Local Institutions, Accountability and Community Trust: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Afghanistan

If responsibility to manage local aid programmes is not clearly defined and allocated, newly created democratic bodies may clash with traditional leadership and lead to worse outcomes for citizens.

New research by Andrew Beath (World Bank), Fotini Christia (MIT) and Ruben Enikolopov (New Economic School) finds that creating democratically elected institutions in Afghanistan can improve the outcomes of food aid distribution, but only if those institutions are clearly mandated to manage the aid programme. If responsibility is confused, then an increase in embezzlement may occur.

The research examines the outcome of a village-level food aid distribution programme and builds upon a randomised impact evaluation of Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Program (NSP). The NSP, established in 2003 and funded by the World Bank and a consortium of bilateral donors, is intended to build representative and gender-inclusive institutions for local governance and to deliver critical services to rural populations. It has been implemented by NGOs in over 29,000 villages across all 34 provinces of Afghanistan and is the largest single development programme in the country.

The creation of Community Development Councils is a key part of the way the NSP is implemented. These democratically elected councils are responsible for the distribution of up to US$60,000 per village in grants to support projects selected by the council in consultation with the village community. The responsibility for allocating such significant resources makes these councils an important player in local governance, although they exist in parallel to traditional community structures including the local jirga or shura (participatory council of elders), the village headman (usually a large landowner) and the mullah (religious authority). There is an overlap between the membership of the traditional community council and the democratically elected council, estimated at up to 40%, although people elected to these councils are on average younger and better educated than customary leaders.

Beath at al.’s research found that in villages where the elected council was created and put in charge of food aid distribution it was better targeted towards vulnerable households. However, the most important factor was the clear assignment of responsibility for food aid distribution. In villages where the elected council was created, but not explicitly mandated to distribute food aid, embezzlement was higher by 10% of a standard deviation, or equivalent to a discrepancy of 3kg of wheat per household. This result is particularly important in Afghanistan where an estimated third (at a minimum) of food aid is sold in local markets instead of being delivered to those in need.

The researchers also investigated whether explicitly requiring female participation in aid distribution would improve targeting and reduce corruption. They found that in villages where the democratic councils were not created, requiring female participation led to greater corruption. They suggest that this may be due to female leaders in non-democratic councils being the wives, sisters or daughters of existing village elites. This could mean that these women increase the number of people who represent elite households, thus leading to increased diversion of food aid to elites.

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