Theses Doctoral

Trading Favors: Local Politics and Development in Brazil

Cooperman, Alicia Dailey

Why do some communities have access to essential services, such as water or health care, and neighboring communities do not? How do citizens influence the distribution of public services? This dissertation presents a theory of "trading favors" in which I argue that communities can coordinate and trade their collective votes for preferential access to public services. This long-term relationship with politicians is a form of local distributive politics, and I highlight that neighborhood associations provide a platform for voters to organize and increase their bargaining power towards politicians. I argue that 1) high community activity and 2) strong, unified leadership can enable group members to coordinate their votes before an election and get the attention of politicians after the election to improve their access to public services. I focus on variation in water access: water scarcity is a growing global concern, and access to water is often manipulated as a political tool.
During 18 months of fieldwork, I collected extensive qualitative and quantitative evidence from the state of Ceará in Northeast Brazil. I include a historical discussion of the origins of community organizing and introduce a typology of community organizing. I illustrate the theoretical mechanisms through case studies of neighboring communities that draw on 104 qualitative interviews with rural residents, local leaders, state bureaucrats, and academic experts. I test my main hypotheses through statistical analysis of an original household survey with 1,990 respondents from 120 rural communities merged with precinct-level electoral data. I also analyze long-term voting patterns at over 15,000 electoral precincts across Ceará in five municipal elections.
I find that water access is most reliable and secure in communities with high community activity, strong social ties, and constant leadership. I find evidence for my main mechanism: organized communities are more likely to concentrate their votes, and bloc voting improves water access. Communities are very consistent in their bloc voting behavior over time: the same places continue to concentrate their votes, and the same places continue to disperse their votes. I also find evidence that many communities switch allegiance across elections, which indicates that communities are credible in their threats to switch their electoral support if they do not get the services they need.
My findings shed light on the important but poorly understood influence of collective action on local politics and development. The distributive politics literature tends to focus on decision-making by parties and politicians. My results demonstrate the agency of voters in organizing collectively to select and influence candidates that make distributive appeals, especially through neighborhood associations. I develop our understanding of local leaders, who often serve as development/vote brokers and intermediate access to the state, and I provide evidence that poor citizens bargain with their votes and can use bloc voting as a grassroots strategy for improving public service access.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Murillo, Maria V.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 25, 2019