Conflict and the Formation of Political Beliefs in Africa

Achyuta Adhvaryu, James Fenske


This study tests whether living through conflict in childhood changes political beliefs and engagement. It combines data on the location and intensity of conflicts since 1945 with nationally representative data on political attitudes and behaviours from 17 sub-Saharan African countries. Exposure from ages 0 to 14 has a very small standardized impact on later attitudes and behaviours. This finding is robust to migration and holds across a variety of definitions, specifications, and sources of data. The results suggest that at the population level in Africa, conflict does not alter political beliefs, though the most exposed subpopulations may experience large, lasting effects.

Key findings:

  • Exposure to conflict in childhood has negligible effects on a wide range of measures of political attitudes and activities. The results are robust to several alternative specifications. They are not due to problems with either the data on conflict exposure or political outcomes, nor can they be explained away by measurement error in conflict exposure. These results are consistent with other recent findings on the effects of conflict exposure on political outcomes; though these studies have found significant effects, these have been – with the exceptions of child soldiering and broader non-political psychological outcomes – quantitatively small.
  • This pattern of results is easily interpretable. First, anthropological work on survivor populations has underscored their remarkable resilience. Second, quantitative estimates suggest that whatever effects conflict actually have dissipated rapidly with age. Third, the measure of conflict exposure captures the average treatment effect over the entire population of children within the conflict zone. This differs from other measures that compare those children who have been most acutely affected to those that have been less treated, within the same conflict.
  • Although existing studies use data that is finely targeted to individuals, it is unlikely that deeply personal experiences such as child soldiering are representative of the average treatment effect on the whole population that experiences its childhood in a location affected by conflict. Similarly, existing measures make it difficult to compare the intensity of treatment across conflicts. Effectively, the greater external validity and representativeness of our measure comes at the cost of specificity.
  • This suggests that our study captures an intent-to-treat estimate, rather than a measure of the effect of treatment on the treated. Interpretation of the results, then, should be limited by this fact. Further, our measure of conflict intensity is one of deaths occurring in battle. It will only capture other traumatic experiences in conflict, such as rape and disease, in-so-far as these are correlated with the intensity of combat. We do not have data that would allow us to test for heterogeneous effects according to the outcome of a conflict.
  • Finally, not all African societies in our data are free and democratic. This dampens the variation in political participation that we are able to use for identification.Despite these limitations, our results are relevant to African development. Recent literature had stressed the persistence of conflict, especially in Africa (Besley and Reynal-Querol, 2012; Laitin and Fearon, 2012). This may be due to the persistence of the underlying causes of conflict, or to the effects of conflict on individuals and societies.
  • Further, conflict has persistent adverse effects on economic variables, including capital, investment, life, labour, human capital, intuitions, and social cohesion. Our results show that the political attitudes of children exposed to conflict do not explain the persistence of conflict. Neither do we find that children exposed to conflict are inspired to work towards improving their societies. Taken over the population as a whole, the effect of childhood experiences of conflict on African politics has been minor.


Adhvaryu, A. and Fenske, J. (2014). Conflict and the Formation of Political Beliefs in Africa. HiCN Working Paper No. 164. Brighton: IDS