Interview by Michelle Nicholasen
Assistant Professor of Government Pia Raffler understands the fraught relationship between politicians, bureaucrats, and voters. Her research on the political economy of development asks the question: How do voters hold their politicians accountable, and, in turn, how do politicians exert oversight of bureaucrats?
Using a combination of experimental and qualitative methods in her field research in Uganda, she seeks to understand when and why accountability breaks down. For example, her research has found that in the absence of party competition, local elected officials fear using tools to engage in oversight of the bureaucracy. Other work highlights the role of skewed access to information about candidates in reinforcing the electoral dominance of the ruling party. In Germany, she has also studied how the media affects political behavior. She teaches classes on African politics, comparative political economy, and governance in developing countries, and has codirected the Comparative Politics Seminar and the Graduate Workshop on Political Economy at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
CENTERPIECE: What is your overall approach to finding research questions?
RAFFLER: I talk to voters, bureaucrats, and politicians in weakly institutionalized settings and try to understand what dilemmas they face. I compare those with our understanding in the literature. When we don’t have a good grasp of the issues yet then that’s probably a good project to take on.
CENTERPIECE: How did you become interested in Uganda?
RAFFLER: I first became interested in development when I spent eight months in rural Ghana just after high school, interning with a local NGO there. When I was studying for my master’s degree at Columbia University, I spent a summer working in northern Uganda and was fascinated by the fact that incentives set by local institutions were at times counterproductive to good government performance. For example, local bureaucrats had every incentive to engage in some degree of shirking and misallocation of funds, given limited political and administrative oversight. That got me interested in political science, since the reasons for such suboptimal institutional design (from a purely technical perspective) are usually political. Before starting my PhD at Yale, I set up the Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) office—an international research organization—in Uganda and led it for two-and-a-half years. I still partner with IPA on much of my work.
CENTERPIECE: How is your research focus unique in the field of political science and development studies?
RAFFLER: I think it is crucial to understand political oversight of the bureaucracy if we want to explain governance outcomes in weakly institutionalized settings. In the end, politicians are not the ones who are implementing services; for that they have to delegate to the bureaucracy. However, they often have a hard time holding the bureaucracy accountable. That link between politicians and bureaucrats, in my view, has received too little attention, particularly in the study of developing countries. It can be difficult for politicians to control the bureaucracy when they have lower education levels than their civil servants, which is often the case in local governments. In addition, turnover among these politicians is often high, so they don’t have time to learn the rules of the game, unlike career civil servants. In the Ugandan context, for example, local politicians often do not know how many public funds actually arrive from the capital in their own district that they're supposed to oversee. This issue is common in other developing countries as well.
CENTERPIECE: Is it difficult to work with the very groups that you are hoping to “reform”?
RAFFLER: Well, my role is not to reform governments but to understand the reasons why governments are often not accountable to their citizens. My approach is to work with these same governments or political parties to institute changes in the way they operate in a systematic manner so that we can observe the ripple effects, so to speak, and how they are conditioned by different political, institutional, and economic factors. Part of the process is to design and test reforms that promote accountability, to such an extent that they can accept and own it. It's a fine line to walk.
CENTERPIECE: How do you see the long-term effect of your work?
RAFFLER: My goal is to understand why accountability breaks down. If that knowledge can be used to inform policy, that’s ideal. Every project is a partnership—government agencies and political parties will cooperate with me only if they are interested in the answers themselves. That keeps my research grounded. It’s also one of the reasons why I like to work with government agencies—ultimately, they are in the best position to take solutions to scale and to change people’s lives.
CENTERPIECE: Can you reflect on the multidisciplinary aspects of your work?
RAFFLER: My work lies at the intersection of comparative politics, political economy, and development economics. I like to use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to get my head around an issue, often iteratively—qualitative interviews to develop an intuition, quantitative (often experimental) methods to test it, then again qualitative methods to understand the mechanisms, ideally followed by more quantitative data collection to test them at a larger scale. Each project is really a huge team effort (see photo) and only possible because I have wonderful colleagues and partners.
CENTERPIECE: What are you working on right now?
RAFFLER: I am excited about a few new projects, in particular one that seeks to understand how bottom-up and top-down accountability complement each other in the context of the education sector.
CENTERPIECE: Can you share a fun fact people would not know about you?
RAFFLER: I grew up spending my weekends in the barn. In my alternate life I’d be a farmer!
- Pia Raffler. Credit: Used with permission from Pia Raffler
- Pia Raffler and field team at IPA Uganda, about to begin a survey of Ugandan local government officials. Credit: Used with permission from Pia Raffler