Working Paper

Honor among Chiefs: An Experiment on Monitoring and Diversion Among Traditional Leaders in Malawi

Date Published

Aug 29, 2018


Elizabeth Carlson, Brigitte Seim



Carlson, Elizabeth and Brigitte Seim. 2018. Honor among Chiefs: An Experiment on Monitoring and Diversion Among Traditional Leaders in Malawi. 2018. AidData Working Paper #62. Williamsburg, VA: AidData at William & Mary.

Update: A revised version of this paper has been published in The Journal of Development Studies.


Traditional, hereditary chiefs are an integral part of the development infrastructure in many African countries, but there are few empirical studies examining how chiefs perform in this role and to whom they are accountable. To capture chiefs’ behavior as agents of development and understand the accountability mechanisms they face, we conduct a field experiment on 200 Malawian village chiefs, documenting how they distribute a valuable development good – iron roofing sheets – as we sequentially add monitoring by donors, subjects, and the state. We find evidence that even in the absence of formal accountability institutions, monitoring alters chief behavior; diversion of the materials is highest in the absence of monitoring. However, the chief’s principals have competing demands that counteract one another. We determine that while most of a chief’s principals prefer allocations based on need, a subset of the chief’s subjects – his relatives – prefer an allocation that benefits them. As the core of his social and economic networks, these principals are often able to override the demands of the chief’s other principals. Altogether, diversion is minimized when chiefs are monitored by the donor, and only the donor. When chiefs are monitored by all their principals simultaneously, diversion is not significantly lower than under control, but dissatisfaction among subjects is greater. This study contributes to the literatures on chiefs and informal accountability, highlights the need to consider common agency when designing and analyzing development interventions, and provides guidance for development practitioners who rely on traditional chiefs as partners.

Funding: This research was supported by AidData at the College of William and Mary and the USAID Global Development Lab through cooperative agreement AID-OAA-A-12-00096. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of AidData, USAID, or the United States Government.

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Featured Authors

Elizabeth Carlson

Elizabeth Carlson

Assistant Professor in Political Science and the Program on African Studies at Pennsylvania State University

Brigitte Seim

Brigitte Seim

Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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