As the daughter of a prominent Mexican government official, Tesalia Rizzo routinely witnessed interactions between citizens and politicians — from an unusual vantage point.
“I would hide under my dad’s desk while people requested things from him,” recalls Rizzo, a sixth-year doctoral student of political science. Rizzo also vividly remembers visiting lower income neighborhoods and rural districts with her parents, where residents showered gratitude on them for infrastructure projects delivering new roads and clean water.
“It really confused me why people were so thankful since it was their money that enabled the development,” says Rizzo. “This concept of indebtedness and its role in politics stayed with me for a long time, and affected me a lot both personally and professionally.”
The impact of Rizzo’s childhood experiences are readily apparent in her academic pursuits, especially in the research she is now completing for her dissertation, which focuses on the phenomenon of clientelism.
In this entrenched political dynamic, common among many low- and middle-income nations, local politicians take claim for public services that are actually provided to the citizen by the state. Services range from sewage systems and subsidies for starting a small business, to medical coverage for a pregnancy and simple goods like agricultural tools. Citizens, who mistakenly believe they must reciprocate for these benefits, reward politicians with loyalty at the polls or actual financial payment.
“After studying this dynamic in local politics, I came to see it as pathology,” says Rizzo. “It poses significant obstacles to voter autonomy and democratic representation,” she says.
Health reform and party politics
Rizzo began teasing out the mechanisms of clientelism early in her academic life. At the Instituto Technológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), she wrote her senior thesis on the politics behind the nation’s ambitious and successful program in the early 2000s to provide health care to a large unserved population. She was particularly curious about the electoral consequences of this program: “Does the fact that suddenly someone has health care shape political preferences, and will that voter reward a political party for this new service?” she asked.
Rizzo’s research uncovered a paradox: The party responsible at the national level for pushing health care reform was least likely to receive voter support. “I found that the party rewarded at the polls was the one with the strongest local organization, which claimed credit for implementing the legislation,” she says.
Intrigued by these results, Rizzo sought in her graduate studies to extend her investigation of clientelism and investigate its impacts on voting behavior. The best venue for launching this effort, she believed, was MIT.
“There was a lot of conversation with faculty about policy impact, much more so than at other universities where the focus is exclusively on research,” she says. “I wanted to be in an environment where research was not just theoretically relevant, but where I would have support to express and develop policy implications at the same time.
At MIT, Rizzo found a mentor in Lily L. Tsai, associate professor of political science, who is also director of the MIT Governance Lab (GOV/LAB), a group founded to research political behavior and to make governments around the world more accountable to citizens. Through GOV/LAB, where she became a graduate research fellow, and with the help of two Mexican civil society organizations, Participando por México and Observatorio de Desarrollo Regional y Promoción Social, Rizzo set out on an ambitious, in-depth study of clientelism in Mexico.
Political brokers can break democratic institutions
A central question drove the design and implementation of Rizzo’s experiment: What happens if people accustomed to using brokers, those politician-middlemen who provide state goods and services in exchange for political rewards, instead gain direct access to those entitlements?
To answer this question, Rizzo decided to stage a large-scale intervention in Yucatan in 2016, a rural state characterized by small communities whose residents routinely sought access to social assistance benefits through brokers.
Rizzo randomly selected 150 communities, dividing then into 75 control and 75 “treatment” groups. In the treatment communities, she hired and trained a small army of native-born field canvassers to go from home to home, surveying people on their needs. These canvassers offered to assist in the process of requesting state benefits — by giving citizens the means to obtain benefits on their own.
“Most people were surprised by how simple the process was, once they knew where to go and how to contact the appropriate authorities,” says Rizzo.
After three months, Rizzo conducted a survey in both control and intervention groups, and the results were clear: Treatment subjects said they were much more likely to pursue services on their own in the future. The control subjects stated they would continue to rely on brokers.
More important and surprising to her, says Rizzo, was the significant change of attitude toward local brokers among treatment subjects: “While control subjects continued to feel obligated to reward the political party in exchange for an entitlement, intervention subjects felt considerably less obligation to reward the party.” In fact, says Rizzo, treatment subjects declared “they were less likely to say they sympathized with any political party.”
Through her experiment, Rizzo believes she has identified an important tool for building voter autonomy. She plans to test this hypothesis using electoral data from the 2018 elections this summer, seeking changes in aggregate voting behavior that might be linked to her intervention.
Rizzo’s work was recognized by a 2017 Innovation in Transparency award from the Mexican government. She is publishing her intervention methodology, and with a civic technology company, is developing an online platform to enable citizens across the nation to find and obtain benefits to which they are entitled.
“Clientelism is the rule of the land in many places, and civic organizations must push a long-term, activist agenda to end it, especially where the state does nothing,” she says. As she enters the academic job market this fall, Rizzo intends to participate in this effort. “Strengthening the relationship between citizens and state, making it more transparent, can only have a positive impact on citizen engagement and political participation,” she says.