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How Transparency Affects Distributional Politics: A Field Experiment among Elected Politicians in Malawi

Institutions & Governance Malawi

How does transparency affect distributional politics? We theorize that it conditions how officials choose recipient communities, compelling them to allocate to needy communities rather than to core supporters. We present the results of a field experiment in which 333 elected incumbent councillors in Malawi made real and meaningful decisions about the allocation of NGO-provided development goods to schools in their constituency. Prior to allocating goods, half of the incumbents were informed that letters about their decisions would be sent to local development oversight committees. We find that this transparency treatment caused incumbents to allocate goods to recipient school communities with greater economic need. They were also less likely to allocate to schools with strong political support. To our knowledge, this is the first experimental evaluation of theoretical claims about the role of transparency in distributional politics using in-office elected leaders as participants and observing real distributional decisions.

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