Since the beginning of her career, Katherine Casey’s driving concern has been poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region. And her laboratory for nearly two decades has been the West African nation of Sierra Leone.
It is there that Casey’s work has revealed the extent to which a government’s ability to address poverty — by creating conditions for businesses to invest and grow — hinges on how well the government operates in the first place.
“I came to this realization that nothing was going to work in economic development if the government wasn’t functioning,” says Casey, associate professor of political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “That’s what really got me interested in the question, ‘How do you improve low-capacity governments in low-income countries?’ It seemed like that was the linchpin to everything else.”
From that insight has flowed a raft of research projects investigating how, exactly, to improve governments and make them more accountable. Her findings indicate that, in low-income countries, better-organized elections, more-informed voters, and a broader pool of strong candidates are key parts of the answer.
Her work has depended on building deep relationships within the government and convincing officials to buy-in to suggested reforms. Despite the challenges, she is intent on studying real-world outcomes and having real-world impact.
“What sets Kate apart as an academic is that while she’s interested in ensuring that she publishes in a top journal, she’s also interested in ensuring that the findings are being used by policymakers,” says co-researcher Abou Bakarr Kamara, a Sierra Leonean and country economist at the International Growth Centre.
Investigating accepted solutions
Casey was working as a consultant with the World Bank when she was first sent to Sierra Leone in 2004 to help administer programs and technical support as the country reestablished its democratic institutions two years after a devastating 11-year civil war.
As an evaluation officer, Casey was tasked with researching how to best decentralize public services which had historically been controlled by the central government. Based out of a building with about 60 government officials, she frequently traveled to the sites of burgeoning local governments.
One of the World Bank interventions Casey explored was called community-driven development (CDD). She calls CDD “an extreme version of decentralization” because not only does it supply funding to district-level governments to distribute, but it also offers funding directly to communities alongside administrative support to set up “village development committees.”
“There’s representation of women and young men — people who have traditionally been excluded from the process,” Casey says. “And the program requires that they take a very democratic, very participatory approach in how the community decides to spend this money.”
The goal of CDD is twofold: on one level, communities receive funds they need for basic public goods, like latrines, wells, and school buildings. On another level, the idea is that the democracy-focused training and support will help build hyper-local democratic structures and processes that will persist, even after a CDD program has wrapped.
Casey was inspired by the potential that CDD represented — but reality forced a reassessment.
“One of the reasons I went to Sierra Leone was because I was really passionate about making sure people have a say in their government, and are empowered in local development,” Casey says. “I thought it would be transformative — but it only half worked.”
The results of a large-scale, randomized field experiment found strong positive results in the provisioning of public goods, but little evidence of fledgling democratic processes.
Casey had hardly given up on the power of grassroots involvement to address public needs, though her understanding of the government structures and initiatives that worked best in doing so was shifting. At the same time, working so closely with Sierra Leone’s government had seeded altogether new questions about the connections between the strength of a democracy, the functioning of its government, and public welfare. After four years as a consultant with the World Bank, she began studying for her PhD in economics, to delve even deeper.
Casey didn’t stay away from Sierra Leone for long. She completed the research for her dissertation there, building on the relationships she’d established and the explorations she’d begun around democracy-strengthening interventions.
This time, she trained her focus on elections and the role that information might play in helping them work better.
“There are all these links in the chain that need to be really tight for an election to deliver an accountable, high-performing government,” Casey says. “There are lots of places where they can break down, and some of them are hard to fix but some of them aren’t so hard to fix.”
She began to reflect on the importance of voter access to high-quality information about the candidates up for election. A democracy rests on the premise that the electorate has access to information that allows them to vote bad actors out of office and reward high performers with reelection. “But that just doesn’t work if voters don’t know who’s good and who’s bad,” Casey says.
One of Casey’s jobs in Sierra Leone had been visiting various districts to conduct nationally representative household surveys. What became clear to her in these conversations was that the average voter knew their district-level government officials well and were aware of how they were (or weren’t) living up to promises and expectations. However, when it came to their elected representatives in the central government, voters were much less informed about who represented them and how accountable they were.
Casey devised a research project to investigate the implications of this difference between voters’ rich information regarding their local officials, and their scant information about central government officials. She found that, indeed, more information about candidates increased voting across ethnic-party lines, and that a more competitive election environment encouraged candidates to invest in and distribute more public resources.
Casey says the natural question raised by this paper sparked her next big research project. “It’s clear that information matters to voters,” Casey says. “So, how do you create and disseminate information that voters can engage with?”
There wasn’t an obvious answer to this question; the recent history of conflicts in Sierra Leone means that many voters haven’t had the chance to go to school — literacy rates are low. And most people are too poor to own a TV. Convinced that written materials weren’t a good option, Casey and her co-authors landed on a different method to reach voters: debates.
The researchers worked with a civil society media group to host and video debates in which candidates answered questions about their qualifications and policy stances. The field team then loaded a projector, a sound system, and a generator into a truck and drove to randomly selected communities around the country. They projected the candidate videos onto the sides of polling center buildings after sunset. Casey remembers engaged, energetic scenes among the large crowds of people gathered, as they watched the videos and discussed them.
The project revealed that the information shared in the public debate screenings changed the way people voted — in favor of higher-performing candidates. This type of information sharing also pushed candidates to invest more on campaigning in the places that had held screenings; moreover, the candidates who had participated in the debates had spent more on development projects 18 months after taking office.
Casey says that disseminating information to voters about their candidates appeared to close an accountability loop: “Voters are better informed and change their voting behavior; candidates change their campaign behavior; and it creates accountability pressure on elected officials,” she says.
Who is choosing the candidates?
Casey arrived at her next project by taking a step back from her recent findings and, again, asking the next natural question: Information may empower voters in making the best-possible election choice, but who’s selecting the candidates running for office? The answer was party leaders, who had internal selection processes that didn’t involve voters.
“Voters are perfectly enfranchised on paper,” Casey says. “Elections are free and fair, there’s high voter turnout; everybody’s super engaged. But, de facto, voters are kind of irrelevant. Because the party chose the candidate, and most of the races are in regional party strongholds, so the candidate is near guaranteed to win the general election.”
So she and her fellow researchers worked with Sierra Leone’s two major political parties to experiment with a candidate-selection process that more closely resembled a U.S. direct-vote primary. The researchers would’ve preferred to organize binding direct-vote primaries, but the parties weren’t interested in going that far — instead, they struck a compromise, in which they hosted conventions where prospective candidates presented their qualifications and broadcast them over the radio to voters. Then, the researchers conducted opinion polls of voters, whose results were compiled into one-page reports to share with the parties. Party leaders were under no obligation to select the voters’ choice of candidate — but as it turned out, they often did, and ended up with higher-quality candidates as a result.
Back at the GSB, in her course Strategy Beyond Markets, Casey helps her students connect the dots between governance and market opportunities, in the U.S. and around the world.
“There’s not a country in the world where the government doesn’t intervene and shape market opportunities,” Casey says.
In low-income countries like Sierra Leone, the stakes of understanding these connections may be especially high, since governance institutions often play an outsized role in markets, and because measures of basic welfare stand to improve so much.
“The long-run goal of improving governance in low-income countries is that it opens up more space for private investment, which can be transformative,” Casey says. “If you get great companies in, running clean businesses, there’s job creation, human capital spillovers, and it’s just a great, powerful engine of growth.”
This article originally appeared as part of the Stanford Graduate School of Business' Faculty Voices series.