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Social structures, political accountability, and effective public goods provision

Project summary

Focus of the study

This project explores the extent to which age sets, a traditional social structure in many African societies, can be leveraged to improve local oversight, governance, and the provision of public goods. Age sets are initiation rituals that create cohesive groups of men of approximately the same age. A long-hypothesized consequence of this custom is that the younger age sets in a village, because of their cohesion and allegiance to each other, provide a check on the balance of the village elite, including the chief. We are interested in whether programs that provide public goods are better managed by the village elite when age sets are present. We are also interested in whether public goods provision can be improved if programs are adapted to account for the presence of age sets in a village.

Broader motivation for the research

A defining characteristic of many African societies is the presence of age sets, which form the foundation of traditional social and political organization. In age set societies, politics is structured horizontally through groups of men of approximately the same age, who have been initiated into an age set. One consequence of this social structure, which is well recognized in the anthropological literature, is that the presence of age sets puts natural checks on the powers of the political elite in society. The fact that the system creates a cohesive group of young men that belong to the same age set provides a force that checks the power of the elite, who are a group of elders belonging to a more senior age set.

Given the nature of age sets, we hypothesize that their presence in a society may make the implementation of public programs more effective. It is possible that age sets, by creating a cohesive group of young men that counterbalance the power of the elders who hold political positions, provide a check on the ability of leaders to engage in corruption and theft. A second important policy-related question is whether programs can be made more effective by taking into account the specific political and social structure of a society. In the case of age sets, local monitoring may be more successful if oversight committees are comprised of young men from the same age set. Because this group is cohesive, and their interests are not aligned with the political elite, they may provide a better check on the power of the village elite than a more diverse committee.

Research team

  • Nathan Nunn, Harvard University
  • James Robinson, University of Chicago
  • Sara Lowes, Bocconi University
  • Eduardo Montero, University of Michigan


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