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Choose Your Own Adventure: Part II

What drives political apathy after a war?

Words: Sam Ratner

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

In last week’s Deep Dive, we looked at new research on how individuals make decisions in moments of peril, when the threat of political violence is literally at their doorstep. This week, we’ll look at how people make decisions about their political lives in the aftermath of conflict, and how the conflict shapes those decisions.

One of the many negative side effects of Liberia’s civil war, which ran from 1989 to 2003 with a three year pause in the late 1990s, was massive disruption to education. Many schools were destroyed in the fighting, and many children were forcibly recruited into the conflict. Even for those who escaped those fates, displacement levels were high and access to education was extremely limited. In a new article in the Journal of Peace Research, political scientist Shelley Liu aims to measure not just the extent of the educational interruption caused by the conflict but the effect the interruption had on the politics of the children who missed out on schooling due to the war.

We pay a great deal of attention to the effects of dramatic wartime traumas on individual and national psyches. Yet, the effects of dashed hope lost to the vagaries of violent political contestation can also be substantial.

In order to gauge the effect of lost schooling, Liu first had to figure out just how badly Liberia’s education system was disrupted by the war. Looking at overall education levels, census data showed that children who reached primary school age  in areas that had high education access before the war  attained about 15% more education than children who grew up in the conflict. This reflects a high level of disruption and makes clear that the educational struggles faced by children of the civil war era were in part the result of the conflict, not solely of pre-existing educational deficiencies in Liberia.

With the connection between the war and lost education established, Liu can move on to her core argument, which is that this loss of opportunity has left a generation less likely to engage in politics as adults. In her theory, it is not a lack of education that drives political apathy, but the lost opportunity for education. Liu hypothesized that people who were not able to attain skills necessary to compete in the postwar economy with those who grew up just before and after the fighting are likely  to have a high level of political cynicism.

The data bears out Liu’s hypothesis. The survey organization Afrobarometer asks respondents a number of questions about their political participation, and in Liberia, people in the generational cohort that had their education disrupted by the war report less participation than their near-peers on every measure. People in the war cohort were less likely to vote, less likely to attend political rallies, less likely to work for candidates, more likely to reject elections as a method for choosing leaders, and less interested in public affairs than their near-peers.

One could argue that the war cohort, coming up in a time of political contestation, might reject post-war democracy because they don’t understand it. Yet, Liu demonstrates that this is not the case at all. Respondents in the cohort knew just as much as other Liberians about the structure of the Liberian political system, and though they demonstrated slightly less trust in it than others, they were largely in agreement with their compatriots that the electoral system functioned effectively.

Liu argues that the disconnect, therefore, comes not from ignorance but from cynicism. Liu found evidence of the cynical view of government in her interviews with both war cohort Liberians and Liberian government officials. People from the war cohort reported facing near-insurmountable financial challenges as a result of their lack of education. Indeed, Liu’s data analysis bears those reports out — people in the cohort are much less likely to be employed than those outside of it. When asked about potential political remedies for the situation, one cohort member told Liu, “we strongly believe that most politicians when they get into state power, they will not look back” and help those who were left behind by the war. Indeed, that appears to be an accurate description of at least some in government. One frustrated official told Liu, “There are thousands of Liberians here saying, ‘there’s no jobs.’ And I say, ‘well what can you do?’ And then his response is ‘anything.’ Hm. Have you ever read a vacancy for ‘anything’?”

We pay a great deal of attention to the effects of dramatic wartime traumas on individual and national psyches. Yet, the effects of dashed hope lost to the vagaries of violent political contestation can also be substantial. As Liu demonstrates, a government’s unwillingness to address the needs of all those left behind by conflict can lead those who feel abandoned to make decisions that shape the postwar political landscape.

Sam Ratner


Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers southeast African security issues, and a founding editor of Fellow Travelers Blog. He earned his MPA in international security policy from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He tweets at @samratner.


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