Contact and Commitment to Development: Evidence from Quasi-random Missionary Assignments

August 21, 2020

Public support for global development in rich countries is critical for sustaining effective government and individual action. But the causes of public support are not well understood. Does spending time living in a developing country play a role in generating individual commitment to development? Addressing this question is fraught with selection bias, as individuals are rarely exogenously assigned to spend time in different countries. In this paper I address this question using a natural experiment—the quasi-random assignment of missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to two-year missions in different world regions. I provide the first causal estimates of the effect of travel to a developing country on attitudes to global development. Data comes from a new survey gathered through mission alumni Facebook groups. Missionaries assigned to low-income and middle-income world regions (Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean) have similar prior characteristics to those assigned to high-income Europe. Those assigned to Africa self-report greater interest in global development and greater charitable attitudes and behaviours. However they also express stronger opposition to immigration from poor countries, and are less likely to be involved in political campaigns to address global development. Spending time in lower-income countries may lead to greater support for charity but less support for political change.

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