Governing well without elections

Esther Blanco explains the results of her research project, published earlier this year in the journal "Science Advances".
The main objective of the project was to explore the relative leadership attributes of local leaders that were democratically elected as compared to the attributes of traditional authorities. The project combines different methods, integrating results from behavioral tasks and surveys separately designed for leaders (democratic and traditional authorities) as well as citizens in 32 villages in rural Namibia. We designed the tasks of leaders to identify relevant attributes of leadership, such as the preference towards inclusive decision-making for groups or fair treatment of citizens irrespective to the social connections to the leaders.
The field work took place in 2014 between July and September which is Winter and dry-season, as this is the time when people have more free time and would be therefore more likely to be willing to participate in the study. Namibia introduced grassroot democratic institutions around 20 years ago, and in some parts of the country, such as the Ohangwena region where we did the study, traditional authorities and democratic leaders have local power over different topics affecting the daily lives of villagers. In each of the villages that are part of the study, both leader types agreed to participate in addition to 12 villagers.
Generally, the study relates to my interest in understanding local governance, following the Ostrom school of research on how to facilitate collective action. My colleague Björn Vollan, who at the time was also at the Univeristy of Innsbruck, and I were following during years the experience of the Conservancies in Namibia, as a promising example of local governance. This program is in short based on the devolution by the government of some property rights over wildlife to local peoples that need to self-organize to manage their wildlife. Given the previous work of Björn in Namibia he knew that in some regions democratically elected and traditional authorities had ruling power over different topics in single villages and he suggested to analyze leadership qualities in such setting. I liked the idea and we then started to design the project.
The implications of local democratization are a relevant topic and we combined different methods to create a global picture. We had local leaders make decisions with monetary implications for themselves and other villagers, assessed social preferences and personality traits of leaders and villagers, distributed surveys on the functioning of local governance, and used data from the Afrobarometer. We use the evidence from all these data sources to present our conclusions
The most important result in my view is that we did not find evidence that democratically elected leaders do better than traditional authorities in local governance, when the two coexist. The opinion of villagers of their leaders go as well in this direction, as does the evidence from the Afrobarometer.
One should not interpret from these results that efforts for local democratization are unnecessary or undesirable. We analyze a setting where both democratic and traditional authorities co-exist, and this co-existence could make both leader types to behave at higher standards. There are two relevant mechanisms behind our results: the democratic structures at the local level often operate below desired standards (for example, with non-secret votes) jointly with traditional authorities often operating above expected standards, being legitimate, accountable and popular among villagers. In any case, our results call for further research on how institutions, such as democracy, work in the field, after being adapted to the local context and culture.


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