Press Release – Does development aid undermine political accountability?

Politicians in developing countries may leverage goodwill from a development program into increased voter support when there is uncertainty about their role in procuring the program—even when they had no role or influence. However, when voters have access to reliable information about the source of the program, it is difficult for politicians to claim credit.

Research presented by Mushfiq Mobarak (Yale University) at the International Growth Centre’s South Asia Growth Conference 2013 argues that intensive information campaigns that highlight development needs in a community increase political accountability, as informed constituents become more likely to hold leaders accountable to deliver on their responsibilities.

Background

These conclusions are based on a large-scale randomized controlled trial (RCT) evaluating the effects of the provision of sanitation information, and subsidies to low income communities in rural Bangladesh. This collaborative program was designed and evaluated by researchers based at Yale University and Maryland, non-governmental organizations Wateraid and VERC, and the research organization Innovations for Poverty Action.

Key findings

  • Politicians were significantly more likely to visit villages that received the subsidy program, taking advantage of the lack of transparency to attempt to associate themselves with the program.
  • In the face of uncertainty about the leader’s role in bringing the lottery program to the village, and observing this extra effort, constituents were more likely to report satisfaction with their leader’s performance in providing sanitation services.
  • There was no added satisfaction with politician performance associated with having won the subsidy, as it was obvious that he had no role in the outcome.

Policy implications

These interactions generate two positive outcomes. First, as politicians visit subsidy villages more often, residents get a chance to discuss their needs with their leader. In response, the leader compensates households that did not win the lottery. Second, the intensive sanitation information campaign created greater political accountability as constituents became more informed about their sanitation needs and the responsibilities of community leaders.

Some scholars have argued that development aid can undermine local political accountability, and prevent systematic institutional failures from getting addressed. Our results support a more nuanced conclusion: if development aid is accompanied by transparency in allocation, it is not easy for local leaders to take advantage and generate political support, and political accountability may even increase if information campaigns make voters more sophisticated about their needs or their leaders’ responsibilities.

Research aim

The aim of this research was to understand the role of development aid in the accountability of local politicians.

Research method

The program and data collection covered an entire sub-district consisting of 18,000 households. Villages were randomly allocated into three groups. One group received information about the importance of sanitation; another group received both information and a public lottery in which households could win subsidies for latrine construction; the third group received no intervention or information.

To households, their local leader’s involvement in the existence of the subsidy program or its allocation to their village may have been unclear. In contrast, the actual lottery outcome for a specific household, leading to the subsidized provision of a latrine, was clearly and transparently a public, randomized process completely outside the politician’s control.

Researcher

Mushfiq Mobarak is Associate Professor of Economics at the Yale School of Management and Lead Academic for IGC-Bangladesh. He is a development economist with interests in public finance (environmental and political economy) issues. He joined the Yale School of Management faculty in 2007 with previous work experience at the World Bank, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and at the International Monetary Fund.

 

This statement was issued at the South Asia Growth Conference 2013, held in New Delhi, India.