Recent Study Shows Why Unbiased Third-Party Intervention Is Effective in Resolving Civil Conflict

Summary of:

Nomikos, W. (2020). Peacekeeping and the Enforcement of Intergroup Cooperation: Evidence from Mali (ESOC Working Paper No. 20). Empirical Studies of Conflict Project. http://esoc.princeton.edu/wp20. Read here.

Background & Theory

There is a lot of evidence available which suggests that peacekeeping is effective, but little is known about why it works. This study focuses on the researcher designing an experiment to see how the presence of peacekeepers makes individuals from communities with ongoing conflict more optimistic about the risks of engagement with out-groups, and the likelihood that members of out-groups will reciprocate cooperation if they extend the olive branch.

Research Question(s)

Researcher William G. Nomikos broadly answers the question “What makes peacekeepers effective?”. He constructs four questions to answer this umbrella question:

  1. Do peacekeepers increase individuals’ willingness to cooperate with members of other groups?
  2. Do peacekeepers from the UN increase individuals’ willingness to cooperate with members of other groups more than peacekeepers from single countries?
  3. Do peacekeepers increase the willingness to cooperate with members of other groups more among individuals with low levels of trust than those with high levels of trust?
  4. Do peacekeepers increase the willingness to cooperate with members of other groups more among individuals with whom they have frequent contact than those with whom they have infrequent contact?

Methods

A lab-in-the-field experiment was conducted in Mali, a West African country with ongoing communal conflicts managed by troops from the UN and France. The causal effect of peacekeeping was identified using observational data.

To measure willingness to cooperate, the author recruited participants to play a trust game in which they were told to send money to an anonymous partner from a different ethnic group. They randomly assigned participants to a control group or one of two treatment groups in which they are told that two patrolling officers from either the UN or France will punish any low partner contributions with a fine. To identify the effect of peacekeeping, they compare the amount participants sent in the control group versus the two treatment groups.

Results

On the first question of whether peacekeepers increase individuals’ willingness to cooperate with members of other groups, the study found that they do indeed, though this effect is localized to the UN treatment. Participants assigned to the France treatment did not contribute as big a sum as the UN treatment group did.

Regarding the second hypothesis which predicted that UN peacekeeping would be more effective than peacekeeping by a single state, the results were significant, but with two caveats. First, actual contributions across groups are higher than theorized, likely due to altruistic preferences not explicitly modeled. Second, France’s treatment does not increase contributions relative to control. This lack of difference, along with the substantial difference between France and the UN, suggests that participants thought the peacekeepers would fine a relatively large range of contributions.

Across all groups, the UN treatment increases willingness to cooperate for individuals with low trust but not for individuals with high trust.

As for the fourth question, the magnitude of the UN treatment effect does not appear to be correlated with individual contact with UN peacekeepers. Individuals in frequent contact with the UN sent less on average to Tuareg partners in the control group, suggesting that those with more contact with the UN peacekeepers who were also going to be fined by UN peacekeepers behaved more cooperatively.

How This Translates for the Workplace:

  • This study shows that third party mediation is definitely effective since the UN had the most significant effects on cooperative behavior. This perception of the UN forces as unbiased can be analogous to when the HR or management of an organization intervenes in conflict, employees may be more resistant to their efforts because they are already within the organization and can seem biased (like French peacekeeping troops) due to their familiarity with the conflicting parties. Whereas, if an external organization offers mediation services, employees may be more conducive to the help received. The presence of a third party can enable parties to trust the other group or person more to cooperate and reduce the risk of engagement. It becomes a safer space to extend the olive branch as it reduces the fear of rejection.
  • The author reiterates that unbiased peacekeepers convince individuals to cooperate through a credible commitment to punish any potential party that transgresses in a social interaction. In this experiment, subjects were going to be directly penalized for low contribution to the outgroup. But in workplace mediation, mediators can rarely penalize their clients for not cooperating. The costs of conflict are high, but the cost of not cooperating and taking personal responsibility is something that clients don’t immediately realize. Hence, in order to nudge clients to cooperate with another, their accountability quotient needs to be raised. This can be done via an agreement beforehand where clients promise to do their best to resolve the conflict, or using other creative methods.