Identification Politics: Information, Distribution, and the State in Sub-Saharan Africa
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CitationBowles, Jeremy. 2021. Identification Politics: Information, Distribution, and the State in Sub-Saharan Africa. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
AbstractA distinguished literature in political science conceives of states as seeking to impose uniform control throughout their territories but being constrained by the high resource costs of doing so. Accordingly, the inability of many developing countries to evenly administer policy is often construed to be a problem of limited state capacity. This dissertation considers the reverse: how even nominally universal state-building schemes can exacerbate inequalities in the state’s coverage. Because such efforts have stratified effects, they induce distributive conflicts which undermine states’ incentives to expand their reach. As a result, the challenge is less resource constraints than a set of perverse and self-reinforcing political incentives which restrict the state’s uniform expansion.
Substantively, I focus on the development of states’ informational capacities through citizen identification and registration schemes. First, drawing on evidence from Tanzania, I consider why we observe such enduring economic inequalities in citizens’ legibility to the state. Leveraging a targeted policy reform in the early post-independence period, novel causal estimates highlight the selective incentives faced by wealthier citizens to comply with the state’s informational demands. Second, drawing on evidence from Ghana, I study the challenge of disrupting this truncated status quo. Exploiting a discontinuity in the spatial assignment of identity registries, I demonstrate how the more even incidence of the state’s capacities risks exposing it to demands it struggles to meet. Third, in the context of modern Uganda, I study how citizens interpret signals of the state’s expanding reach. Utilizing the fortuitous timing of a social survey administered during its intensive biometric identification rollout, I show how complex signals of capacity can raise citizens’ expectations of future service provision in ways which prompt disappointment and disillusionment ex post.
Together, these country cases and historical moments underscore how efforts to develop the state’s informational capacities have distributive consequences for who the state covers and how. These consequences jar both with policy narratives regarding such modernizing initiatives and a broader academic literature on state-building that is often quiet on questions of distribution.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37370199
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