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Evaluating the Impact of an ADR Program on Property Disputes in Liberia

A few weeks ago, I came across this fascinating report evaluating the impact of an alternative dispute resolution program in Liberia. “How to Promote Order and Property Rights under Weak Rule of Law? An Experiment in Changing Dispute Resolution Behavior through Community Education” was written by Chris Blattman, an Assistant Professor at Columbia University, and two Ph.D. candidates from Yale University, Alexandra C. Hartman and Robert A. Blair. Their findings indicate some interesting results including a decrease in violent land disputes, increased community involvement in resolving disputes, and changed expectations of customary authorities. The report also talks about unintended consequences of the ADR program such as an increase in extrajudicial punishment and conflict between youth and elders. Scroll below to read some of the excerpts!

Credit: Land Commission

Credit: Land Commission

In this article, we experimentally evaluate an education campaign designed to promote alternative dispute resolution (ADR) across 86 communities in postwar Liberia [where property disputes are endemic]. Residents of 86 of 246 towns randomly received training in ADR practices and norms. One year later, treated towns had higher resolution of land disputes and lower violence. Impacts spilled over to untrained residents. We also saw unintended consequences: more extrajudicial punishment and more nonviolent disagreements. Results imply that mass education can change high-stakes behaviors, and improving informal bargaining and enforcement behavior can promote order in weak states.

ADR first emerged in the United States and Europe to address commercial and family disputes. In the 1990s, it was adopted more widely, including in development aid. UN agencies, the World Bank, USAID, and others now promote ADR globally in rule of law and peacebuilding programs. Less developed states often promote informal ADR through mass education, sometimes called “peace education.”

Although these campaigns are typically short term, they ambitiously aim to change behavior permanently. Implicit in this approach is a theory of behavior change and social engineering, which posits that education is sufficient to alter attitudes and behaviors over high-stakes matters such as property disputes, and that educating enough people is sufficient to induce long-term change in informal institutions.

Characteristics of the ADR Campaign

In 2009 and 2010 the government of Liberia and the UN conducted a large-scale ADR education campaign. The government nominated 246 communities, of which we randomly assigned 86 to receive the campaign. In treated communities, the implementer invited roughly 15% of adults (more than 12,000 in total) to participate in eight days of training spread over several months. Implementers chose this target to maximize the chances of community adoption.

The training was designed to strengthen existing and longstanding informal methods, such as adjudication by customary leaders, as well as train and encourage ordinary residents to negotiate their own disputes or mediate those of their neighbors. No information campaign was provided to the broader community. Trainees were slightly more likely to be older, male, and lifetime residents with land.

The intervention targeted 3 of Liberia’s 15 counties: Lofa, Nimba, and Grand Gedeh. These counties were selected because they were more densely populated and more affected by the war than other areas and thus were expected to have more disputes and weaker social bonds. In 2008, 10% of these 246 communities reported a violent strike or ethnic dispute and 7% a peaceful protest; 9% of their residents reported a dispute over money in the past year, and 24% reported a land dispute since the war.

Evaluating the ADR Training 

We surveyed nearly 5,500 people on their dispute outcomes and conducted qualitative interviews in 20 communities. Our data focus on conflicts over land and money. These disputes are endemic in Liberia and are common across Africa. Liberia’s challenges are heightened by the mass displacement created by ongoing civil war between 1989 and 2003. In 2010 alone, 22% of our sample reported a dispute over land, and 13% reported one over money. Nearly half of these land disputes involved aggression. To the concern of the government and peacekeepers, such violence occasionally escalated into national-level crises.

The survey was brief and focused on individual and community disputes and outcomes—the incidence, nature, and resolution of disputes—rather than mechanisms. To measure community-level outcomes (e.g., ethnic violence) and traits (e.g., population) we surveyed four leaders from each village at the baseline and endline—typically a town chief and a female, youth, and minority leader.

Community Members Exposure to Human Rights Prior to the ADR Training 

Community members also had prior exposure to the ideas underlying the intervention. At baseline, 28% of residents reported prior “peace trainings,” and 40% said they were members of a “peace group.” However, our interviews suggested that these figures overstated prior exposure: Prior trainings were usually brief and covered a varied set of topics, such as reflections on the war or ethnic relations, and the peace groups included any group with a mission of postwar recovery or ethnic harmony (e.g., a multiethnic youth club).

ADR Impact  

The education campaign resulted in shorter and less violent land disputes. In treated communities, land disputes were 29% less likely to remain unresolved at the end of the year, property destruction decreased by 32%, and disputants were 10% more satisfied with outcomes. We saw little change, however, in money disputes.

How long do these impacts last? Only long-term follow-up will tell which of these mechanisms is at work. The early evidence, however, is consistent with generalized, persistent change. First, the decrease in unresolved and violent land conflict showed no sign of decay over two years. Second, a bounding exercise shows that the intervention has begun to change behavior more broadly—residents of treated villages who were not trained have begun to resolve their conflicts more successfully and less violently.

Nonviolent Disputes: There were modest but not statistically significant increases in other nonviolent disputes. We saw little change, fortunately, in violent communal conflict. In our interpretation, ADR education encouraged people to tackle old disputes and inspired youth to challenge authority. With the exception of extrajudicial punishment, these disagreements were largely peaceful.  

Parties Resolve Disputes Between Each Other: Fourth, after the intervention we noticed an increase in ordinary residents’ involvement in others’ disputes and of disputants engaging directly with one another rather than through third parties. Before the intervention and in control communities, it was customary for disputants to say they would take their cases to “powerful people.”  During interviews after treatment, however, we observed a shift toward more decentralized mediation and negotiation. Respondents gave specific examples of how they personally helped resolve problems and how disputants accepted their intervention. These were among the most common instances of change that were described. Perhaps because of this approach, we see less emphasis on enforcement through fines.

We also witnessed the development of new informal structures designed to promote dialogue in the community, such as “peace groups.” In a village in Lofa, one participant explained, “After the workshop, we sat down togetherwe decided that in order to work together we need to organize a clubwe never had a club in this town here, but after the workshop were able to establish one”

Expectations of Customary Authorities Change: The nature and objectives of informal third-party interventions shifted away from adjudication and toward mediation. Before the workshop, disputes were generally taken to customary authorities, who mostly used a combination of mediation and adjudication, often without being able to describe how they resolved a dispute other than saying that they had “cut’ (decided) a case. After training, respondents in treated communities appeared to hold different expectations of authorities’ roles: The appropriate objective was to bring parties together to agree on a solution as opposed to working with just one party for a judgment.

Communities Pressure Disputants: Respondents in treatment communities also spoke about pressuring disputants to commit to solutions that did not require external punitive enforcement. The program training manuals repeatedly emphasized that disputes resolved through ADR are self-enforcing, because both parties agree to a solution that serves their interest. In interviews following treatment, respondents spoke about engaging with disputants and then pressuring them to commit to working through their problem until both parties were satisfied with the resolution. In contrast, no control or pretreatment interviewees focused on this aspect of dispute resolution. Instead, they focused on punitive methods and norms. Indeed, threatening fines and the external adjudication of disputes are the most common approaches.

Community Enthusiasm for ADR & Forum Shopping: We found the near absence of state presence contributed to a general enthusiasm for ADR among residents. We also found that informal and formal institutions favored certain groups over others, exacerbating forum shopping, irresolution, and escalation.

Unintended Consequences of ADR Training  

Extrajudicial Punishment: First, the proportion of villages reporting informal judicial punishment nearly doubles, including witch hunts and trials by ordeal. This implies that greater informality could encourage traditional practices that contravene the rule of law to reach and enforce bargains outside the law.

Youth: Second, we found statistically significant short-term increases in youth-elder disputes. A rise in youth-elder tensions seemed to stem directly from a controversial theme in the workshops—that young adults and elders deserve equal treatment under the law. Discussions of equal rights in the community gave a space for traditionally low-powered groups, such as youth, to speak up and make complaints about the status quo with support from the workshop facilitators. These opportunities led to passionate and sometimes unresolved debates about whether new ideas about “human rights” and sharing power were suited to the community. These observations could explain the increased incidence of disputes, especially if the intervention increased the willingness of certain groups to stand up for their rights rather than submit to existing power structures.


Modest education campaigns have the potential to change behavior around longstanding disputes over valuable resources. After training, land disputes are resolved at higher rates, less violently, and with more satisfactory outcomes, especially longstanding land disputes. We see some signs, moreover, that short-term behavior change could be persistent and general. Most related studies look at behavior only a few weeks post-treatment. Our main effects on land conflict resolution seem to persist over two years.

To read the entire report, click here.

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This entry was posted on March 19, 2014 by in Reports.

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