra Leone suggested that publicising candidate debates corresponds to a significant improvement in the political knowledge of voters, ultimately influencing their vote. For example, in constituencies with screened debates, the share of voters who knew candidates’ top spending priorities doubled (from 14% to 29%) and voters at polling stations were 9% more likely to have voted for a candidate whose top priority issue aligned with theirs.
Encouraged by the results of this study, this follow-on IGC funded project sought to assess the feasibility of scaling up debates to more constituencies for the 2018 parliamentary elections.
In constituencies where debates were held – it was vital to reach as a wide an audience as possible through cost-effective means that could be replicated elsewhere. This project found that the most cost-effective and easily scalable way to reach a wide audience was to use local cinema halls as standard screening venues. By using these cinema halls, the cost of transporting heavy screening equipment to different towns could be avoided.
In addition to this, the project recommended that special outdoor screenings could take place in the largest town within a constituency as a way to publicize cinema screenings in smaller towns. Other media, like DVDs distributed to community leaders, and broadcasting the debates on local radio were recommended too.
The findings from this project demonstrate a cost-effective means of way increasing voter knowledge and potentially politician performance not just in Sierra Leone, but in other developing countries too.