How to improve order and property rights under weak rule of law?

Can a brief mass education program resolve long, violent and intractable land disputes? As it turns out, yes.

My study of a dispute resolution intervention (with Alex Hartman and Rob Blair) is coming out in APSR this month. Turns out I’m allowed to post an ungated copy on my “personal website”, so here you go.

Dispute resolution institutions help reach agreements and preserve the peace whenever property rights are imperfect. In weak states, strengthening formal institutions can take decades, and so state and aid interventions also try to shape informal practices and norms governing disputes. Their goal is to improve bargaining and commitment, thus limiting disputes and violence.

Mass education campaigns that promote alternative dispute resolution (ADR) are common examples. We study short-term impacts of one such campaign in Liberia, where property disputes are endemic. From 246 towns, 86 randomly received training in ADR practices and norms, training 15% of adults.

One year later, treated towns have higher resolution of land disputes and lower violence. Impacts spill over to untrained residents. We also see unintended consequences: more extrajudicial punishment and (weakly) more non-violent disagreements. Results imply mass education can change high-stakes behaviors, and improving informal bargaining and enforcement behavior can promote order in weak states.

Social engineers of the world unite? I’m a little aghast that this might be the conclusion.