Trading Favors: Local Politics and Development in Brazil

  • What explains variation in access to essential public services?
  • How do voters organize collectively to influence the distribution of public services?

Groups of voters organize and participate in local distributive politics to trade their collective votes, a long-term relationship known as trading favors or “troca de favores” in Brazil. I focus on the voters’ perspective and argue that the combination of distributive politics and collective action can better explain variation in access to public services, especially club goods.

This dissertation seeks to understand how organized groups participate in local distributive politics and trade their collective votes. In brief, I argue that local residents’ associations provide a platform for voters to increase their bargaining power towards politicians. Specifically, I highlight the ways that strong involvement of community members and local leaders can enable a group to coordinate its vote before an election and get attention and pressure politicians after the election.

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 with local citizens and association leaders in September 2016 (n=499, before 2016 mayoral election) and June-September 2017 (n=1990). Follow-up surveys are planned for 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.

I conducted fieldwork for 18 months in 2016 and 2017 funded by the Columbia GSAS International Travel Fellowship and the 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).