Book Project

Trading Favors: Local Politics and Development in Brazil

  • Why do some communities have access to essential services, such as water or health care, and neighboring communities do not?
  • How do citizens influence the distribution of public services?

I argue that communities can coordinate and trade their collective votes for preferential access to public services. This long-term relationship with politicians is a form of local distributive politics that I call “trading favors.” Neighborhood associations provide a platform for voters to increase their bargaining power towards politicians. I highlight that 1) high community activity and 2) strong, unified leadership can enable group members to coordinate their votes before an election and get the attention of politicians after the election to improve their access to public services.

Drawing on 18 months of fieldwork, I test my hypotheses in Northeast Brazil with an original household survey of 1,990 residents merged with precinct level electoral data and extensive qualitative interviews with 104 rural residents, leaders, and bureaucrats. I find that water access is most reliable and secure in communities with high community activity, strong social ties, and constant leadership. I find evidence for my main mechanism: organized communities are more likely to concentrate their votes, and bloc voting improves water access. I include a historical discussion of the origins of community organizing, qualitative case studies of neighboring rural communities, and quantitative analysis of long-term bloc voting patterns. In a book project, I will further analyze the origins of community organizing using archival data sources and test my hypotheses in urban areas using original household surveys.

My findings shed light on the important but poorly understood influence of collective action on local politics and development. The distributive politics literature tends to focus on decision-making by parties and politicians. My results demonstrate the agency of voters in organizing collectively to select and influence candidates that make distributive appeals, especially through neighborhood associations. I provide evidence that poor citizens bargain with their votes and can use bloc voting as a grassroots strategy for improving public service access. I also develop our understanding of local leaders, who often serve as development/vote brokers and intermediate access to the state.

I conducted fieldwork in 2016 and 2017 with funding from the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, the Columbia GSAS International Travel Fellowship, and the Columbia Dissertation Development Grant. The household survey was part of the EGAP Metaketa III field experiment.

I am affiliated with Fundação Getúlio Vargas (Rio de Janeiro, RJ) and Universidade Federal do Ceará (Fortaleza, CE).

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