Chiefs: Elite Control of Civil Society and Economic Development in Sierra Leone
The lowest level of government in sub-Saharan Africa is often a cadre of chiefs who raise taxes, control the judicial system and allocate the most important scarce resource - land. Chiefs, empowered by colonial indirect rule, are often accused of using their power despotically and inhibiting rural development. Yet others view them as traditional representatives of rural people, and survey evidence suggests that they maintain widespread support. We use the colonial history of Sierra Leone to investigate the relationships between chiefs' power on economic development, peoples' attitudes and social capital. There, a chief must come from one of the ruling families recognized by British colonial authorities. Chiefs face less competition and fewer political constraints in chiefdoms with fewer ruling families. We show that places with fewer ruling families have significantly worse development outcomes today - in particular, lower rates of educational attainment, child health, and non-agricultural employment. But the institutions of chiefs' authority are also highly respected among villagers, and their chiefdoms have higher levels of "social capital," for example, greater popular participation in a variety of “civil society" organizations and forums that might be used to hold chiefs accountable. We argue that these results are difficult to reconcile with the standard principle-agent approach to politics and instead reflect the capture of civil society organizations by chiefs. Rather than acting as a vehicle for disciplining chiefs, these organizations have been structured by chiefs to control society.
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