In fragile states, increasing citizen trust in democracy
AidData is surveying thousands of households in Niger to evaluate a USAID project that aims to strengthen government accountability.
In an emerging democracy like Niger, citizen trust in and satisfaction with public institutions is key to ensuring political stability and peace. When citizens feel like they are heard and that politicians respond to their concerns, they are less likely to join armed groups.
Yet lengthy periods of authoritarian rule since Niger's independence in 1960 have left Nigeriens frustrated with their government at all levels, as revealed by a recent survey of thousands of households conducted by AidData and its partners prior to a USAID governance project. Participants in the household survey report a general frustration with government—from the president to the national assembly down to local officials—in terms of receptiveness to citizen demands, responsiveness, and putting the public interest above personal gains. Worse, the survey also revealed that despite this high dissatisfaction, levels of political engagement are low, indicating that Nigeriens are not confident that their government is accountable to them.
If citizens do not voice their concerns because they don’t believe that they will be heard, it is more difficult for the government to capture citizen needs and respond effectively, thus perpetuating a cycle of civilian mistrust and weak political legitimacy. Motivated by the reality that this disconnect between institutions often leads to civil unrest and violence, development agencies are funding extensive, multifaceted projects to strengthen governance in fragile states—such as USAID’s Participatory and Responsive Governance (PRG) project, begun in 2017 in select communities across Niger.
A key feature of the project is multi-stakeholder dialogues that bring together community members, religious and traditional leaders, local organizations, and government officials to collaboratively identify citizen priorities and design corresponding multi-stakeholder action plans. This strategy depends on citizens articulating their concerns as their connections with government officials increase, which in turn should strengthen citizen trust and the government’s responsiveness to citizens’ priority public needs. The potential for impact is high, as dialogue is a major pillar of Nigerien democracy: the transition to multiparty competition in 1992 happened at a National Conference involving stakeholders from almost every sector of society. Dialogue is also integral to Nigerien culture, where there is a long tradition of communities coming together for dialogue that is still witnessed today in fadas (informal conversation groups) and public gatherings.
In partnership with the USAID Niger Country Office, researchers at AidData and Macalester College are conducting a rigorous randomized impact evaluation of the PRG project’s impacts. Out of 48 eligible communes, 24 were randomly selected to participate in the project. While the randomization was clear cut, large-scale impact evaluations like the PRG project can present an evaluation challenge. Groups receiving the treatment do not live in a bubble and news or initiatives resulting from the treatment dialogues can easily travel between areas, potentially affecting perceptions in both treatment and control groups.
Such challenges emerged during the PRG evaluation as well. For example, during PRG-hosted dialogues on education, participants across communities raised ongoing issues with teacher distribution. Participants and implementing partners petitioned the national government to address the issue, and the government responded by implementing initiatives to redistribute teachers from urban to rural areas across the country. A national-level action that affected both control and treatment communities, the teacher redistribution complicates the RCT but serves as evidence of improved government responsiveness and institutional legitimacy.
To address these challenges, AidData’s evaluation will compare citizen perceptions at the commune-level between the 24 treatment and 24 control communes before and after project implementation. By controlling for any spillover effects in the statistical analysis, researchers will be able to quantify how the PRG project has influenced citizen perceptions of the Nigerien government.
To gauge initial feelings of public trust and engagement with government in advance of the stakeholder dialogues, AidData and USAID partnered with the National Opinion Research Center and Kantar Public to conduct a baseline survey of 1,258 households. Citizens were asked how they feel about their local and national government; the quality of public services; how the government has developed the economy; and their trust in armed forces and the military.
See more findings from the baseline survey in the report.
Respondents reported general frustration with all levels of government—the president, the national assembly, and even local leaders—in terms of their receptiveness and responsiveness to citizen needs. Citizens did not see the media or political parties as effective institutions in holding government accountable, indicating that they are more willing to trust and respect the role of the military and police than politicians and political parties.
However, on several dimensions citizens’ revealed preferences suggest enduring support for the Nigerien political system. A majority of respondents saw Niger as a democracy and believed it is the best form of government. Most crucially for the PRG project, more than 70 percent of respondents agreed that community dialogue among local leaders and citizens is an important vehicle for strengthening government responsiveness to citizen priorities.
Alongside the household surveys, AidData is using text messaging mechanisms to gather additional information on political engagement. Respondents in both treatment and control communities were provided with an SMS number to text with their complaints and comments. This will allow researchers to see whether citizens exposed to dialogues through the PRG project are more likely to submit comments because they believe that their concerns will be heard by their politicians and policymakers.
AidData is currently implementing an endline survey of households to capture changes in citizens’ political engagement, level of trust, and perceptions of the government, and will publish a final report of the impact evaluation later this year.