Buying Votes versus Supplying Public Services


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There is one simple answer to the “what-will-it-take-to-end-poverty” question: it will take courageous politicians who actually implement the policies we already know are needed. Politicians, even the well-intentioned ones, are too often unable to implement good policies, because bad policies are needed for their political survival. For example, vote-buying, the direct exchange of “gifts” or money for political support during elections is widespread in many developing countries. For the first time, new research provides direct empirical evidence that where vote-buying practices are more prevalent, governments invest less in pro-poor services.

A survey was designed to be able to correlate vote buying with the delivery of health services, taking advantage of an appropriate institutional context in the Philippines. The data come from a jurisdiction level, where there is congruence between the political unit, where vote buying is measured, and the administrative unit, where a broad and potentially pro-poor service is delivered. Directly-elected municipal governments in the Philippines are responsible for delivering basic maternal and child services to villages in their jurisdiction. This allows for attributing the decision-making over political strategies, as well as a pro-poor public service, to the same political agents. Municipalities hire and manage nurses, midwives, and community or village health workers –key health personnel who deliver basic maternal and child health services to the poor.

The main finding: in places where households report greater vote-buying (in direct response to questions about offers of money in exchange for votes at the time of elections), municipal government records show lower investment in basic health services for mothers and children (fewer health workers and health projects). And, quite strikingly, as a summary measure of weak public performance, a higher proportion of children are under-weight.

In the paper, I go through detailed arguments for why this negative association between vote buying and public health services can be interpreted as reflecting the policy consequences of perverse politics. Where underlying conditions are conducive to the use of vote- buying or clientelist strategies, in which targeted benefits are provided in direct exchange for political support, the winning politicians will likely use fewer public resources for, and perform worse in, delivering broad, pro-poor public services. I also tested various alternate explanations, such as greater poverty driving both greater vote-buying practices and poorer health outcomes. The data do not support such alternatives.
Why, then, is vote-buying associated with weak political incentives to serve the poor? I’m not in a position (in this paper) to precisely answer this question, even though my results are consistent with what has generally been theorized in the political economy literature. However, one could make an intuitive argument in the opposite direction: where politicians have to woo demanding voters, they might offer all kinds of inducements to win political support, including gifts during elections and public services in between. This is why it was important to assess the association empirically.

One possible answer worthy of future investigation revolves around the quality of politicians, and the persistence of a bad political equilibrium. Political competition has become dramatically decentralized in developing countries, reducing barriers to entry for would-be contenders. Once vote-buying, and other related political strategies (such as violence), has emerged as an effective strategy for winning office, it can shape who wants to become a politician, and to what purpose. It can encourage the emergence of low-quality contenders who invest in building political support on the basis of vote-buying, so that once in power they can get away with low performance while extracting high rents from public office. (This is also one answer to the question Duncan Green posed in his recent blog).

There’s a dynamism to local politics in these countries. It can teach us about: when do well-intentioned politicians prevail, and rise through the ranks, sending the bad ones packing (instead of the other way around); how are good citizens, who see purpose in public service, encouraged to become leaders, thereby raising the quality of politicians and of politics. Available policy instruments (such as transparency; performance-based grants to local governments) could be better designed and operationalized by taking local political economy seriously. For example, even after growing evidence on how transparency and information can shift citizen behavior, a big unanswered question is whether politicians will respond, or, find more cunning ways to get around citizen demands.

If it will take politicians implementing pro-poor policies to end poverty, we would do well to understand more rigorously who they are, in the dynamic political markets of our client countries, and how to nudge these markets to get more courageous leaders to emerge.

Figure 1: Vote buying associated with higher proportion of under-weight children

Figure 2: Vote buying associated with fewer village health workers

Figure 3: Vote buying associated with fewer births assisted by trained health workers


Stuti Khemani

Senior Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

Nachiket Mor
February 04, 2013

Dear Stuti,

This is an amazing insight. While intuitively I always believed that this link existed to see it actually reflected in the data is quite amazing. I wonder about two questions though:

1. If all sides of the political spectrum are indulging in it then does it have the same effect or does the situation go back to non-vote-buying scenario?

2. Also what is your sense of the direction of causality -- do you see more vote buying where problems are more severe? This may perhaps be an indication of the pragmatic politician acknowledging that there is not much he can do about the health system so he should do the best he can.

Best regards,


Stuti Khemani
February 05, 2013

Dear Nachiket: Thanks very much for raising spot-on questions. My responses, unfortunately, are not based on direct evidence (the data doesn't allow it), but are conjectures.

On the first: the paper discusses, in some detail, the sources or correlates of variation in vote buying across municipalities. The results can be interpreted as suggesting that vote buying is likely to be more widespread when all contenders use it. Unlike other cases of "machine politics", like in Argentina (in Professor Stokes' work), where particular parties are associated with having the networks to engage in vote buying, political parties are not well organized in the Philippines. Local electoral contestation at the municipal level is not based on national party labels, but instead, is organized around local political families or “clans”. There is nothing in the literature to suggest that the practice is associated with particular incumbents or clans. My guess, therefore, is that the negative correlation with health services holds regardless of whether just the incumbent, or all challengers are engaging in vote buying.

On the second: Because the result is to be interpreted as an equilibrium correlation, and not a causal link, this question is particularly hard to answer. I confront the constraints to interpreting the "timeline" for the correlation at the end of section 4 in the paper. Vote buying in impending elections may be more likely in municipalities with a poor past record of health service delivery. The incumbent may be using vote buying to win political support, in lieu of the provision of broad public services. Challengers may be using vote buying because it is cheaper or more effective when incumbent performance has been weak. However, this interpretation runs against the evidence of no correlation with vote buying of other types of service delivery, including highly sensational forms of natural disaster assistance. For the central argument—that the survey measure of vote buying captures variation across municipalities in the proclivity towards using particularistic benefits as the basis of political support—the timing of vote buying is not critical to interpreting the correlation as the equilibrium policy outcome of clientelism. A sequence of events where vote buying strategies are heightened following weak incumbent performance in delivering pro-poor services is not inconsistent with this interpretation since it still reflects a direct trade-off between buying votes versus supplying broad public services. The distinction may be relevant, though, for pragmatic identification of "entry points" for reform. Well-intentioned politicians, who are hamstrung by weak bureaucracies or a culture of under-performance by service providers, may welcome opportunities to intervene with governance interventions, and turn service delivery around in advance of an election, to thwart challenges on the basis of vote buying. This may be one way to think of the Ceara example from Brazil, studied by Professor Tendler, about how a reform leader at the provincial level may have transformed local politics at the municipal level. The key, I think, is to build a rigorous learning program around identifying what governance interventions work, even when, or especially when local politics revolves around practices like vote buyin

Nachiket Mor
February 09, 2013

Dear Stuti,

Thank you for your detailed response. Given the weak and persistent performance of the state in providing services I wonder if there is a way to benefit from this proclivity towards vote buying.

In India as you know there is now a new trend towards electronic benefits transfers / unconditional cash transfers, which the left wing parties have labelled as another form of vote buying. This is a relatively simple transformation. A more complex effort is one in which health insurance schemes have been designed and then offered by the government to citizens as another form of "vote buying". At some point the government may move in the direction of using school vouchers as another form of "vote buying".

I wonder if this is all as bad as it sounds though. Maybe it is a pragmatic response to the sheer inability of the state to deliver and perhaps what we need to do is look carefully at the designs of these "vote buying" schemes to ensure that they are indeed beneficial both in the short-run and the long-run and maybe even develop a menu of such "vote buying" schemes so that the politicians back away from bad "vote buying" schemes such as "free power" or "loan waivers" or "interest subventions on farm loans".

I guess the rub will come when (and if) we conclude that the state is the only logical provider of these services and there is no way to design a "vote buying" effort which simply involves giving things away. In my own view elementary education falls squarely within that category and even healthcare does unless we can imagine that the state can be a stronger regulator than it has been a provider -- the literature seems to suggest that a weak state is better off struggling with provision than with regulation - the risks of capture and wholesale subversion may be much higher in the latter scenario.

Best regards,

Nachiket Mor

Amrit Abhijat
February 11, 2013

Your paper is indeed a fresh perspective to the culture of non delivery on promises made in the areas where vote buying is pervasive.To state simply,since the votes have to be bought ,why should a politician bother with fulfilment of public provisions etc.However,you will agree that there are honourable exceptions to this in the Identity based politics in states like UP ,where promises are delivered under targeted programmes for specific category of people,and the inducements like ,vote purchase is not unheard of ,while,developmental sops are also delivered under umbrella schemes.

Stuti Khemani
February 12, 2013

One way to interpret these would be: how “clientelist” politics (the provision of targeted benefits from state resources in direct exchange for political support) can generally be associated with policies of inefficient redistribution, such as through identity-based political networks. Another way, would be as “populist” policies, which is a term less well defined in the literature—how politicians might face pressures to implement policies that deliver more-universal, less conditioned (on a direct quid-pro-quo for votes), but nevertheless private benefits, at the expense of broad public goods. Populist policy choices might have less pernicious consequences than more clientelist choices, relatively speaking, but might nevertheless be sub-optimal (from a welfare perspective). I can’t think of anything in the literature which formalizes these types of comparisons of different sources of political distortions. Continuing with the luxury of conjecturing, my intuition would be that if the conditions of political contestation have moved away from clientelism, towards populism, reflecting greater political responsiveness to a broader group of citizens, that may offer potential to move further, towards more public-goods platforms.

Akabzaa Roland
February 13, 2013

Politicians have become very innovative and efficient in the enterprise of vote buying than reducing poverty in Africa. We monitored abuse of incumbency and electoral corruption in Ghana's 2012 general election. We deployed observers nationwide and the findings are interesting. Both incumbent and opposition presidential and parliamentary candidates enaged in blatant vote buying. Development projects sprung up at the last minute; there were last minute installation of streets lights, electricification of villages, construction of roads, markets and hospital - fews days to election.

The ruling government and the opposition also distributed gas cylinders, footballs, jerseys, labtops, motor bikes, clothings, etc to people in to get thier votes in the 2012 General Election. These items were distributed between Otober and December 2012, the election was on 7th December 2012.

Parliamentary canditates from opposition and incumbent parties distributed motor bikes, satilite dishies, computers, swoing machines,etc to people. They renovated churches, schools and gave cash to people for thier support in the 2012 elections. They also gave free fuel to people (motor riders) when they visit to communities.

Ironically, the the tertiary institutions' students were given laptops and cars.

While there are serious development challenges confronting Ghana, politician were not providng innovative ways of get people out of poverty; providing employment for the mass of graduates without jobs; improving the poor sanitation, poor supply of electricity and water; and poor education and healthcare delivery but they were rather crafty in buying vote to win Power and not win poverty !!!!