Improving Community Engagement through Community-Driven Development in Sierra Leone

Maarten Voors
Sierra Leone
2005 - 2018
Governance Initiative
Target group:
Rural population
Outcome of interest:
Transparency and accountability Women’s/girls’ decision-making
Intervention type:
Community-driven development
AEA RCT registration number:


  • Government of Sierra Leone Decentralization Secretariat (DecSec)

In this study, researchers evaluated the impact of a community-driven development program in Sierra Leone. The program promotes inclusive and accountable decision-making by providing villages with small development grants allocated by village committees. Results demonstrated that the program successfully established village-level organizations and tools to manage development projects, but there was no evidence that the program led to fundamental changes in local institutions or decision-making. Ongoing research is evaluating the long-term impacts of the program, as well as the impacts of a lower-cost alternative that supports specific community members in taking better advantage of development programs offered by the government.

Policy issue

While the inclusiveness and accountability of public institutions, such as local committees and government bureaucracies, are often considered important to economic growth, there is little agreement about exactly how these institutions should be designed, how to move from a system of bad institutions to one with good institutions, and whether and how foreign donors can help in this process.One of the most popular strategies employed by donors to promote democratic and accountable institutions at the local level is "community driven development," or CDD.

Typical CDD interventions combine block grants that communities can spend on local projects with requirements that decisions must be made in an inclusive and transparent manner, and include training on how to do this. The participation requirements aim to ensure that the projects funded reflect the needs of the community and minority groups that may not have a voice in decision-making.

While billions of dollars are spent on CDD programs, few studies provide rigorous evidence on their real-world impacts. Supporters of CDD argue that it can empower communities and fill the void left by dysfunctional governments, while critics of CDD have raised the concern that community grant funds are at risk of corruption that could be captured or exploited by local elites.

Context of the evaluation

Scholars argue that frustrations with government incompetence and corruption, as well as the exclusion of women and youth from local decision-making, fueled violence during civil war in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. To both prevent a return to violence and stimulate economic development, the Government of Sierra Leone implemented a number of reforms that give communities, and vulnerable groups within them, a greater voice in decision-making.

Alongside a national decentralization program that re-established district-level councils, the government piloted a community-driven development project that went one step further by providing small grants to be administered by village development committees. This extension down to the village level aimed to establish more inclusive and accountable local decision-making institutions, rebuild trust, promote collective action, and provide minority groups (particularly women and youth) with experience in managing projects and making decisions within their community. Researchers and the Government of Sierra Leone collaborated in 2005-2009 to evaluate whether this pilot, called the "GoBifo" Project (or "Move Forward" in Krio), achieved these goals.

Ongoing research in 2017-2018 is evaluating long-term impacts of the program on community well-being. In addition, this new research measures the impacts of a related program designed to support community members in improving project management skills and taking better advantage of development programs offered by the government.

Community meeting in Sierra Leone. Photo: Glenna Gordon | J-PAL

Details of the intervention

Two hundred thirty-six villages from two ethnically and politically distinct districts were randomly allocated into a treatment group or a comparison group. Villages in the treatment group were regularly visited by a GoBifo facilitator, who helped community members create or revamp Village Development Committees (VDCs), set up bank accounts for the VDCs, establish transparent budgeting practices, and create village development plans that included specifics on how GoBifo grants would be used.

The participation and inclusion of marginalized groups was central to this process—for example, each social group (women, youth, and adult men) came up with their own development plan, and these plans were then combined into a single unified vision. Women were often established as treasurer of the VDC and served as co-signatories on all project finances. A series of block grants totaling US$4,667 per community were given to implement local public goods and skills training projects that were identified in the village development plans.

Household surveys, which covered participation in local decision-making, attitudes to minorities, and engagement in collective action, as well as demographic and socioeconomic information, were collected in late 2005 and again in mid-2009, along with village-level focus group discussions. In addition, three structured community activities (SCAs) were conducted in late 2009, shortly after GoBifo activities had ended, to capture any persistent impacts on collective action, participation of minorities, and elite capture. The SCAs were designed to measure how communities responded to concrete, real-world situations in three areas where GoBifo had sought to change behavior: (i) raising funds in response to a matching grant opportunity; (ii) making a community decision between two comparable alternatives; and (iii) allocating and managing an asset that was provided for free.

In 2017, to assess long-term impacts of the GoBifo program, researchers revisited the original 236 villages in the treatment and comparison groups to conduct focus group meetings, and SCAs related to the same topics covered in the 2005 and 2009 surveys.

In 2017-2018, researchers are evaluating the impact of a new program designed to help communities identify and utilize local talent. Under the new program, facilitators helped communities identify high-competence community members who may be better able than traditional village chiefs to manage projects, leading to projects that require less involvement by non-local managers. Researchers compared the impacts of three different approaches:

1. Identification of high-competence community members to manage projects:
2. Identification plus training in project management; and
3. Status quo approach favoring traditional chiefs.

The results of this research may provide evidence to help policymakers determine whether this more technocratic approach to managing local development projects—selecting local project managers based on merit—is more effective than selecting managers based on traditional chieftaincy structures. In addition, researchers will analyze whether training local managers is more cost-effective than relying on non-local managers.

Results and policy lessons

At the start of the evaluation, the authors and project team agreed on a set of hypotheses they would test and wrote out a plan on exactly how the data would be analysed before looking at the data. This prevented selective "cherry picking" of results from the 318 variables collected.

Project Implementation and Local Infrastructure Investment: The GoBifo project successfully established the village-level organizations and tools to manage development projects in nearly all cases. The distribution of project benefits within communities was equitable, leakage of project resources minimal, and minority participation high.

GoBifo villages had a larger stock of higher quality local public goods, such as a functioning primary school or community grain-drying floor, than comparison areas. There was also more market activity in treatment communities, including the presence of more traders and items for sale, suggesting short-run economic gains.

Institutional Change and Collective Action: There is no evidence that the program led to fundamental changes in local institutions or decision-making. Despite the fact that many women in treatment villages participated in GoBifo decisions, they were no more likely to voice an opinion in community meetings after the project ended or to play a leadership role in other areas. Similarly, the establishment of a democratically elected village development committee that carried out multiple projects did not lead treatment villages to be any more successful at raising funds in response to a later matching grant opportunity. Lastly, there were no program impacts on elite capture, although levels of capture were low in the research communities (at least as measured by the third SCA).

Results from the 2017-2018 follow-up study are forthcoming.

Casey, Katherine, Rachel Glennerster, and Edward Miguel. 2012. "Reshaping Institutions: Evidence on Aid Impacts Using a Pre-Analysis Plan." Quarterly Journal of Economics 127(4): 1755-1812.

Casey, Katherine, Rachel Glennerster, and Edward Miguel. 2012. "Healing the Wounds: Learning from Sierra Leone's Post-war Institutional Reforms." NBER Working Paper No. 18368.

Casey, Katherine, Rachel Glennerster, and Edward Miguel. "The GoBifo Project Evaluation Report: Assessing the Impacts of Community Driven Development in Sierra Leone." 3ie Impact Evaluation Report 3, October 2013.

Casey, Katherine, Rachel Glennerster, Edward Miguel, and Maarten Voors. "Skill versus Voice in Local Development. "Working Paper, September 2019.