The Effects of a Sustainable Development Intervention on Political Behavior

Post developed by Linda Kimmel in coordination with Elisabeth Gerber.

ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), the following work was presented at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA).  The presentation, titled “Mobilizing or Demobilizing Political Participation,” was a part of session “The Public Policy Process in Comparative Perspective” on Thursday September 3rd, 2015.

ResearchersSustainable development (SD) policies seek to shape economic and environmental behavior by providing households with benefits, rewards and incentives. But does engagement in SD interventions change individuals’ propensities to engage in political activities? This is the question Center for Political Studies faculty members Arun Agrawal and Elisabeth Gerber, and their colleague Ashwini Chhatre of the Indian School of Business, seek to answer.

Agrawal, Chhatre, and Gerber note that in new and emerging democracies the challenges of political participation are daunting due to such factors as a lack of education and weak democratic traditions. Can the skills, resources, and experiences gained through participating in SD interventions transfer to the political sphere by lowering barriers? Or, does participation in an SD intervention create additional barriers?

The authors test two hypotheses, one based on social choice theory and the other on resource theory on data collected in a SD intervention in Himachal Pradesh state in northern India, the Mid-Himalayan Watershed Development Project. The project sought to improve the livelihoods of poor households, conserve natural resources, and increase local governance capacity. Participating panchayats (a local government unit) received benefits to enhance residents’ incomes and reduce their dependency on forest resources. In exchange, participants were required to attend information meetings and participate in environmental education training.

Argrawal, Chhatre and Gerber selected five participating panchayats (treatment group) and five matched non-participating panchayats (control group). One member of each household was selected to complete a pre- and post-treatment survey. Key questions included measures of engagement with the SD project and two measures of political participation: (1) days campaigning in local panchayat elections and (2) number of times attending gram sabha meetings (essentially town hall meetings).

Average estimated treatment effect (ATE) is measured as the difference between paired treatment and control respondents in their change in behavior (number of meetings attended and days campaigning) between 2006 (pre-treatment) and 2011 (post-treatment). When respondents in treatment panchayats are compared to those from control panchayats (Table 1, first row), there is a negative ATE both for days campaigning and attending gram sabha meetings, indicating respondents in treatment panchayats became less likely to spend days campaigning and attending meetings than those in control panchayats. Thus, the project seems to demobilize political behavior.

When the analysis is limited to comparing those who actually participated in the project to their counterparts in control panchayats (Table 1, second row), the results differ, with those who participated in the project becoming more likely to attend more gram sabha meetings.

Table 1: Effect of Project on Campaigning and Attending Meetings, Average Treatment Effects with Alternative Treatments. N=1432

  Days Campaigning Attending Gram Sabha
Treatment ATE ATE
Project Village -1.57*** -0.16*
Participation -1.51*** 0.45***

*p<.10, **p<.05, ***p<.01, two-tailed test

When the authors reran the data limiting comparison respondents to those who lived in treatment villages but did not participate (Table 2), they found that those who participated in at least one project activity (Table 2, first row) and in each of three types of activities (Table 2, second through fourth row) became more likely to attend gram sabha meetings and to spend more days campaigning than their neighbors who did not.

Table 2: Effect of Project on Campaigning and Attending Meetings, Average Treatment Effects Comparing Respondents within Treatment Villages with Alternative Treatments. N=799

  Days Campaigning Attending Gram Sabha
Treatment ATE ATE
Participation 0.99** 1.22***
Attended environmental education Meetings 0.94** 1.55***
Received material benefits 1.16** 0.72**
Participated in construction of small-scale public good 0.86 1.49***

*p<.10, **p<.05, ***p<.01, two-tailed test

But why do those who directly participated in the project report greater levels of political participation post-treatment? Argrawal, Chhatre and Gerber suggest one possibility – consistent with resource theory – is that they gained additional resources through their project experience and now find political participation less costly. They plan to explore alternative explanations, including reverse causality, in future analyses.

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