Democracy Lab

Too Much of a Good Thing

Did local democracy help or hinder post-2001 Afghanistan? An MIT study comes up with some surprising insights.

At the end of 2014, most NATO combat forces will have been withdrawn from Afghanistan, marking a disappointing end to an extraordinary exercise in nation-building. Despite over $100 million in development aid to the country, achievements in strengthening Afghanistan's economy and institutions have fallen short of expectations. Paeans to an "Afghan miracle" have given way to hand-wringing post-mortems. Attracting particular criticism have been efforts -- at both the international and local level -- that promoted Jeffersonian democratic ideals over the hierarchical decision-making structures that have governed Afghanistan for hundreds of years.

But did the imposition of democratic structures in Afghanistan really make things worse? In a recent experimental study, "Do Elected Councils Improve Governance Quality?" we examine whether externally-imposed local democratic institutions improved or worsened governance in rural Afghanistan. Our results indicate that democracy per se was not the problem; when democratic bodies were charged with a specific activity, they produced more equitable outcomes. However, such institutions were often created in parallel to existing customary structures, and this had a different effect. With multiple local bodies, there was a lack of clarity as to who was in charge, which weakened leader accountability and provided opportunities for fraudulent behavior. As an Afghan proverb remarks, "the calf with two mothers gets no milk."

As an Afghan proverb remarks, "the calf with two mothers gets no milk."

Our study was a combination of two experiments: one long and one short.

In the long experiment, we created of democratically-elected, gender-balanced development councils in 2007. As per the randomized controlled trial methodology, we randomly selected 250 villages from a pool of 500 villages to receive democratic councils. These councils supplemented informal yet sophisticated customary structures (which usually include the village headman and an ad hoc council of tribal leaders), but assumed responsibility for implementing development projects in the villages. The remaining 250 villages formed the control group and did not receive elected councils, with governance structures remaining centered on customary local authorities.

We conducted the short experiment four years later, in which we distributed wheat to examine the effects of the councils on leader behavior and local governance quality. Across the 500 villages, we varied the distribution procedures to find out whether directly involving different groups also affected distribution outcomes. In half of the 250 villages with elected councils, the council was directly asked to manage the distribution, while, in the other half, we delegated responsibility to the "village leaders," a deliberately vague term which, depending on who was more powerful in the village, could mean either the elected council or the customary leadership. To examine the effects of involving women, we induced similar variation in the control villages. In half of these 250 villages, we specifically asked women to oversee the distribution, while, in the other half, we did not.

Two weeks after the distribution, we surveyed 10,000 villagers across the 500 villages to obtain data on how leaders behaved in their oversight role and who in the village received wheat. We collected data specifically to enable us to assess whether the wheat truly went to the most vulnerable recipients; how much wheat ended up in the hands of the leaders and their relatives; and the degree of participation by villagers in the decision-making process.

Although somewhat unusual, the wheat distribution outcomes did provide good measures of the quality of local governance. First, unlike other local governance activities, wheat distributions generate objective, quantifiable outcomes that can easily be compared across villages. Second, malign local leaders stand to benefit significantly from distributions at the expense of vulnerable villagers, with anecdotal evidence indicating that as much as a third of wheat is diverted for sale in district markets. Third, as wheat distributions occur relatively regularly in rural Afghanistan, the behavior of leaders in the distribution is representative of their general behavior. Thus, by measuring how much wheat reaches vulnerable villagers, we get a picture of how the creation of elected councils affects the tendency of local leaders to act in an equitable or malign manner.

The results of the study were unexpected, but all the more interesting.

In villages where we specifically asked the democratically-elected council to oversee the distribution, vulnerable households were more likely to receive wheat (relative to vulnerable households in villages in which elected councils did not exist and customary leaders alone managed the distribution). The elected councils had no effect, however, on the level of embezzlement or the inclusiveness of decision-making. We can reservedly say, then, that creating elected councils and putting them in charge of the distribution improves outcomes for vulnerable villagers.

The interesting part, though, is what happened when the prescribed procedures made it less clear who was in charge -- that is, in villages with elected councils where we delegated responsibility to "village leaders," and in villages where we asked women to participate alongside customary leaders. In the first case, levels of embezzlement were higher and decision-making was less inclusive than in villages in which elected councils did not exist and customary leaders alone managed the distribution. In villages where we required that women oversee the distribution alongside customary leaders, levels of embezzlement were similarly higher than in villages in which customary leaders alone managed the distribution.

Embezzlement increased when the responsibility for the oversight of the distribution was not clearly defined.

The key takeaway from the results is that embezzlement increased when the responsibility for the oversight of the distribution was not clearly defined. In villages with elected councils, embezzlement increased when it was not clear whether elected councils or customary leaders were in charge. Likewise, for villages without elected councils, embezzlement increased when customary leaders were asked to share responsibility with women leaders. On the other hand, outcomes were best when responsibility was the most precisely assigned -- that is, when a specific institution, the elected councils, was placed in charge of the distribution.

These results turn out to be quite powerful in demonstrating how development interventions might have inadvertently weakened accountability and governance in rural Afghanistan.

Development programs in Afghanistan have commonly followed a practice of creating new local bodies (commonly termed councils or shura) to manage local projects or interactions. Water management shura were established to manage irrigation projects; the National Solidarity Program created the development councils we studied; the International Security Assistance Force created "reintegration shuras" to transfer detainees back to communities; and a multitude of NGOs created their own shura to manage local interventions. All of this occurred on top of customary structures comprising a village headman, a customary shura, and local clergy. One scholar coined the phrase "shura fatigue" in lamenting the rampant practice that made spaghetti soup out of local governance.

This avalanche of shura splintered governance authority across an array of village institutions, old and new, which made it difficult for villagers to figure out who was in charge. Our results suggest that this in turn triggered a "common pool" problem, where leaders reacted to the diffusion of accountability by engaging in rent-seeking behavior that left ordinary villagers worse off.

Our results relay a solid piece of advice: if development actors want to empower communities to sustain change, they should think twice about creating new institutions when options exist to strengthen the accountability of existing institutions. While democratic institutions like elected councils can improve outcomes, reformers must first clarify these institutions' relationship with existing bodies. And whatever the institutional form -- be it democratic or customary -- governance outcomes are best when the population is able to tell who is in charge and who will hold them accountable.

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images


Israel’s ‘Demographic Time Bomb’ Is a Dud

Sorry, but the real number of Arab Israelis isn't an existential threat to the Jewish state.

If you listen to some top American and Israeli officials, Israel's "demographic time bomb" is ticking -- and it's set to explode any day now. Secretary of State John Kerry warned on Dec. 7 that Israel's demographic dynamics represented an "existential threat ... that makes it impossible for Israel to preserve its future as a democratic, Jewish state." Some officials in Jerusalem agree with him: Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog and senior Cabinet member Yair Lapid last week echoed similar concerns that demographic trends would turn Israel into a "bi-national state." On all three occasions, demography was cited as an urgent reason to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The argument, in a nutshell, goes like this: The birth rate among Arab families in Israel and Palestine is higher than it is for Jewish families. Therefore, at some point in the future the Arabs will become a majority in the area Israel occupies. When that day comes, Israelis will have to choose between having a Jewish state or a democratic one, because giving every person an equal vote would mean losing the Jewish character of the state. Israel's only hope of maintaining its identity, proponents of the "demographic time bomb" theory would argue, is to soon cut a peace deal that paves the way for an independent Palestinian state.

There's only one problem: The numbers just don't add up. Demography relies on more than just birth rates, and similar predictions have a long history of falling flat. Israeli Jews have a healthy and largely stable demographic majority in Israel and the West Bank, and developments in the coming years may even enhance this trend. The demographic time bomb, in other words, is a dud.

In mid-2013, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics reported a population of 8,018,000 citizens. A fifth of those, numbering 1,658,000, are Israeli citizens who identify themselves as Arab. The estimates for the number of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank, without voting rights, range from 1.5 million to 2.5 million. Even if one uses the upper-end estimates issued by the Palestinian Authority, then, the combined number of Israeli-Arab citizens and Palestinians amounts to less than a third of Israel's current population. As for the residents of the Gaza Strip, it is hard to argue for their inclusion, since Israel has not exerted civilian control in the area since 2005.

Analysts and demographers have monitored Israel's population trends throughout its history, and frequently warned of imminent changes to the status quo. In 1987, Thomas Friedman warned that in 12 years, "Israel and the occupied territories will be, in demographic terms, a binational state." He went on to quote a leading Israeli demographer, Arnon Soffer, saying that Israel was becoming "a bi-national, not a Jewish state -- no question about it."

This ticking demographic bomb, however, never seems to actually go off. Much has changed since Friedman's article: A million Jews immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, Israel withdrew from Gaza, and gaps between Arab and Jewish birth rates have diminished significantly. In fact, the ratio of Israeli citizens who are Arab has increased very slowly since Israel's creation, growing from 12 percent to 21 percent over 65 years.

Yes, Israel is unlikely to see an influx of Jews like that from the former Soviet Union ever again -- but it also hasn't exhausted its ability to affect the demographic balance. A 2012 report by the Knesset research center, for example, assessed that there are somewhere between 230,000 and 750,000 Israeli citizens abroad. Although many of those Israelis are already counted in Israel's total population, large portions of them aren't, and none of them are represented in the Knesset.

Israel currently does not grant any voting rights for these citizens living abroad. The policy's intent was to discourage emigration, but it has also made Israel an outlier on the international stage. If Israel simply matched its expatriate voting policies to those of the United States or Canada, it would add hundreds of thousands of additional voters to its electoral register. Allowing Israeli tourists abroad to vote on election day or easing the process of acquiring citizenship would further boost the numbers. And that's not hard to fix: Israel's voting law isn't anchored in a constitution and can be changed at will by a narrow legislative majority.

Dramatic improvements in public health are also changing the demographic picture. Much of the inaccuracy in past predictions came from their focus on birth rates, ignoring other important factors such as changes in life expectancy. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics recorded that the life expectancy for Israelis increased by approximately three years. This growth wasn't homogenous, however, as it correlated with factors like family size and income levels. While Israeli Jews registered a 3.2-year increase over that period, expectancy for Israeli Arabs grew only by two years. This divergence was equivalent to a 2 percent increase to the Jewish population of Israel over that decade, equivalent to the arrival of 128,000 new immigrants. Demographic projections, it turns out, require far more than simple arithmetic. 

There are countless reasons for Israelis and Palestinians to seek peace, but a false demographic panic should not be one of them. Israel still has many years and policy tools to prevent the disappearance of a Jewish majority in the areas under Israeli sovereignty. The vices involved with ruling another people are many, and the benefits peace would bring are innumerable -- but the motivation to resolve the conflict should not stem from the threat of ticking demographic time bombs.