Geography and Incentives: The Logic of Subnational Public Goods Provision in the Developing World

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Oh, Soo Min


Beramendi, Pablo

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What explains the spatial patterns of public goods provision in the developing world? Understanding the distributive logic of public goods and services of who gets what, why, and how, is increasingly important, with implications on lives and livelihood of the developing world. To answer this canonical question in distributive politics, the supply-side literature has been focused on explaining the patterns of distribution through the logic of electoral politics or ethnic politics.

The literature, however, has been less precise on why political elites choose the exact type of public goods they provide and how they are provided. To develop a more in-depth understanding of the distributive logic of public goods, I develop a theoretical argument that reconciles the political incentives of the elites that derive from the electoral and ethnic geography they face. I make the argument that the political and social geography elites face determine their time horizons, which in turn influence the type of public goods they provide, to whom, and how. I theorize that higher levels of electoral competition that lead to shorter time horizons are associated with the provision of universal public goods with larger catchment areas, higher visibility, and quicker delivery to maximize electoral gains within a shorter period of time. Lower levels of electoral competition and the subsequent longer time horizons are associated with public goods that are targetable in implementation and provided to rich core voters. Ethnic heterogeneity conditions the effect of electoral competition by imposing a cost to learning about voters' preferences. Furthermore, I argue that higher ethnic heterogeneity increases the cost of learning, thereby reinforcing the patterns to providing all-encompassing, universal, public goods, whereas lower heterogeneity allows elites to learn about the voters' preferences, leading to a relatively more targeted approach to provision. Using granular panel data on Indonesia, I find quantitative evidence of my theoretical expectations.

In addition to exploring the incentives of political elites on public goods provision, I explore the long-run constraints posed to the elites by the colonial legacies. I identify an important tension in the discussion on colonial institutions and development--the inconclusiveness of the implications of colonial rule--and argue that infrastructural legacies of colonialism need to be accounted for in order to explain the variations within and between the types of colonial institutions. I theorize that the availability of colonial infrastructural legacies helps overcome the potential adverse effect of extractive colonial institutions. This is done so by helping the post-colonial regime provide public goods and services by providing a stock of infrastructure that the regime can leverage in providing public goods and services. Using a quasi-experiment in Cameroon, I find evidence that the combination of colonial rule (direct rule) and colonial infrastructural investments matter for access to public goods in the post-colonial period compared to a combination of indirect rule without investments.





Oh, Soo Min (2021). Geography and Incentives: The Logic of Subnational Public Goods Provision in the Developing World. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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