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?

Job Market Paper: Theory Chapter and Main Empirical Chapter

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.” 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. It often overlooks the agency of voters in organizing collectively to select and influence candidates that make distributive appeals, especially through neighborhood associations, civil society organizations, and interest groups.

In brief, I argue that neighborhood associations provide a platform for voters to increase their bargaining power towards politicians. I highlight the ways that 1) high community activity and 2) strong, unified leadership can enable a group to coordinate its vote 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 in Northeast Brazil, I test my hypotheses 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 concentrated, bloc voting is more likely in groups with high community activity and strong leadership. In particular, the presence of unified opinion leaders, local elites, and resident politicians is most important. I also find that water access is most reliable and secure in communities with concentrated voting, high community activity, and constant leadership. In particular, strong social ties and eager participation in the association are most important.

I expand on the mechanisms through qualitative case studies of neighboring rural communities and quantitative analysis of long-term bloc voting patterns using precinct-level electoral results in Ceará. In a book project, I will test my hypotheses in urban areas and states with different capacity to provide public services.

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).