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Q&A with King Center Postdoctoral Fellow Jeremy Bowles

Bowles discusses his research on electoral accountability, voter mobilization, and state capacity.
Government and Institutions

Jeremy Bowles is postdoctoral fellow at the King Center and a political scientist working on the political economy of development, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. In September 2023, Bowles will become an assistant professor in the department of political science and school of public policy at University College London.

Your research is largely focused on electoral accountability and state capacity – what sparked your interest in these areas? How would you characterize the relationship between them?

jeremy bowles
Jeremy Bowles

A lot of the key challenges related to global development have always seemed to me political in nature. Sometimes, the challenge might be that we don’t know the effects of a particular policy on citizens’ welfare. But, a lot of the time, we might think that a policy has welfare-enhancing effects, but we observe that it seems to be underprovided, or provided inefficiently, in a lot of developing country settings.

Take, for example, policies around civil registration, through which citizens gain access to legal identity documents like birth certificates or national identity cards. Such documents are increasingly needed for making claims on public resources, such as proving eligibility for social assistance policies, participating in elections, or accessing the formal financial sector. Registration policies have been enshrined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as critical for global development, but the World Bank estimates nearly a billion people are “invisible” and remain unregistered by their governments, which then risks their exclusion and marginalization. If policies like this enhance welfare so clearly, why are they so scarce?

The undersupply of such policies has a few potential causes, but I think political reasons are central: first, whether political leaders face incentives to implement a particular policy; and second, whether they have the ability to implement it well. Such incentives are often political and electoral in nature; while the ability to implement things relies heavily on the state’s capacities. Returning to the example, some of my work points to the negative political consequences of expanding civil registration policies fully: they can both strongly increase (particularly poorer) citizens’ expectations of what their governments should deliver to them while also signaling a threat of future taxation for (particularly wealthier) citizens. The political and electoral incentives to invest in these state-building policies are thus shaped in different regions by differences in economic inequality. As a result, I see accountability and capacity as two interactive dimensions in understanding the challenges of poverty alleviation policies across developing country settings – and surely more broadly, too.

Your research is also primarily concerned with sub-Saharan Africa – what factors encouraged this regional focus?

I spent a summer in college working and traveling between Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania – three neighboring countries which each felt very different, and which really triggered an initial interest in the region. Then, after college, I worked for a research center, the International Growth Center at the LSE, in a role which involved a lot of travel across sub-Saharan Africa trying to interface between researchers and policymakers across a range of focus areas. Gaining exposure to the huge variation in political and economic outcomes across and within countries in the region helped to solidify my regional focus.

Substantively, I became interested in specific topics related to state capacity during graduate school. A lot of this work, at least in political science, has tended to be more historical in nature and to have focused on western settings. Meanwhile, work on state capacity relating to sub-Saharan Africa has often focused on its important structural impediments – such as (pre)colonial legacies and factor endowments – while spending relatively less time studying the political challenges of policy implementation in the post-independence era. Given my prior regional interest, I thought that taking some of the ideas from the classic historical literature on state capacity and applying them across a region with such varied, but generally limited, levels of capacity, would be particularly interesting.

In 2020, you published a paper on the ways in which political parties in developing democracies can monitor brokers' efforts to mobilize voters. This paper used data from Liberian elections. What is the most important finding from this work? Were you surprised by it?

I think two aspects of this paper are most interesting. The first is that political parties in Liberia – which has only held fully democratic elections since 2005, following its protracted and devastating civil war – were sufficiently organizationally adept that they could undertake quite sophisticated strategies using brokers (locally-embedded individuals they work with to mobilize voters) to boost their electoral prospects. Because Liberia is so rural, political parties and their brokers often provide transport to citizens to register them to vote and then to vote on election day itself. We show how the parties monitor the work of these brokers, especially in more rural parts of the country where citizens otherwise face very high transportation costs, which in turn induces these agents to exert more effort and the parties to accrue more favorable election results. Monitoring the efforts of political brokers has generally been assumed to be sufficiently challenging that few parties in the region could really do it, so it was especially surprising to learn how the Unity Party (the incumbent party from 2005 to 2017) did so. Our general sense is that the literature had both overestimated the difficulty of monitoring brokers and underestimated the capabilities of many political parties in the region to do so.

The second relates to the important role of institutions which administer elections. The National Election Commission (NEC) in Liberia faces a hugely daunting task – of running elections in a setting with a history of violence around elections, with a lot of money and corruption in politics, and where incredibly few citizens can prove their identity to register to vote. That paper discusses how political parties leveraged some aspects of Liberia’s electoral administration processes to their advantage, but more broadly I found it surprising to learn how these institutions, given their circumstances and available resources, can run elections so effectively. The country has now administered three presidential elections, including a transition of power in 2017 that was remarkably smooth. The effective administration of elections seemed to play a really central role in enhancing citizens’ trust in government and state-building more generally.

You have several ongoing projects looking at social media and misinformation in countries around the world. What are you studying in these contexts? Do you think there are any implications from this work for the United States?

Early during the pandemic, with some coauthors, we became interested in studying then-emergent issues around COVID-19 misinformation, particularly in settings where citizens lacked trust in their government or access to reputable news sources. Combating misinformation seemed especially challenging in settings where citizens’ limited access to the broader internet (due to the high financial costs of access) means that a lot of misinformation spreading through messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp, was hard for people to verify.

In Zimbabwe, we ran a pilot study which found that sending WhatsApp messages from a highly credible civil society organization (CSO) called Kubatana had positive effects on citizens’ attitudes and behaviors relating to COVID-19. We then expanded this into a study in South Africa, where we partnered with a fact-checking organization called Africa Check to send fact-checks through a few different modes of delivery (such as text messages and podcasts) to participants over the course of six months through WhatsApp. That project, which we wrapped up recently, found that interventions which empathized with the difficulties of avoiding misinformation were highly effective. We also found that simpler modes of delivery (such as sending short text information messages) were often more effective than more sophisticated ones (such as sending the information through entertaining podcast-like audio clips).

These projects point to important roles for the perceived credibility of sources which seek to debunk misinformation, as well as the need to deliver sustained interventions in a way that empathizes with people. In highly politically polarized settings, such as the United States, selecting the optimal source of interventions (such as media outlets or civil society organizations) which seek to combat misinformation is then likely to be highly consequential but also quite challenging to identify.

Elsewhere, I’ve been working on social media-related projects in Uganda and Turkey trying to understand how social media affects political attitudes and polarization in electoral autocratic settings---i.e. essentially autocratic regimes that still hold elections, which represents the most common regime type globally. In Uganda, we alleviated citizens’ financial costs of social media access around its 2021 election and shortly thereafter; in Turkey, we encouraged citizens to read news through social media from outlets they don’t normally follow. In contrast to work in the United States, we don’t find evidence of any “backlash effect” – i.e. that people become more entrenched in their prior political views – in either study. Instead, we find some evidence of reductions in political polarization in each study. Interestingly, these reductions are not just driven by pro-regime supporters being exposed to novel anti-regime information, but also by anti-regime supporters seeing persuasive pro-regime content. These studies suggest that social media can work to moderate citizens’ political attitudes, but they also highlight how authoritarian regimes have been able to shape online content production to mitigate the negative effects on their popularity we might otherwise predict.

You have been at the King Center as a postdoctoral scholar for a year now and will be staying through summer 2023. What has your experience been like at Stanford and the King Center and what research are you looking forward to working on in the year to come?

The King Center has provided an amazing environment for research over the last year. Having two years to focus entirely on research with few other commitments is a real luxury, and Stanford more broadly, especially between the economics and political science departments and the business school, has provided a very supportive environment for research in political economy. This past year I’ve mostly focused on implementing and completing research projects that I started towards the end of graduate school, and I’m looking forward to taking on new projects in my second year at the King Center.

For one, I’ve started work on a new project in Zambia where we’re helping to inform and potentially evaluate a major reform to a development policy, the Constituency Development Fund. I’ve studied the benefits of these policies for electoral accountability in prior work, so am excited to get involved in studying an ongoing reform. I’m also hoping to come back to my dissertation project relating to the informational dimensions of state capacity, such as through citizen identification and registration schemes, and to think about broadening the project into a book manuscript.