Dissertation Project

Allocating Essential Public Services: Collective Action and Local Politics in Brazil

What explains variation in access to essential public services?

Consider this scenario: A mayor has one water pump that he can distribute to one of three poor neighborhoods, each of which has a well with a broken pump that citizens cannot afford to fix. The first neighborhood arguably has the greatest need because it has more residents and they must travel farthest for water. The second neighborhood has political connections to the mayor or city council members. The third neighborhood has an active community association that might protest if ignored. How does the mayor distribute the pump? How do communities advocate for themselves?

My dissertation explains why even similarly poor communities have very different access to basic and scarce resources. Many essential services, such as water supply systems and health clinics in rural areas, are club goods that are shared within a community. Most communities are organized in community associations, but some of these associations appear to be more successful than others in compelling the government to improve their services.

I draw on two otherwise distinct literatures – distributive politics and collective action – and argue that the complex relationship between community members, association leaders, and local politicians can explain observed differences in access to public services. I study the political, economic, and social incentives of these groups and the ways in which their interests interact to produce critical policy decisions.

My dissertation explains variation in sub-municipal public and club goods, focused on access to drinking water and healthcare services. I conduct research in the state of Ceará in drought-prone Northeast Brazil using a variety of methods:

  • Original household surveys (n=499) with local citizens and association leaders in 100 communities across 8 municipalities before the mayoral election in October 2016. A follow-up survey to create a panel dataset is planned for October 2018.
  • Quantitative spatial analysis to compare the geo-coded survey responses with data on local electoral results and the timing and location of investment in public goods.
  • In-depth semi-structured interviews conducted with bureaucrats in the state capital and with local citizens, association leaders, and local politicians in municipalities throughout the state.

My 2017 fieldwork is funded by a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship. I am affiliated with Fundação Getúlio Vargas (Rio de Janeiro, RJ) and Universidade Federal do Ceará (Fortaleza, CE).

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