Benjamin Lessing, Christopher Blattman, Gustavo Duncan, Santiago Tobón

State-building on the Margin: An Urban Experiment in Medellín

Medellín’s government wanted to raise its efficacy, legitimacy, and control. The city identified 80 neighborhoods with weak state presence and competing armed actors. In half, they increased non-police street presence tenfold for two years, offering social services and dispute resolution. In places where the state was initially weakest, the intervention did not work, mainly because the government struggled to deliver on its promises. Where the state began stronger, the government raised opinions of its services and legitimacy. If there are indeed low marginal returns to investing in capacity in the least-governed areas, this could produce increasing returns to state-building.

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The University of Chicago