Power and the Vote: Elections and Electricity in the Developing World

Post developed by Yioryos Nardis in coordination with Brian Min.

Across the developing world, debate persists on whether democracy benefits the poor and how governments decide who gets access to public goods like electricity, water, and education. However, answers are limited because we lack reliable data on what states actually do in many of the world’s poorest areas where data are unavailable or of unknown quality.

Brian Min bookPower and the Vote: Elections and Electricity in the Developing World, a new book by Center for Political Studies Faculty Associate and Assistant Professor of Political Science Brian Min, overcomes fundamental data challenges by leveraging new satellite imagery that provides objective and consistent evidence on access to electricity, even in villages in the most remote parts of the world. New data and tests measure and observe state actions in the developing world where traditional data collection strategies are inadequate. Using satellite images of nighttime lights and other high-resolution geo-coded data across the world and over time, the book analyzes how political institutions affect the delivery of electricity to the poor.

The first book to use satellite data to study public goods and development, it offers an evaluation of how governments treat their citizens. The book builds on Min’s past work on the measurement of rural electrification in Senegal and Mali and electricity and electoral competition in India to provide a new political theory of public goods provision. Min argues that public goods are valuable to democratic leaders not only because they reach many voters and are valued by the public, but also because of the political externalities they generate for electorally minded politicians. Min’s research shows that the provision of seemingly universal public goods is intricately shaped by electoral priorities. Combining cross-national evidence with detailed sub-national analysis and village-level data from India, the book suggests that the targeting of electricity provision peaks during election periods when voter attention is highest and where the political opportunity and capacity for change is highest.

Power and the Vote points to the influence of electoral incentives in shaping the distribution of public goods, and challenges the view that democracy is a luxury of the rich with little relevance to the world’s poor. Policymakers and international development practitioners will appreciate the focus on the energy challenge facing the world’s poor, and insights on how politics shapes the delivery of even technical services like electricity.

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