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Studying state expansion in sub-Saharan Africa

Jamie Hintson looks closely at public infrastructure projects in dozens of countries as a part of his King Center Graduate Student Research Funding.

When Jamie Hintson traveled to Uganda with exploratory funding from the Stanford King Center on Global Development last year, he was seeking to confirm the effectiveness of his method for identifying the construction of public facilities in remote locations in more than 20 African countries. 

The trip revealed that his strategy—applying machine learning techniques to satellite imagery—worked; it also confirmed the major finding of that data, which is that there had been a massive amount of infrastructure growth in rural and remote areas in Africa in recent years. 

Hintson had originally planned to use the data to study whether the expansion of state services such as schools and health centers was linked to government efforts to consolidate power and influence in times of conflict. But, while in Uganda, he realized there must be another factor at play because, in many cases, the facilities being built were not fully functional: The vast majority were complete but not adequately staffed or supplied (others were complete but sat empty or were half built and abandoned).

“Much of this expansion of state infrastructure has been hollow,” he says. “Why is the state investing heavily in building all of this infrastructure [that no one can use]?”  

A billboard with the words "Corruption in procurement worsens poverty"
Credit: Jamie Hintson

This summer Hintson returned to Uganda with additional funding from the King Center and others to examine health center construction in 10 districts within Uganda, conducting qualitative interviews with members of Parliament, local political leaders, health care workers, and constituents along the way. What he found was surprising: Much of political science literature has coalesced around the idea that the expansion of public services is designed to bolster support among voters who can keep elected officials in power. But Hintson’s research so far suggests that infrastructure projects are often rent-seeking enterprises: Government leaders pay contractors to build the facilities—and receive kickbacks—but do not set aside money for actual operations.

“The answer from my fieldwork is that this is all about corruption in public procurement,” he explains. 

Hintson began studying the reach of the state as an undergraduate student at Princeton University under Professor Melissa Lee, ’15 PhD, who is now at the University of Pennsylvania. The South Carolina native and son of public-school teachers set out to study chemistry but found he was more intrigued by the social sciences.

“I’ve always been interested in the idea of puzzle solving,” he says. “Chemistry has a lot of that, but politics has maybe even more. There are a lot of really complicated and opaque puzzles in political science. Disentangling them and understanding them can be really interesting.”

Hintson first conducted research in Uganda while writing his senior thesis on cooperation and conflict among government leaders in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda. 

“I’ve always been interested in understanding what’s going on with a political situation that seems somewhat inscrutable,” he says. “How do we make sense of political actions and events that don’t seem to make sense?”

A new health center that was abandoned before completion—the roof and floor are not complete, but hospital beds were still supplied to the facility.
A new health center that was abandoned before completion | Credit: Jamie Hintson

In his most recent trip to Uganda, Hintson saw firsthand the “depressing” sight of public facilities that have no public function, including a health center in which only two out of 19 positions were filled and another in which new hospital beds were sitting in a locked building inhabited by bats. He spoke with one mother who had traveled three times for pre-natal care only to be turned away because the health center she visited was understaffed. 

Hintson is in the process of creating a survey to collect more data about the extent of the problem. But he already has some ideas about how to prevent such wasteful expenditures, including better oversight from donors such as the World Bank and developed countries. Sometimes the oversight exists on paper, he says, but projects veer off course in practice (In August, the World Bank suspended future loans to Uganda over its passage of an anti-gay law; Hintson says some Ugandans he spoke with felt like the move was “selective outrage.”).

Hintson also says voters need to mobilize to find ways to hold their elected leaders accountable for their actions, which can be difficult in countries where elections are not free and fair (In 2021, the United States cancelled its observation of Uganda’s presidential election because of concerns about transparency.)

Political science professor and King Center faculty affiliate Jeremy Weinstein, one of Hintson’s advisors, says Hintson’s research is “a superb example of marrying modern and classical research methods, with machine learning on high resolution satellite imagery to map state growth and on the ground qualitative fieldwork to understand the politics of infrastructure.” 

Weinstein’s co-advisor, James Fearon—also a political science professor and King Center faculty affiliate—agrees.

jamie hintson
Jamie Hintson

Hintson has “literally combined a 35,000 foot view (really, much higher) with shoe-leather, on-the-ground work to make political and economic sense of the ‘high-level’ data,” he says.  

Hintson, who is on track to finish his PhD in 2025, hopes to publish his research in book form. In addition to his in-depth work in Uganda, he is expanding his analysis of satellite imagery to include nearly all of Sub-Saharan Africa. 

He says the King Center’s support of his work has been critical.

“What I really appreciate about the King Center is that they offer exploratory grants,” he says. “When you’re in the initial stages of your research, you don’t always even know what the most interesting question is going to be, and you certainly don’t know the answers. This kind of support allows scholars to pursue the questions and answers that are most relevant and important and interesting on the ground.”

Hintson also says the King Center ecosystem has been a valuable resource; one postdoctoral researcher he met—Jeremy Bowles—had worked at the World Bank on issues related to Uganda.

“There’s a whole community of scholars doing really interesting work on questions of global development and political economy,” he says.