Category Archives: Development

Institutions are still important, even in America

I try not to venture into American politics much on this blog but there is one thing that’s really bothered me that I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere.  I know this is somewhat outdated, as Rick Perry is yesterday’s news, but why did no one challenge him on the idea that he would cut Congress’ pay in half?

“The idea that [a congressman or woman] makes three times what the average family makes is really obscene,” he said. “[They] need to have their salaries cut in half, they need to spend half as much on their budget, and they need to be in Washington half the time.”

It is somewhat depressing that in no debate, no member of the media, or no other candidate, bothered to ask Perry where in the Constitution the president has the authority to determine congressional pay.  If someone did, Perry’s famous three branches of government mishap would have have become his second most embarrassing debate moment.  That’s because the president does not determine congressional pay. Congress does.  The president is not the boss of congress, even though people only seem to hold the former accountable.   It’s this same lack of knowledge of how American institutions work that leads otherwise smart people to speculate how a third party president could really change things.

Electoral Choice and Ballot Complexity: Effects on Turnout

Work has been a little hectic lately, so the blogging has been light of late.  I do plan on resuming a more consistent schedule soon, however.  Before diving back in the Egypt numbers, however, I wanted to highlight two very good papers I saw presented at APSA several months ago.

When advising on electoral system design, election assistance practitioners often recommend that developing countries implement simple systems that their voters will be able to understand. While the theory behind this is sound, I’ve always wondered if we were overestimating the impact of ballot complexity. After all, I’m sure many Americans aren’t aware that many of their city council races are MNTV, while their congressional race is FPTP, yet our system still functions.  In two papers that actually attempt to answer this question, Aina Gallego of Stanford University and Saul Cunow of UCSD both looked at what impact various electoral variables have on voter turnout. Aina argued that increases in ballot complexity, while not impacting educated voters, has a negative effect on turnout rates of less educated citizens.  Aina used two strategies to test her hypothesis.  For the first, she conducted a field experiment where she sent several fake ballot questions to a random group of Spanish citizens.  The control group was given a straightforward ballot containing descriptions of candidates and which party they belonged to, and then asked to vote for one.  The second group was given the same list, but was asked to vote for up to five.  The second group had a 12 percent drop in responses from low-educated citizens.  For her second strategy, she ran a cross-national regression of electoral system design by turnout among various demographics and found that controlling for other factors, increased preference votes were associated with a decrease in turnout.

I had two problems with Aina’s methodology.  The first is her field experiment failed to simulate a realistic ballot structure that any voter would encounter.  The second is her classification of voting system type was binary (ability to cast preference votes or not) and did not account for the many rules that would significantly impact the level of ballot complexity within preference voting systems.  This could include the option of voting across multiple parties, the ability to rank candidates, and the ability to punish candidates on a given party list.  Also, her theory is based on the cognitive perceptions of voters before they decide to vote, not on what they actually experience in the voting booth.  Invalid ballots are evidence of voters who were unable to handle the ballot, but showed up anyway. Therefore, I would suggest a more realistic measure would be district magnitude, as an increase in candidate choice would, by her theory, intimidate the voter and make them less likely to turnout.  Despite these shortcomings, her paper provided a new look at a concept that has been assumed, but never rigorously tested.

Related, Saul Cunow conducted a field experiment in Brazil and found that there is a curvilinear relationship between the number of candidates on a ballot and turnout.  That is, at low levels of candidate choice, turnout is low as voters feel they have little options.  As the number of choices increases, turnout increases, due to the more choices.  After the number of potential candidates increases past a certain level, however, turnout decreases as people are confused by the number of choices and have a harder time distinguishing between them.  Saul also finds that the presence of party labels does not reduce the probability of abstention among higher numbers of candidates.

Both are good papers and you should read them.

Electoral institutions and the cost of elections

To continue the topic in my recent DRC posts, Jay Ulfelder makes a great point about the difficulties poor countries face in holding fair elections.

I’m not suggesting that poor countries should forgo elections. The process is often expensive and messy, but it’s still preferable to the alternative of government by self-appointed rulers. Mostly, I hope the authors of electoral laws and procedures in poor countries will try to design systems that take these challenges into account. For example, why not hold presidential elections in one round instead of two, avoiding the costs and logistical problems of organizing runoffs?

… Not every country can afford every electoral system, and these financial and logistical difficulties ought to be a big part of the rule-making conversation in cases where they loom large.

Jay is bringing up an important, but often forgotten aspect in the study of electoral institutions. Despite not coming up frequently in academic literature, however, I will say that for the most part practitioners are very aware of election administration costs and system design.  There are a few issues, however, that I think we should consider when discussing this.

  • Institutions by nature are (and should be) hard to change. (Liberia just found this out the other week).   If a country makes a decision to create a one-round system, there is a good chance it will believe a one-round system is always the only way it should ever do something, even if the logic behind that decision no longer holds true many years later.  If we are choosing less optimal rules for the sake of cost, there may be long-term consequences down the road.
  • Along the same point about the durability of electoral systems, most countries already have a legacy with a certain system. This could make the debate over changing the rules somewhat irrelevant. That being said, many of the poorest countries only hold elections due to donor pressure, which means the rules should be a little bit more malleable than normal.
  • Political  institutions are highly endogenous to political actors; the case in the DRC is a good example. There will always be winners and losers when rules are changed.  Electoral systems should take into account the capacity of the country, but donors helping make such decisions should consider whether the political fallout from such changes would outweigh any benefits.

Why is decentralization still a silver bullet?

I realize there are plenty of development practitioners who are very aware of the limits of decentralization, but it’s still treated as somewhat of a silver bullet in the industry in general.  The recent election administration problem in DRC - where decentralization is one of the key goals of donors - is a perfect demonstration of what is wrong with this line of thinking.

The central government in Kinshasa can’t afford to move election equipment to its country and we think that dividing the country to 26 new states will make things easier?  How will each of those government administrations be able to procure election equipment for their local elections?

The short answer is, they couldn’t.  Unfortunately, donors often view decentralization as an end in itself, rather than asking what greater goal it should serve.

Elections in DRC may (will) be delayed

Via Texas in Africathis isn’t terribly surprising.

With just under three months to go until the polls are due to take place, Laurent Ndaye, a senior member of the country’s independent electoral commission (CENI), said equipment such as ballot boxes and voting booths were not yet in the country.

“We’ve proceeded to order the electoral hardware, we’ve paid for more than 70 percent. What’s posing the problem now is to transport all this material (to the Congo),” he said, adding that the kit was in China, South Africa, Germany and Lebanon.

The delays meant that materials will have to be flown in but the U.N. has refused to help so private firms would have to be contracted, raising the costs, he said.

In January, President Kabila’s allies in the legislature pushed through constitutional reforms that changed presidential elections from a two-round system, to a one-round, plurality vote.   Kabila insisted it was a cost-saving measure, although critics (not without merit) accused Kabila of simply rigging the rules to benefit him.  I think they were both right.

Visualizing empires decline

I don’t have much to say about this, but I really enjoyed this visual presentation of the European empires.  I’m not sure how the creator of the video is determining the size of each bubble (GDP?) but I think it’s at least a neat idea for a way to visualize the relative strength of each respective country.  Data visualization is important and this to me does a good job of presenting data in a way that’s easy to observe.

Patronage, District Creation and Reform in Uganda

Uganda's Districts, 2010

In Patronage, District Creation and Reform in Uganda, Elliot Green argues that Ugandan Yoweri President Museveni has used the creation of new subnational district boundaries as a way of consolidating power through traditional patronage means. Looking at several African nations, Green notices that new boundary creation tends to increase as presidents’ margin of electoral victory diminishes.  By creating new districts, he argues, regimes are able to offer better services to targeted segments of the population.

I think the main takeaway from this paper is that like the structural adjustment programs before them, autocrats have managed to manipulate decentralization efforts in an effort to maintain traditional vertical power relationships.  It’s just sort of a given in development that decentralization is a good thing. The theory behind this is sound but there is lots of evidence that it doesn’t really work.  To be fair, this isn’t the most egregious form of corruption; new boundaries don’t have the deleterious effect of useless ministries.  Still, it’s worth keeping in mind the next time somebody you here somebody spouse the unchallenged benefits of decentralization.

Measuring Autocracy Promotion

Peter Burnell, Professor at the University of Warwick, England, has written a new article exploring whether democracy assistance practitioners should measure autocracy promotion.

The questions that arise are not simply how far democrats should be concerned but whether there are specific implications for democracy assistance. While the answers are not yet clear, a strong case can be made on precautionary grounds for developing new ways of assessing the true measure of autocracy promotion/export and evaluating it against the performance of democracy support.  Although setting a difficult challenge in its own right, this work could help move democracy assistance and democratisation forward in the challenging times that at present both of them undoubtedly face.

The article is well worth a read, as it tackles several important issues of current relevance.  Among  those are the increased demand to measure development programs, and the debate surrounding the extent that autocracy promotion poses a threat (or even exists).  The topic of the paper is based upon Burnell’s upcoming book, Promoting Democracy Abroad: Policy and Performance, and can also be be read in his recent paper in the University of Warwick’s Journal of Law.   In that paper, Burnell argues that much of the original research into the effectiveness of democracy assistance was conducted in an environment where such programs went largely unchallenged by other countries.  With the spread of autocracy promotion, however, such efforts need to be reevaluated.  Democracy assistance programs, he argues, need to be measured against the success of their autocratic rivals.

Burnell acknowledges some of the major barriers to such assessments happening.   Financial and time constraints mean DG practitioners are often reluctant to engage in impact evaluation for democracy assistance programs.  It would seem to be asking a lot, therefore, to take on the additional burden of assessing the competition’s programs as well.  Furthermore, conducting such assessments would be challenging.  Impact evaluation for DG programs is in itself problematic, as many indicators are difficult to quantify.   These problems would only be more prevalent in assessing autocracy promotion, as the inherently nontransparent nature of such programs would make data collection unreliable.

Burnell explores a variety of issues related to developing a meaningful strategy of such assessments, but concludes that the inherent difficulties in such an exercise should not prevent donor agencies from undertaking the challenge.


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