How can political trust be built after civil wars? Evidence from post-conflict Sierra Leone

AuthorPui-Hang Wong
Published date01 November 2016
Date01 November 2016
Subject MatterResearch Articles
How can political trust be built after civil wars?
Evidence from post-conflict Sierra Leone
Pui-Hang Wong
Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, Maastricht University & UNU-MERIT
As a fundamental concept in peace research, trust, or the lack of it, has shown to be associated with the onset of
violent conflict, the instability of negotiated settlement, and the sustainability of peace. Despite its proven impor-
tance, the question of how political trust can be built after civil conflicts has only received limited attention and
remains unanswered. While previous studies demonstrated that improved provision of public services plays a
significant role in a trust-building process, the present article shows a more nuanced picture, namely that service
enhancement only works if it reflects the needs of people. Projects that do not properly mirror the needs of people,
however, have no direct effect on building political trust. Using micro-level data from Sierra Leone, the article finds
that people are more likely to trust governments that are willing to listen and respond to their needs and demands.
Though government performance carries the previously hypothesized effect, its explanatory power reduces substan-
tively once responsiveness is introduced into the analysis. This finding also holds when potential biases due to
endogeneity and sample selection are considered. Results from a mediation analysis also indicate that if government
performance has any effect, it is transmitted through the responsiveness mechanism. Overall, this article contributes
to the literature by clarifying the mechanism of trust-building in post-conflict societies.
decentralization, political trust, public goods, Sierra Leone
Many scholars have argued that in developed countries
government performance is one of the major determi-
nants of trust in government (Hetherington, 1998; Levi,
Sacks & Tyler, 2009; Rothstein, 2009). They reasoned
that satisfactory performance renders government
legitimacy, which in turn enhances government’s trust-
worthiness. This relationship, however, may not hold in
post-conflict states for two reasons. Firstly, for these
countries high levels of political legitimacy, stability, and
state capacity are usually out of their reach. Secondly,
due to the war experiences, critical security situation, and
economic hardship, people living in post-conflict coun-
tries are likely to have different preferences and priorities
than those living in stable democracies. For these rea-
sons, it remains to be seen to what extent the relationship
between government performance and trust in the gov-
ernment can be generalized to post-conflict societies.
Existing studies in post-conflict states commonly
found that exposure to violence is a strong determinant
of social trust (e.g. Cassar, Grosjean & Whitt, 2013;
Cuesta & Alda, 2012; De Luca & Verpoorten, 2011;
Rohner, Thoenig & Zilibotti, 2013), yet there is only a
handful of studies devoted to the topic of trust in gov-
ernment (Askvik, Jamil & Dhakal, 2010; Hutchison &
Johnson, 2011; Sacks & Larizza, 2012; Stoyan et al.,
2016). The latter set of studies found that satisfaction
with government services is a strong predictor of trust in
government, a finding consistent with studies in devel-
oped countries (e.g. Hetherington, 1998).
This article shows that demonstration of concern by
governments is an important but overlooked factor that
mediates the relationship between government
Corresponding author:
Journal of Peace Research
2016, Vol. 53(6) 772–785
ªThe Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0022343316659334

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