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The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Is clash of institutions a cause of rural poverty?

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Photo: Kayima street scene, Sierra Leone. Photo Credit: Kenny Lynch/Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
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Principal Investigator: Erwin Bulte. Lead Organisation: Wageningen University

Co-investigators: Eleonora Elisabeth Matheus Nillesen; Andreas Kontoleon; Maarten Jan Voors; Paul Richards; Peter Van Der Windt

Escaping from poverty depends on the rules governing access to vital resources. Rural societies are a historically determined mix of varied and sometimes competing "formal" and "informal" institutions. The focus of this research is to investigate whether a "clash of institutions" is a factor determining poverty in developing countries, with a specific focus on land, labour, seeds and rural credit.

The research constitutes a cooperation between anthropologists and economists intended to ensure a rounded approach to the full range of institutions at play in determining poverty and poverty-alleviation. We focus on a conflict recovery region - cross-border communities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. War often leads to the collapse of institutions, and during post-war recovery institutional arrangements are (re)built, and clashes (re)ignite. We deploy experimental methodologies to test key hypotheses concerning institutional behaviour. We run these games with village populations to assess whether and how institutional values clash. We then work with participants to develop a reflexive understanding of the institutional values and conflict (mitigation).

The results are important to a wide range of civil society groups, organisations engaged in post-war recovery programmes, and entrepreneurs seeking to provide new services such as seed supply and rural banking.

In addition to academic impact the project aims to provide new insights for governmental and non-governmental organizations concerned with market reform, development and post-conflict reconstruction.

In Sierra Leone, there are currently a number of policy debates and reconstruction initiatives aimed at reform of informal institutions (focusing on land tenure and family law, for example). Our work intends to facilitate debate and intervention around these issues by providing a clearer framework for thinking about formal-informal institutional interaction effects. Better knowledge of institutional interaction dynamics should assist policymakers, civil society activists and rural development organizations to better articulate their reform goals and to shape tailor-made interventions (in particular those addressed to the needs of historically marginalized groups of women and youth).

A number of sector-specific stakeholder groups in Sierra Leone engaged with this reform agenda have expressed interest in our research. These include:

  1. the Governance Stakeholder Forum, which includes all relevant organizations that work on governance issues and invite experts to share and translate knowledge into concrete actions;
  2. the Governance Transparency Working Group which includes previous DFID grantees that work with various local partners;
  3. the network belonging to the Partners in Conflict Transformation program.

Professor Conteh's connections with the rural banking and agri-business sector will also be important as a pathway to impact for our findings in the rapidly changing agricultural sector.

We also intend to further develop our links with the conservation sector through the policy advice and research results we currently make available to the Gola Forest Project and Trans-Boundary Peace Park. Change in informal institutions can only, eventually, come from within, so it is also very important that we create impact pathways for communicating results of village experiments to villagers themselves. Anthropological observations upon these experiments have proven, already, to be an interesting way to generate an agenda of discussion points for engaging villagers in reflexive debates about how local, informal institutions work, and whether and how they might work differently. We plan to make this kind of "debriefing debate" a more regular part of our research output, and will seek to organise village feedback as research results take shape. This will be a particular responsibility for the Njala team under guidance of Professor Richards. They will then look for opportunities to incorporate the approach in the regular work of civil society consortia currently working towards rural institutional reform in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

Workshop activity for stakeholders, at the beginning of the project, will be an important means to open up some of these pathways to impact, and to generate interest in the study among members of the potential user community. These activities are fully budgeted within the proposal. We also intend to convene a small advisory board of key academic/policy experts (a combined team of top anthropologists and economists) for quality assurance throughout the project and provide for yet another channel to disseminate our research to the wider academic community and (international) policy arena. Wageningen University will bear all costs associated with having a functional advisory board. We will seek to invite them at the stakeholder workshop and envision another meeting halfway through the project. In between we will consult them through virtual meetings including webinars, conference calls and email correspondence.

Primary theme: 
Grant Reference: 
Project Status: 
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Lead Organisation Department: 
Social Sciences
Fund Start Date: 
January 1st, 2013
Fund End Date: 
December 31st, 2016
Fund Currency Code: 
Fund Value: