Social engineering in the Congo

Do participatory development projects make local politics more democratic? A new paper by Humphreys, Sanchez de la Sierra, and Van der Windt:

Since the 1990s, participatory development has become a favored model for delivering international aid. The huge growth of the model reflects two broad trends. First, a conviction that participatory approaches to development yield better results than traditional top-down approaches. Second, that international aid can have a transformative effect and yield not just stronger welfare gains but also alter the way political decisions are made at the most local level, rendering local decision making processes more inclusive and more democratic.

Community Driven Reconstruction (CDR) projects are quintessential of this approach, representing a model for delivering post-conflict reconstruction aid in a way that not only builds infrastructure but also recreates communities and refashions governance structures.

This paper exploits exogenous variation from a large CDR project, in which development aid was made available to 1,250 randomly selected villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to learn whether international actors are indeed able to use aid to transform societies in this way.

Short answer: it does not. Here is a freely downloadable book by Mansuri and Rao finding much the same thing across many, many similar programs financed by the World Bank.

One takeaway: social engineering usually fails.

A better takeaway: social engineering sometimes works and sometimes fails, and most of the time we have no idea what to expect. I remain amazed that a local justice and dispute resolution program I evaluated did so well.

Social engineering is quite complicated, governments and NGOs try it all the time, and they’re basically fumbling about in the dark. I would suggest an agenda for pushing knowledge ahead, but I’m rather worried what would happen if states got better at this.