Working Paper

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

Date Published

Oct 1, 2017


Ryan Jablonski, Brigitte Seim



Jablonski, Ryan, and Brigitte Seim. 2017. How Transparency Affects Distributional Politics: A Field Experiment among Elected Incumbents in Malawi. AidData Working Paper #45. Williamsburg, VA: AidData at William & Mary.


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.

Funding: This research was supported by AidData at the College of William and Mary and the USAID Global Development Lab through cooperative agreement AID-OAA-A-12-00096. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of AidData, USAID, or the United States Government. Additional support is provided by the London School of Economics and Political Science Research Incentives Fund and The Suntory and Toyota International Centres for Economics and Related Disciplines.

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