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The Sources of Non-discretionary Distributive Politics in Africa


Since the early 2000s, more and more governments in the developing world have introduced programs to transfer cash and deliver complementary public services directly to citizens using purely economic and other technical criteria. A number of careful studies on some of these programs show that political criteria play no role in predicting who does and does not receive benefits. Some scholars suggest that the rising popularity of non-discretionary distribution of public resources by politicians in some developing countries is indicative of a potential decline of clientelism in those countries. That political support for non-discretionary forms of resource distribution is growing and clientelism may be declining in the developing world is welcome news. But these emerging patterns of public resource distribution by politicians raise important questions. In this dissertation, I develop a theory to explain why politicians would design policies and allocate valued benefits to voters in ways that reduce or eliminate their own discretion. I argue that non-discretionary distributive strategies enable incumbent politicians to build electoral support and thus enhancing their chances of reelection in two ways: first, these strategies enable incumbents to extend benefits to voters outside their circle of loyal voters, potentially broadening their electoral support among those voters. Second, non-discretionary distributive strategies help to reduce the risk of offending and potentially alienating some of their loyal voters. This concern is particularly salient in Africa where access to state resources influences electoral behavior. I test this theory with audit and survey data collected in Ghana. I show that the patterns of resource allocation strategies by politicians and the electoral behavior of voters are best explained by the argument presented in this project.

Chapter 2 lays out the main argument and identifies a number of empirical implications. I contrast these implications with those of existing theories of clientelism and those on the effects of economic development on bureaucratic reforms. Chapter 2 concludes with preliminary evidence on the impact of public benefits on voting behavior in Ghana using the 2012 Afrobarometer survey. The results show that voters who benefit from a government healthcare program are more likely to vote for the party in government. This effect is driven largely by voters not affiliated to any party.

Chapter 3 tests one of the main implications of my argument: that when incumbents are concerned about their chances of reelection they would be more likely to favor non-discretionary forms of resource distribution in swing areas. I use data from a nationwide assessment of all local governments in Ghana on their compliance with budget allocation rules to test this prediction. The results show that local governments in districts with a swing history score significantly higher on their compliance with budget implementation rules than those without a swing history. Moreover, the magnitude of swing reinforces this effect: compliance with budget implementation rules is significantly higher in those districts where the size of the swing is larger.

Chapter 4 analyzes survey data to show how the electoral behavior of voters varies with politicians' resource distribution strategies. I show that voters, particularly swing voters, are significantly more likely to vote for incumbent politicians if they believe that the allocation of public resources by these politicians is fair, that is, non-discretionary. The results also show that among loyal voters of incumbent politicians, support for those politicians who are perceived to favor non-discretionary distributive strategies is slightly higher than those perceived to pursue largely discretionary distributive strategies. Chapter 5 concludes with a discussion of the theoretical and policy implications of the findings.

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