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Political Economy and Service Delivery

Work in progress on the political economy of service delivery studies the theory and evidence on the role of institutions, information, credibility of political promises, and social polarization in shaping political incentives to serve the poor. 

Much of the variation in delivering broad public services and alleviating poverty can be attributed to the way public resources are allocated by politicians. Even in developing democratic countries, where politicians depend upon the poor for political support, public expenditures often fail to deliver basic services to the poor. In many cases political agents have incentives to misallocate public resources to either private rents or inefficient transfers that benefit a few citizens at the expense of many.

The misallocation of public resources can be traced to imperfections in political markets (lack of information about service quality, lack of credibility of political promises, and polarization of voters on social and ideological grounds) that do not allow the poor to hold governments accountable for their actions. In addition to political market imperfections, institutional factors (constitutional rules, electoral regimes, and party systems) produce complex outcomes. Understanding the conditions and institutions under which political market imperfections grow or shrivel is therefore critical to empowering the poor to extract better performance from their governments. 

Articles & Briefs
new template - orange triangular bullet Democracy by Other Means? Legalizing Demand for Social and Economic Rights in the Developing World 
Research Brief 2007
new template - orange triangular bulletIn Quest of Institutions that Promote Fiscal Discipline 
Research Brief 2006 
new template - orange triangular bullet Do Macroeconomic Crises Affect Schooling and Child Health? Evidence from Peru 
Research Brief 2005 
new template - orange triangular bullet

More articles & briefs


Active Projects


Empowering Citizens with Information to Hold Government Accountable
Contacts:  Stuti Khemani and Vijayendra Rao(India),  Jishnu Das (Pakistan)

This project evaluates the impact of innovative dissimenation strategies to inform citizens about the quality of public services and to encourage public action and political pressure for improved service delivery (India, Pakistan).

  • Governance in the Gullies: Democratic Responsiveness and Leadership in Delhi's Slums, S. Jha, V. Rao and M. Woolcock, World Development (forthcoming). (Based on Policy Research Working Paper 3694)
  • Participatory Democracy in Action: Survey Evidence from Rural India, Tim Besley, Rohini Pande, and Vijayendra Rao, Journal of the European Economic Association, 2005.
  • Democracy, Public Expenditures, and the Poor, S. Khemani,  and P. Keefer, World Bank Research Observer 20 (Spring):1-27, 2005. (Based on Policy Research Working Paper 3164 )
  • The Power of Information: Evidence from a Newspaper Campaign to Reduce Capture, R. Reinikka and J. Svensson, Policy Research Working Paper 3239, 2004.
  • Why do the Poor Receive Poor Services? S. Khemani and P. Keefer,. Economic and Political Weekly 39(9, February): 935-43, 2004.

Credibility of Political Promises
Contact:  Philip Keefer 

The inability of political competitors to make credible promises to citizens can severely distort public policy. For example, an overemphasis on the providing public goods to specific groups and an underemphasis on the quality of broad public good provision. This project explores this theoretically and uses the resulting insights to explain the sharply different performance characteristics of younger and older democracies.

  • Democracy, Public Expenditures, and the Poor, S. Khemani and P. Philip Keefer, World Bank Research Observer, 20 (Spring):1-27, 2005. (Based on Policy Research Working Paper 3164 ).
  • Why do the Poor Receive Poor Services? S. Khemani and P. Keefer,. Economic and Political Weekly 39(9, February): 935-43, 2004.   

Human Rights and Basic Services in Developing Countries
Contact:  Varun Gauri 

This project examines the justicability, enforcement, politics, and impact of litigation related to the rights to education and health care in five developing countries: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and South Africa. The research project examines the conditions under which social and economic rights (SE) litigation goes forward, courts rule in favor of SE litigants, bureaucracies enforce courts' SE judgments, and SE cases affect generalized social policies.


  • October 27, 2006 - Social and Economic Rights: What Difference Do They Make?
    Agenda here, Webcast  here.


  • Social Rights and Economics: Claims to Health Care and Education in Developing Countries,  V. Gauri, World Development 32(3): 465-477, 2004. Full text
  • Boundary Institutions and HIV/AIDS Policy in Brazil and South Africa, V. Guari and E. S. Lieberman, Studies in Comparative International Development 41 (3): 47-73, 2006.


Political Parties and Electoral Competition
Contact: Stuti Khemani 

This project studies how political institutions and electoral rules shape fiscal policies, public spending programs, and service delivery. Some evidence is available on the relative impact of fiscal rules and politically motivated discretion on fiscal policies of state governments in India. The main conclusion of this part of the study is that while political institutions significantly influence fiscal decisions, and often in counter-intuitive ways, delegation of some policies to an independent agency makes a difference in curbing political control and promoting equity.


Decentralization to Locally Elected Governments
Contacts: Stuti Khemani and Vijayendra Rao

This project addresses the issue of decentralization from an explicit political economy perspective by asking the following questions: Do locally elected governments have better incentives for service delivery? What particular features of political institutions under decentralization changes incentives for service delivery?


Related Bank Resources


A list of publications (by year) for this unit is available here.

Policy Research Working Papers on Health
(Please use the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view PDF PDF files)
The following policy research working papers are drawn from the World Bank's institutional archives. Each link opens a page with an abstract of the document and several download options.

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Last updated: 2012-03-05


WPS5829Four decades of health economics through a bibliometric lensWagstaff, Adam; Culyer, Anthony J.2011/10
WPS5733Civil society, public action and accountability in AfricaDevarajan, Shantayanan; Khemani, Stuti; Walton, Michael2011/07
WPS5707Intersubjective meaning and collective action in 'fragile' societies : theory, evidence and policy implicationsGauri, Varun; Woolcock, Michael; Desai, Deval2011/06
WPS5699Redressing grievances and complaints regarding basic service deliveryGauri, Varun2011/06
WPS5720The correlation between human capital and morality and its effect on economic performance : theory and evidenceBalan, David J.; Knack, Stephen2011/06

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