Overcoming Patronage in New Democracies: Simeon Nichter

February 23, 2011

In 1974, three out of four countries were ruled by authoritarian regimes; today, nearly half of all governments are democratically elected—and even more democracies may be emerging in the Middle East. But with elections come new form of patronage—such as offering benefits in exchange for votes—that can undermine the intent of democracy and effectiveness of programs intended to help the poor.  My guest this week, Simeon Nichter, a CGD post-doctoral fellow, is studying a phenomenon that has important implications for development but is often overlooked in optimistic accounts of democratic progress.

While research on election shenanigans is not new, Simeon’s work is the first to demonstrate the distinction between two forms: “vote buying” (paying people to switch their votes) and “turnout buying” (paying people to show up at the polls and vote for candidates they favored anyway.) Simeon tells me that these different strategies have far-reaching implications for the politicians who employ them and for the voting poor.

Or course, turnout buying and even vote buying are not limited to developing countries. But the scale of the awards relative to people’s income is often much greater in low-income settings, he says. “These aren’t just little rewards…there are examples of poverty programs that are contingent on what people do during the election,” says Simeon. “The politicization undermines what is supposed to be an empowering process. People don’t always get the goods they need and oftentimes the good don’t go to the poorest people.”

In the second part of our conversation I ask Simeon if he has any advice for the democratic movements in Egypt and Tunisia. As he explains, the same form of clientelism authoritarian rulers used for decades to maintain power will likely reemerge if reformers overlook the risks of vote and turnout buying. He suggests some innovative techniques that might help stamp out patronage, such as giving cellphones to citizens to self-monitor elections.

We end by discussing how the development community can help address the issue. Traditionally multilateral institutions have distanced themselves from the political world, but as Simeon notes, every development problem is affected by political issues.

“We need to do much more work overall to figure out politician’s incentives and what we can do to prevent them from using [development] programs to win office,” says Simeon. Finding solutions will require new forms of research, such as political mapping, to develop more nuanced mechanisms for addressing the problem.

Have something to add? Ideas for future interviews? Post a comment below, or send me an email. If you use iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week.

My thanks to Wren Elhai for his production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and to Will McKitterick for drafting this blog post.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.