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Saad Gulzar on the role of local elections in overcoming poverty in the developing world

Political scientist and Faculty Affiliate Saad Gulzar dives into his background and research in Pakistan.
Government and Institutions

In 2010, Saad Gulzar was tasked with helping to solve a fairly straightforward dilemma: how could government watchdogs stationed in Pakistan’s capital do a better job of overseeing the 2,500 public health clinics serving more than 100 million people in the province of Punjab? Inspections of the facilities were sporadic. Worse, doctors weren’t showing up for work.

At the time, Gulzar was an economist working in the Pakistan office of the International Growth Centre (IGC), which brings together researchers and policymakers to tackle challenges in the developing world. With funding from the World Bank and the IGC, a team of researchers including Gulzar came up with a simple fix. Instead of using paper-based inspection reports, health monitors entered data on the clinics they visited into a smartphone app. Senior bureaucrats in Islamabad could access the reports in real time. To prevent misuse, the reports were geo-stamped and time-stamped and included a photo of the inspector with clinic staff.

Saad Gulzar
Saad Gulzar

Soon, inspection rates of clinics doubled. Over the next few years, Pakistani leaders, having discovered the power of digitization, adapted this model to multiple government services across Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.

For Gulzar, now an assistant professor of political science at Stanford and faculty affiliate at the Stanford King Center on Global Development (King Center), there was one big problem. While inspections of health clinics shot up, the dismal record of attendance by doctors and staff barely budged. Many of them had gotten their jobs through political patronage, so they didn’t worry much about losing them just for skipping work.

That insight set Gulzar on a new path. Intrigued by how political aspects of policy making can contribute to economic development problems, he earned a PhD in political science from New York University in 2017. Gulzar also holds two master’s degrees, one in public administration from Columbia and the other in public policy from National University of Singapore.

A Stanford faculty member since 2017, Gulzar concentrates his research on the political economy of development and comparative politics across South Asia. This includes identifying ways in which local elections in Pakistan, Nepal, and India — introduced in 2015, 2017, and the mid-1990s, respectively — can empower villagers and ultimately lead to policies that raise their standard of living.

“I’m broadly interested in how to make politics more inclusive and how that inclusiveness changes policymaking in ways that can have a tangible effect on the lives of the poor,” says Gulzar.

Seeking lessons of first-time politicians

To understand how local elections are changing the political landscape in parts of South Asia, consider Pakistan. Local government in the country had long been associated with military rule. But because of the 2015 electoral reforms, the number of directly elected officials rose from 125 to roughly 48,000 in a single province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where 30 million people reside.

In a recent study that is now a working paper, Gulzar and a collaborator set out to encourage everyday Pakistani citizens to campaign for village council, the lowest tier of office. Field researchers knocked on doors and held public meetings where they described the electoral process. Sometimes they portrayed political office as a way to help others and, other times, as a means for gaining respect and influence.

The results were intriguing. Simply having a conversation with randomly sampled villagers led to a fivefold increase in the likelihood that they would bid for a council seat. They were also more likely to win, suggesting there are viable candidates who will jump into politics if asked.

Moreover, villagers were more inclined to run when they were told that holding office was a social good than when they were told that political leadership would bring them respect and influence.

A year later, Gulzar and his co-author found, villagers who ran for office and won based on the message of helping their communities were more attuned to voter needs in terms of actual policy than those who were asked to consider running for their own benefits.

The findings, says Gulzar, are significant given the $2.5 billion the United States spends each year on promoting democracy in developing countries. “To our knowledge, this is the first experimental evidence that mobilization programs can have a large impact on the number and profile of candidates running for office as well as policy outcomes, including programs for reducing poverty,” says Gulzar. He plans to conduct follow-up studies on the careers of these first-time politicians and how political parties cultivate candidates.

In previous research, Gulzar has found that, in India, electoral quotas mandating that members of a historically disadvantaged indigenous group hold local office can significantly benefit minorities. He is now working with a political party to help it better engage with women and other groups. During summer 2018, Gulzar participated in the King Center’s Summer Undergraduate Field Research Assistant Program, where two undergraduate students spent the summer in India working alongside Gulzar and his research team to explore these issues.

“I’ve always enjoyed interfacing with policymakers and relevant stakeholders to address economic development problems,” says Gulzar. “Now, as an academic, I have the opportunity to use these collaborations to think critically about the underlying causes of poverty and design solutions that might work.”

Gulzar’s recent work on political participation in South Asia is supported by the King Center through several junior faculty research grants. Most recently, Gulzar and a team of academics and government officials have begun to examine political participation in Nepal after the country’s 2017 democratization. Gulzar’s team is capturing unique data on the process of candidate selection within three political parties in order to better understand how demographics and biases of selection committee members influence who is allowed to run for office at the local level.