Diamond’s Course on Democratic Development

I just found out that on April 3rd Coursera started offering a new series of lectures on Democratic Development with Larry Diamond. Here’s a brief description of the course:

This course is intended as a broad, introductory survey of the political, social, cultural, economic, institutional, and international factors that foster and obstruct the development and consolidation of democracy. Each factor will be examined in historical and comparative perspective, with reference to a variety of different national experiences. Students are encouraged to relate the historical development and contemporary situation of particular countries and regions (especially their own) to the various theories about democratic development, and to evaluate those theories in light of country experience. It is also hoped that students in developing or prospective democracies can use the theories, ideas, and lessons in the class to help build or improve democracy in their own countries.

Although it seems that Larry will not approach the issue of participatory democracy, there is little doubt that it is something worth following if one looks at the syllabus. The reading schedule [PDF] is – as one would expect – impeccable, and it is in itself a valuable list of resources for those who would like to move beyond a simplistic understanding of democracy.To set the tone, one of the first suggested readings is the brilliant “What Democracy Is…and Is Not”, a classic by Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl, who together form probably one of the most brilliant (and charming) couples ever. The list of excellent readings goes on forever, with major scholars (beyond Larry himself) such as Lipset, O’Donnel, Lijphart, Carothers and Horowitz.Touching upon issues like ethnic conflict, accountability, rule of law and control of corruption, this course might also be of interest to many development practitioners working in related fields. Personally – and despite the sometimes tiring hype – I look forward to hearing more from Diamond about his take on the role of technologies in democratic transitions (see for instance, this paper of his “Liberation Technology” [PDF]).

Albeit free, this course is priceless.

You can sign up here.

Corruption and the Limits of Electoral Accountability

Picture by watchsmart on flickr.

Interesting new paper looking at electoral accountability in 74 countries

Corruption and Accountability: “Throwing the Bums Out” Does Not Work.

By Crisp, Potter, Olivella and Mishler (November 2012)


Many theories of democracy stress the concept of accountability. Voters reward or punish elected ocials by extending or ending their political careers. Seeking the long-term reward of reelection, officials avoid the short-term benefits of corruption that would put them at risk of early electoral defeat. This good behavior, in turn, leads to voter loyalty and reelection. Previous studies of electoral volatility and political corruption, however, have not tested this reciprocal relationship with an appropriate empirical model. In this paper, we employ a bivariate normal model to assess the effects of malfeasance on voter loyalty and, conversely, of voter defection on subsequent malfeasance. We test these relationships on data drawn from 249 elections across 74 countries. Our results show that malfeasance does indeed provoke voter defection, but that electoral volatility is not followed by lower levels of perceived corruption. We discuss the importance of these novel results for the emerging literature on clarity of responsibility.

Some excerpts from the conclusion (highlights are mine):

According to the standard theory, voters hold elected ocials accountable for their performance in oce by voting out of office anyone suspected of corrupt behavior. This presumably purges government of the worst officials, reminds continuing representatives of the voters’ power, and signals to newly elected officials that they ought to behave more virtuously than their predecessors. The empirical evidence we have reported is reassuring of the standard model in only one respect. It clearly shows that voters respond appropriately to perceived corruption by throwing legislators out of office. Nevertheless, the observation that increasing volatility does not reduce perceived corruption undermines a central assumption of retrospective accountability theory: namely, that the replacement of corrupt officials creates a virtuous cycle where corruption and volatility are mutually reinforcing and spiral ever lower in tandem with one another.

The absence of any impact of volatility on perceived corruption means either that legislators do not alter their behavior in the short run in response to the signal provided by vote volatility, or that politicians do respond, but their change in behavior is not immediately perceived by voters who continue to punish newly elected legislators for the sins of their predecessors. Distinguishing between these possibilities, empirically, requires data on actual legislative corruption, which is not available. Nevertheless, weighing the two scenarios, in our estimation the second seems more plausible. In our data set, voter perceptions of legislative corruption appear highly viscous in that they do not vary much over time. Corruption is covert and hard for voters to recognize. When they do perceive corruption, voters respond appropriately by throwing the bums out of oce. But because corruption is covert, it is equally dicult for voters to know if newly elected legislators are really better behaved or whether the corruption of new members simply has not yet been exposed.

In the absence of visible evidence to the contrary, voters have no reason to update their perceptions and treat the new legislators any differently than the old ones. Rather than creating a virtuous cycle, this creates instead a low-level equilibrium trap. Voter perceptions of corruption give rise to higher levels of volatility, but because higher volatility has no systematic impact on subsequent perceptions of corruption, continuing perceptions of corruption are likely to sustain those higher levels of volatility, thereby threatening the re-election prospects of newly elected legislators regardless of their behavior. Our inability to find an effect of vote volatility on corruption by distinguishing quality democracies from low-grade ones (with an interaction with the country’s Polity score) lends support to the idea that the failure of punishment to alter (perceptions of) corruption is not limited to some subset of delegative, authoritarian, or otherwised adjective-laden set of democracies.

Putting these findings in the broader context of the open government agenda, I can’t help but wonder about the limits of transparency in the absence of additional accountability mechanisms.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

Does access to information enhance accountability?

This paper [PDF] examines whether access to information enhances political accountability. Based upon the results of Brazil’s recent anti-corruption program that randomly audits municipal expenditures of federally-transferred funds, it estimates the effects of the disclosure of local government corruption practices upon the re-election success of incumbent mayors. Comparing municipalities audited before and after the elections, we show that the audit policy reduced the incumbent’s likelihood of re-election by approximately 20 percent, and was more pronounced in municipalities with radio stations. These findings highlight the value of information and the role of the media in reducing informational asymmetries in the political process. 

Ferraz, Claudio, and Frederico Finan. 2008. “Exposing Corrupt Politicians: The Effects of Brazil’s Publicly Released Audits on Electoral Outcomes.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 123(2): 703–45.

I Paid a Bribe. So What?

I Paid a Bribe

As is often the case for many people these days, the first time I saw the Indian version of “I Paid a Bribe” I was quite excited about it. The overarching principle is simple: if you paid a bribe, you report it (it’s more than that, but you can check it out on the website for yourself).

I find these websites particularly interesting in the sense that anger and frustration (in that case having to pay a bribe) may be good drivers of action, as suggested by some political behavior research (see for instance here and here).

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to discover through the website that there are already four other websites of this kind (in Kenya, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and Pakistan) and two others are to be launched soon (in Philippines and Mongolia). Although scalability has very little to do with impact – a point that is often ignored – it is always good to find out that people in other places are trying to actually do something to tackle corruption.



Nevertheless, it is still not clear for me what the working hypothesis of these websites is (let alone their actual impact). Or, as pseudo-intellectuals nowadays put it, I am not sure what their “theory of change” is. Below is a non-comprehensive list of how these websites may be – hypothetically – efficient in the reduction of corruption:

1) By giving visibility to corruption, governments are more likely to take effective measures to reduce corruption.

2) Public agents will be less likely to ask for bribes given the possibility that their act may be publicly reported.

3) Individuals and societal agents themselves will mobilize against corruption as they realize that corruption is an endemic problem in their country.

The different hypotheses are by no means mutually exclusive. However, singling out each one of them is important for at least three reasons.

First, clarifying the mechanism through which one expects to address an issue facilitates the development of a more efficient strategy. For instance, if what you expect is that government will be more likely to take action once corruption is publicized, you should deploy specific actions towards governmental actors who are in positions to make a difference.

Second, understanding the underlying mechanisms by which change is expected to happen provides us with a reality check of how effective these initiatives may actually be. Will politicians and government officials become more inclined to combat corruption once they “find out” that there is too much corruption in the country? Will public officials be less likely to engage in corrupt activities due to the fact that it can be reported on a third party website? The answers to these questions are not as straightforward as they might appear to be, and identifying any change on that front may be particularly challenging.

This brings us to a third and particularly important issue, which refers to assessing the impact of these initiatives. Surely, measuring the effect that such websites may have on the overall level of corruption in a country is a complicated task. For instance, supposing such websites gain significant popularity in their countries, the increased visibility of corruption may have a seemingly paradoxical effect: while the actual number of corruption cases may decrease as the risk of publicization becomes a real one, citizens may come to perceive increases in levels of corruption as cases that previously would have been undisclosed come to their attention. In that case, for example, the use of the corruption perception index would be of little utility to assess variance in corruption levels across countries.

Nevertheless, finding alternative methods to track the impact of these initiatives is only possible if one has a clear understanding of the ways in which these innovations are supposed to operate in order to have an impact on corruption. For example, if we expect government to take action as the issue gains visibility, tracking the real number of administrative procedures (e.g. investigations, sanctions) related to corruption might be a start (although more would be needed to infer any causality).

The difficulty of assessment is clear, particularly for organizations that are in many cases under-resourced and struggling to keep their operations going. But not doing it will always be counter-productive in the long term. Without any evidence of impact, as sexy as these initiatives may seem, they will not survive the “so what” question.