Working Papers

What politicians don’t know can hurt you: The effects of information on politicians’ spending decisions (with Brigitte Seim). Manuscript Do well-informed politicians make more effective public spending decisions? In experiments with almost all (N=460) elected politicians in Malawi, we tested the effects of information on public spending by providing information about school needs, foreign aid and voting prior to real spending decisions. We show that this intervention reduced inequalities in public spending: treatment group politicians were 30% more likely to spend in schools neglected by donors, and 18% more likely to spend in schools at the highest quartile of need. Treatment effects were often greatest in remote and less populated communities. The effect of some treatments also increased when politicians were told that they were being observed by voters or donors, suggesting that greater transparency increases demand for accurate information. These results provide a novel explanation for inequalities in spending and imply social welfare benefits from improving politicians’ access to and demand for information about community needs.

How Transparency Affects Distributional Politics (with Brigitte Seim). Manuscript

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How does transparency affect distributional politics? We theorize that transparency conditions how elected officials choose among recipient communities, compelling them to engage in need-based targeting rather than political targeting. We present the results of a field experiment in which 333 incumbents in Malawi made a series of real choices about the allocation of development goods to schools in their constituency. Half of the incumbents were informed that letters about their allocation decisions would be sent to citizen oversight committees. On average, this transparency treatment has no effect. However, among incumbents who are knowledgeable about their constituencies, the transparency treatment caused incumbents to allocate goods to recipient school communities with greater economic need, and to allocate less to school communities in areas with political supporters. The results suggest that transparency can shift distributional decisions, but also highlight the contextual nature of these effects.

How Violence and Fraud Neutralize Information Effects on Turnout: A Field Experiment in Uganda (with Mark Buntaine, Daniel Nielson and Paula Pickering). Manuscript.

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Information about corruption should motivate voters to show up at the polls to “throw the bums out.” However, this effect presupposes that ballots remains secret and that voters face a low risk of violence at polling places. Yet in electoral autocracies the accountability relationship can break down, since showing up to vote in support of opposition candidates may place a voter at risk of government repercussions, especially if votes are not expected to be private. Where violence and privacy violations are anticipated, exposure to information about corruption may have little effect on turnout. We evaluate this theory using a large randomized­ controlled trial(n=16,083) conducted in Uganda for the 2016 district elections. We treated eligible voters with factual, non­partisan information about irregularities in the management of local government budgets using SMS messaging. We find that this information caused the expected turnout effects, but only in the absence of nearby electoral violence and for voters who had relatively high expectations that their votes would remain secret. These results imply that electoral violence and privacy violations are key impediments to voters’ seeking accountability from their elected officials at the polls and suggest that repressive tactics may be particularly useful for incumbents when corruption is rampant.

Distributing Development: The Politics of Who Benefits from Foreign Aid and Why. Book manuscript. Governments in many of the world’s poorest countries rely on foreign donors for providing basic services to their citizens, funding everything from ministry budgets all the way down to school and clinic construction materials. While much of this money helps the poor and promotes development, it unfortunately does so unequally, and often in ways that are not beneficial for the poorest in society. In this book, I ask why some citizens benefit more from foreign aid, particularly focusing on the political incentives and procedures that shape these distributional outcomes. Like others, I will conclude that sometimes aid sometimes benefits the rich, powerful and politically important; however, under the right conditions, aid also promotes development among the very poorest in society. I will show that the difference between these outcomes has a lot to do with the institutional and electoral incentives of public officials, and that donors can do a much better job to work within existing institutional structures to promote development among the poorest. To evaluate these claims, this book relies on a number of experiments, surveys and focus groups with voters, politicians and donors about how spending decisions are made. I also back up my claims using new data on the spatial distribution of development spending cross-nationally and sub-nationally.

How Foreign Aid Affects Election Outcomes. Manuscript.

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Foreign aid often appears to contribute to leader survival, corruption, patronage, and poor governance; yet we know little about when and why these effects occur. I propose a formal model to explain when governments are successful at using aid for political ends. The model illustrates the strategic interaction between governments interested in winning an upcoming election, and a donor interested in maximizing the effectiveness of an aid project. I show that the ability of donors to prevent the political capture of aid depends upon the policy objectives of the donor and the level of political competition in the recipient state. I confirm these propositions by evaluating the effect of aid spending on the outcome of all developing country elections from 1960 to 2011. To assess causation, I instrument for aid spending using regional aid shocks. The results confirm that aid has a positive effect on the probability an incumbent is re-elected, especially when donors have political interests in the recipient state.

Field Projects

Identifying and Deterring the Theft and Diversion of Medicinal Drugs Experiment in progress. Drug theft is one of the most common and lucrative forms of public corruption within the health sector of many developing countries. In addition to the growth-inhibiting and poverty-inducing effects that accompany corruption, drug theft slows the fight against preventable diseases like malaria and bacterial infection. In collaboration with the Ministry of Health in a low income developing country, we experimentally evaluate whether top-down audits and bottom-up community monitoring can reduce drug theft. Additionally, we introduce a novel measurement protocol that uses radio and GPS tracking devices to measure rates of theft at different levels of the medications supply chain. This allows us to move beyond existing studies of corruption that focus on changes in corruption levels to present evidence demonstrating how anti-corruption interventions displace corruption to other parts of the system. Our project directly builds on existing anti-corruption priorities among development stakeholders.

Understanding the Downstream Effects of Aid on Political Perceptions and Behavior. Experiment in progress.

Pre-Analysis Plan

This experiment is an evaluation of the political downstream effects of the allocation of foreign development project aid. In 2015, the we executed a field experiment examining the allocation of NGO-provisioned school aid by local councillors in Malawi (Jablonski and Zimmerman 2017). This earlier project resulted in the constrained and randomized allocation of school aid and provides us with a unique opportunity to evaluate the causal effects of aid on perceptions of government, voting, and beliefs about government and NGO performance. This study will also allow us to speak to one of the more hotly contested questions in the politics of aid: Do voters respond to donor-branded development goods by supporting the incumbent government? Or does the provision of such goods promote ambivalence or criticism about government capacity? This question remains contested in part, because of the challenges of studying aid and aid branding in a non-experimental setting, and the associated difficulties of attributing causation.

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