political economy

[16] The Effect of Sustained Transparency on Electoral Accountability. (with Kristin Michelitch, Carlo Prato)
American Journal of Political Science, 2022, forthcoming. drawing drawing drawing

Abstract Transparency is expected to strengthen electoral accountability. Yet, initiatives disseminating politician performance information directly prior to elections have reported disappointing results. We argue that to be effective transparency needs to be sustained: the dissemination of politician performance information needs to occur early, regularly, and predictably throughout the term. Using a formal model of electoral accountability under non-programmatic and uneven party competition, we study how sustained transparency impacts a string of decisions by various actors in advance of elections: incumbents' running choices, party nomination strategies, and potential challengers' entry decisions. We show how these effects shape the candidate slate and ultimately electoral outcomes, conditional on incumbent performance and the incumbent party's relative strength. We test our theory using a field experiment involving 354 subnational constituencies in Uganda, and find robust support to the idea that sustained transparency can improve electoral accountability even in weakly institutionalized electoral settings.


[15] How the Ultra-Rich Use Media Ownership as a Political Investment. (with Yotam Margalit, Tamar Mitts)
Journal of Politics, 2022, forthcoming. drawing drawing drawing drawing

Abstract Can the ultra-rich shape electoral results by controlling media outlets that openly propagate their political interests? How consumers discount slanted media coverage is a question gaining urgency as a growing number of billionaires mix ownership of major media outlets with business interests and political agendas. We study this question in the context of Israel, where billionaire Sheldon Adelson launched in 2007 Israel Hayom, a right-leaning newspaper. Handed out for free, it soon became the most widely read newspaper nationally. Utilizing local media exposure data since the launch, our analysis indicates that the newspaper exerted significant electoral influence, primarily benefiting Netanyahu and his Likud party. This shift helped bring about a sea-change in the right’s dominance of national politics. The findings highlight the immense impact the ultra-rich can exert in shaping politics through media ownership.


[14] Government Responsiveness in Developing Countries. (with Tara Slough)
Annual Review of Political Science, 2022, 25: pp.131-153. drawing drawing

Abstract When and how do governments deliver public goods and services in response to citizen preferences? We review the current literature on government responsiveness, with a focus on public goods and service delivery in developing countries. We identify three types of actors that are commonly present in these accounts: politicians, bureaucrats, and citizens. Much of this literature examines interactions between dyads of these actors. The study of electoral accountability and constituency services emphasizes relationships between citizens (or voters) and politicians. Studies of bureaucratic incentives and political oversight of bureaucrats emphasize interactions between politicians and bureaucrats. Finally, studies of bureaucratic embeddedness and citizen oversight of bureaucrats elaborate the interactions between bureaucrats and citizens. We argue that an emerging literature that considers interactions between all three types of actors provides rich theoretical and empirical terrain for developing our understanding of responsiveness and accountability in low- and middle-income countries and beyond.


[13] Who Registers? Village Networks, Household Dynamics, and Voter Registration in Rural Uganda. (with Romain Ferrali, Melina R. Platas, Jonathan Rodden)
Comparative Political Studies, 2022, 55(6): pp.899-932. drawing drawing drawing

Abstract Who registers to vote? Although extensive research has examined the question of who votes, our understanding of the determinants of political participation will be limited until we know who is missing from the voter register. Studying voter registration in lower-income settings is particularly challenging due to data constraints. We link the official voter register with a complete social network census of 16 villages to analyze the correlates of voter registration in rural Uganda, examining the role of individual-level attributes and social ties. We find evidence that social ties are important for explaining registration status within and across households. Village leaders—and through them, household heads—play an important role in explaining the registration status of others in the village, suggesting a diffuse process of social influence. Socioeconomic factors such as income and education do not explain registration in this setting. Together these findings suggest an alternate theory of participation is required.


[12] Public Trust, Policing, and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Evidence from an Electoral Authoritarian Regime.(with Rob Blair, Travis Curtice, David Dow)
Social Science and Medicine, 2022, 305: 115045. drawing drawing drawing drawing drawing

Abstract We examine how trust shapes compliance with public health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda. We use an endorsement experiment embedded in a mobile phone survey to show that messages from government officials generate more support for public health restrictions than messages from religious authorities, traditional leaders, or international NGOs. We further show that compliance with these restrictions is strongly positively corre- lated with trust in government, but only weakly correlated with trust in local authorities or other citizens. The relationship between trust and compliance is especially strong for the Ministry of Health and — more surprisingly — the police. We conclude that trust is crucial for encouraging compliance but note that it may be difficult to change, particularly in settings where governments and police forces have reputations for repression.


[11] Viral Voting: Social Networks and Political Participation. (with Nicholas Eubank, Melina R. Platas, Jonathan Rodden)
Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 2021, 16(3): pp. 265-284. drawing drawing drawing

Abstract Social context theory suggests that an important driver of political participation is the behavior of family, friends, co-workers and neighbors. How do social ties between individuals shape equilibrium behavior in larger populations? Despite theoretical inroads into this question, direct empirical tests remain scarce due to data limitations. We fill this gap using full social network data from 15 villages in rural Uganda, where village-level turnout is the outcome of interest. We find that levels of participation predicted by structural features of village networks are strongly associated with actual village-level turnout in low-salience local elections, and weakly associated in high-salience presidential elections. We also find that these features predict other forms of political participation, including attending village meetings and contributing to village projects. In addition to demonstrating that networks help explain political participation, we provide evidence that the mechanism of influence is that proposed by social context theory rather than alternative mechanisms like the presence of central brokers or the ability of networks to diffuse information.


[10] Political partisanship influences behavioral responses to governors’ recommendations for COVID-19 prevention in the United States. (with Soojong Kim, Jonah M. Rexer, Harsha Thirumurthy)
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2020, 117(39): pp. 24144-24153. drawing drawing drawing drawing

Abstract Voluntary physical distancing is essential for preventing the spread of COVID-19. We assessed the role of political partisanship in individuals’ compliance with physical distancing recommendations of political leaders using data on mobility from a sample of mobile phones in 3,100 counties in the United States during March 2020, county-level partisan preferences, information about the political affiliation of state governors, and the timing of their communications about COVID-19 prevention. Regression analyses examined how political preferences influenced the association between governors’ COVID-19 communications and residents’ mobility patterns. Governors’ recommendations for residents to stay at home preceded stay-at-home orders and led to a significant reduction in mobility that was comparable to the effect of the orders themselves. Effects were larger in Democratic- than in Republican-leaning counties, a pattern more pronounced under Republican governors. Democratic-leaning counties also responded more strongly to recommendations from Republican than from Democratic governors. Political partisanship influences citizens’ decisions to voluntarily engage in physical distancing in response to communications by their governor.


[9] Voter information campaigns and political accountability: Cumulative findings from a preregistered meta-analysis of coordinated trials. (with Thad Dunning, et al.)
Science Advances, 2019, 5(7): pp. 1188-1192. drawing drawing drawing drawing drawing

Abstract Voters may be unable to hold politicians to account if they lack basic information about their representatives’ performance. Civil society groups and international donors therefore advocate using voter information campaigns to improve democratic accountability. Yet, are these campaigns effective? Limited replication, measurement heterogeneity, and publication biases may undermine the reliability of published research. We implemented a new approach to cumulative learning, coordinating the design of seven randomized controlled trials to be fielded in six countries by independent research teams. Uncommon for multisite trials in the social sciences, we jointly preregistered a meta-analysis of results in advance of seeing the data. We find no evidence overall that typical, nonpartisan voter information campaigns shape voter behavior, although exploratory and subgroup analyses suggest conditions under which informational campaigns could be more effective. Such null estimated effects are too seldom published, yet they can be critical for scientific progress and cumulative, policy-relevant learning.


[8] Leadership Selection Rules and Decentralized Governance.
Decentralized Governance and Accountability: Academic Research and the Future of Donor Programming, eds. Erik Wibbles and Jonathan Rodden, 2019, chapter 3: pp. 40-60. drawing drawing


[7] Information Dissemination, Competitive Pressure, and Politician Performance between Elections: A Field Experiment in Uganda. (with Kristin Michelitch)
American Political Science Review, 2018, 112(2): pp. 280-301. drawing drawing drawing drawing drawing

Abstract Politicians shirk when their performance is obscure to constituents. We theorize that when politician performance information is disseminated early in the electoral term, politicians will subsequently improve their performance in anticipation of changes in citizens’ evaluative criteria and possible challenger entry in the next election. However, politicians may only respond in constituencies where opposition has previously mounted. We test these predictions in partnership with a Ugandan civil society organization in a multiyear field experiment conducted in 20 district governments between the 2011 and 2016 elections. While the organization published yearly job duty performance scorecards for all incumbents, it disseminated the scorecards to constituents for randomly selected politicians. These dissemination efforts induced politicians to improve performance across a range of measures, but only in competitive constituencies. Service delivery was unaffected. We conclude that, conditional on electoral pressure, transparency can improve politicians’ performance between elections but not outcomes outside of their control.


[6] Deliberate Disengagement: How Education Can Decrease Political Participation in Electoral Authoritarian Regimes. (with Keven Croke, Horacio A. Larreguy, John Marshall)
American Political Science Review, 2016, 110(3): pp. 579-600. drawing drawing drawing drawing

Abstract A large literature examining advanced and consolidating democracies suggests that education increases political participation. However, in electoral authoritarian regimes, educated voters may instead deliberately disengage. If education increases critical capacities, political awareness, and support for democracy, educated citizens may believe that participation is futile or legitimizes autocrats. We test this argument in Zimbabwe—a paradigmatic electoral authoritarian regime—by exploiting cross-cohort variation in access to education following a major educational reform. We find that education decreases political participation, substantially reducing the likelihood that better-educated citizens vote, contact politicians, or attend community meetings. Consistent with deliberate disengagement, education’s negative effect on participation dissipated following 2008’s more competitive election, which (temporarily) initiated unprecedented power sharing. Supporting the mechanisms underpinning our hypothesis, educated citizens experience better economic outcomes, are more interested in politics, and are more supportive of democracy, but are also more likely to criticize the government and support opposition parties.


[5] Using Experiments to Study Political Institutions. (with Laura Paler)
Handbook of Comparative Political Institutions, eds. Jennifer Gandhi and Rubén Ruiz-Rufino, 2015, Routledge: pp. 84-97. drawing drawing


[4] Do better monitoring institutions increase leadership quality in community organizations? Evidence from Uganda. (with W. Walker Hanlon)
American Journal of Political Science, Year, 58(3): pp. 669–686. drawing drawing drawing drawing

Abstract We offer a framework for analyzing the impact of monitoring—a commonly recommended solution to poor leadership—on the quality of democratically elected leaders in community organizations in low-income countries. In our model, groups may face a trade-off between leader ability and effort. If the group's ability to monitor the leader is low, then the leader may exert too little effort. A higher level of monitoring increases leader effort, raising the value of the public good. However, more intense monitoring may also drive higher-ability members to opt out of candidacy, reducing public-goods value. The result is an inverted U-shaped relationship between the level of monitoring and the value of the public good. The trade-off between leader effort and ability, however, only exists in the presence of sufficient private-income opportunities. These predictions are assessed using original data gathered from Ugandan farmer associations.


[3] Do Selection Rules Affect Leader Responsiveness? Evidence from Rural Uganda.
Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 2014, 9(1): pp. 1-44 lead article. drawing drawing drawing drawing

Abstract Community organizations in developing countries often suffer from selfserving elites. This study examines whether the responsiveness and accountability of local leaders can be strengthened through the introduction of more inclusive and participatory leader selection rules. To address identification problems, I take advantage of natural conditions that resulted in exogenous variation in the rules for selecting leaders of farmer associations in Uganda. I find that compared to leaders appointed by the community elites, directly elected leaders are significantly more responsive to group members, leading to greater cooperative behavior. Analyzing possible mechanisms, I find that community organizations using appointments are less likely to develop monitoring institutions that are vital for constraining the behavior of local elites. Unique social network data provides evidence that close friendship ties between appointed and appointers substitute for formal monitoring institutions, leading to loss of confidence by community members and, subsequently, to a decline in public goods contributions.


[2] The Impact of Elections on Cooperation: Evidence from a Lab-in-the-Field Experiment in Uganda. (with Delia Baldassarri)
American Journal of Political Science, 2012, 56(4): pp. 964-985. drawing drawing drawing drawing

Abstract Communities often rely on sanctioning to induce public goods contributions. Past studies focus on how external agencies or peer sanctioning induce cooperation. In this article, we focus instead on the role played by centralized authorities, internal to the community. Combining "lab-in-the-field" experiments with observational data on 1,541 Ugandan farmers from 50 communities, we demonstrate the positive effect of internal centralized sanctioning authorities on cooperative behavior. We also show that the size of this effect depends on the political process by which authority is granted: subjects electing leaders contribute more to public goods than subjects who were assigned leaders through a lottery. To test the ecological validity of our findings, we relate farmers’ behavior in the experiment to their level of cooperation in their community organization. We show that deference to authority in the controlled setting predicts cooperative behavior in the farmers’ natural environment, in which they face a similar social dilemma.


[1] Centralized Sanctioning and Legitimate Authority Promote Cooperation in Humans. (with Delia Baldassarri)
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Year, 27(108): pp. 11023–11027. drawing drawing drawing

Abstract Social sanctioning is widely considered a successful strategy to promote cooperation among humans. In situations in which individual and collective interests are at odds, incentives to free-ride induce individuals to refrain from contributing to public goods provision. Experimental evidence from public goods games shows that when endowed with sanctioning powers, conditional cooperators can discipline defectors, thus leading to greater levels of cooperation. However, extant evidence is based on peer punishment institutions, whereas in complex societies, systems of control are often centralized: for instance, we do not sanction our neighbors for driving too fast, the police do. Here we show the effect of centralized sanctioning and legitimate authority on cooperation. We designed an adaptation of the public goods game in which sanctioning power is given to a single monitor, and we experimentally manipulated the process by which the monitor is chosen. To increase the external validity of the study, we conducted lab-in-the-field experiments involving 1,543 Ugandan farmers from 50 producer cooperatives. This research provides evidence of the effectiveness of centralized sanctioning and demonstrates the causal effect of legitimacy on cooperation: participants are more responsive to the authority of an elected monitor than a randomly chosen monitor. Our essay contributes to the literature on the evolution of cooperation by introducing the idea of role differentiation. In complex societies, cooperative behavior is not only sustained by mechanisms of selection and reciprocity among peers, but also by the legitimacy that certain actors derive from their position in the social hierarchy.