The National School for Administration and Law in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital. The university trains most judges and senior bureaucrats, including many who manage the country’s procurement process. Credit: Stuart Russell.

Conducting rigorous political science research supported by in-depth field work requires adequate sources of funding. While professors have a wider range of funding options, “the opportunities for graduate students themselves tend to be fairly limited,” says F. Daniel Hidalgo, associate professor of political science at MIT and the academic director for the MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB). 

In order to help graduate students produce novel research related to government accountability, MIT GOV/LAB awards grants to affiliated students to support data collection for their dissertation research. Below, we share updates on research from Stuart Russell, a graduate research fellow, and Blair Read PhD ‘22, who successfully defended her dissertation in August. Both of their dissertation projects were funded in part by grants from MIT GOV/LAB. 

Combing through a decade of government expenditures in Burkina Faso

Russell is studying public procurement – the process through which governments purchase goods and services – in Burkina Faso in West Africa. When governments want to hire a company to, say, build a school, they post an advertisement, and companies can submit proposals. Then the government picks a company based on some predefined set of criteria. 

Procurement might not make a lot of headlines, but it’s a huge part of what the government does. Russell says that in most countries, about half of government expenditures go towards procurement. “Pretty much governments spend money on salary and wages and procurement,” he says.

Russell is interested in how politicians take advantage of the procurement process to finance their campaigns. “A large way that incumbent politicians raise money is they’ll give preferential contracts to companies, and the companies will then donate to that politician’s campaign,” he says. 

For his dissertation, Russell obtained records of every purchase Burkina Faso’s government made between 2011 and 2021 that both cost above a certain amount of money and that multiple companies could apply for. Then, he developed an automated process to extract most of the data from the tens of thousands of pages, and some research assistants helped collect the rest.

Most of the funds Russell received from MIT GOV/LAB went towards developing this process for extracting the data – mainly paying the research assistants, but also paying for some proprietary software. His grant also contributed to two trips to Burkina Faso in the past year and a half for field work. 

Now, he’ll analyze the data for patterns of potentially biased procurement practices. For example, if a particular ministry repeatedly eliminates all the competition to award contracts to a specific company, that’s a sign that “there’s something fishy going on,” Russell says.

Beyond whatever broader trends Russell uncovers about how politicians manipulate the procurement process, he also hopes the data itself will be useful to journalists, NGOs and people in government interested in studying corruption. Local organizations that are anti-corruption and pro-transparency are “excited to have the data because no one knew what the government was spending their money on, at least in a systematic way,” Hidalgo says.

Russell (left) and Malick Lingani (right), president of Beog Neere, a Burkinabé NGO that does advocacy work around government transparency. Credit: Stuart Russell

Why education gets privatized in India

Read’s dissertation looked at the role politicians play in privatizing service delivery, with a focus on the education sector in India. “There’s been a huge explosion of private education in India,” where now over a quarter of students are enrolled in private schools, she says. 

Read says research often assumes this shift is caused by low state capacity to provide quality public education, “But I found that not super satisfying, because state capacity is dynamic, and assuming that low state capacity is deterministic overlooks the crucial role of politics in responding to state capacity constraints,” she says. 

Instead, she theorized that elections becoming more competitive is contributing to the increase in private schooling. When there’s electoral competition, politicians look for more short-term solutions to issues that can garner them support before the next election, according to Read. 

In India, “politicians are pretty under-resourced, and their hands are tied for a lot of things,” Read says. “They don’t really have an incentive when things are competitive to invest in long-term developments like expanding public education.” Instead, they opt for quicker fixes, like expanding the private sector, Read says.

A novel school census of all primary schools in India and electoral data supported Read’s hypothesis that electoral competition and private service expansion are linked. For politicians, turning to private services is “almost like an escape valve for the pressures they’re under in trying to campaign,” she says.

She used her MIT GOV/LAB funding in part to travel to India in the spring to conduct qualitative field work to better understand the context surrounding her quantitative analysis. She interviewed parents, teachers, school managers, and politicians to better understand their relationship with the private sector, how they decide which resources to invest in, and other topics.

A primary school in Haryana, India. Credit: Blair Read

The interviews have also contributed to a broader research agenda studying how to motivate politicians to focus on service delivery in the long term, even when they’re at risk of being voted out of office. 

Funding graduate student research in the global south 

Three other political science PhD students have also received grants for dissertation research from MIT GOV/LAB. Paige Bollen is studying how repetition in contact across ethnic and national divisions influences exclusionary attitudes and behavior in Ghana and South Africa. Nicole Wilson is looking at how the delivery of private services to people living in gated estates shapes the relationship between citizens and the government in Nigeria. Elizabeth Parker-Magyar is exploring how and why state workers influence policy and politics in Jordan. 

Most MIT GOV/LAB students work on projects related to politics in or the political economy of the global south, Hidalgo notes. In many of these contexts, “good datasets are not readily available in accessible formats, so students have to spend significant time sourcing and cleaning data,” he says. “Our goal is to provide resources for data gathering in data-poor environments, so our students can make novel contributions of interest to political scientists and practitioners alike.”