When Clients Exit: Alternatives to Clientelism in Accessing State Services in Mexico

GOV/LAB is conducting a field experiment to explore the role of brokers and clientelism in accessing state services in Mexico.

What happens when citizens embedded in clientelistic culture are given new ways of accessing government services? Will citizens decide to exit a clientelistic system of exchange in favor of a programmatic alternative? How does the experience of accessing the state through non-clientelistic avenues affect citizens’ political behavior?

In poor and marginalized communities around the developing world, many citizens must engage with informal, partisan brokers if they want to access ostensibly universal government services and social programs. These brokers frequently regulate the flow of government goods in their communities and provide access in exchange for costly political support. A large percentage of local budgets in Mexico is destined to countless highly discretionary social and rural assistance programs with broad and mostly flexible eligibility criteria.

Poor citizens usually lack key information about the myriad of existing local programs and have scant monetary, time and even psychological resources to invest in complex and costly application procedures. Instead, citizens rely on more knowledgeable and politically savvy clientelistic brokers to access many ostensibly universal governmental services and social programs, resulting in a politically biased distribution of goods and services. This is an especially serious problem at the local (state and municipal) level, where budgetary oversight is weak, program implementation is unstructured, and partisan misuse of funds is deeply entrenched.

Many have argued that providing unconditional and programmatic access to goods can weaken a broker’s clientelistic hold as clients exit in favor of a programmatic approach (Stokes et al. 2013; Díaz-Cayeros, Estévez, and Magaloni 2016; Zucco 2013; de la O 2012). Furthermore, programmatic access to governmental goods and services is said to improve direct access to public goods and services, mechanisms of accountability and citizen engagement in policy development.

MIT GOV/LAB in collaboration with Participando por México and Observatorio del Desarollo Regional y Promoción Social is testing these claims through a field experiment where we randomly introduce a new programmatic ‘broker’ in 75 selected villages in the Mexican state of Yucatan. In each selected locality, an individual from the community will be recruited and trained to provide public information and assistance in official application procedures to a wide range of local level government programs, including scholarship programs, poverty relief and small productive subsidies for rural areas. We call this programmatic broker a gestor ciudadano.