While its recent history of civil war, chronic poverty and corrupt governance would cause many to
dismiss Sierra Leone as a hopeless case, the country's economic and political performance over the
last decade has defied expectations. We examine how several factors—including the legacy of war,
ethnic diversity, decentralization and community-driven development (CDD)—have shaped local
institutions and national political dynamics. The story that emerges is a nuanced one: war does not
necessarily destroy the capacity for local collective action; ethnicity affects residential choice, but
does not impede local public goods provision; while politics remain heavily ethnic, voters are willing
to cross ethnic boundaries when they have better information about candidates; decentralization can
work even where capacity is limited, although the results are mixed; and for all of its promise, CDD
does not appear to transform local institutions nor social norms. All of these findings are somewhat
“unexpected,” but they are quite positive in signaling that even one of the world’s poorest, most violent
and ethnically diverse societies can overcome major challenges and progress towards meaningful economic
and political development.