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Katherine Casey on information as a political game-changer for developing economies

Kate's portrait

Imagine politics without the cacophony of 24-hour cable news, Twitter-fueled bickering, morning newspapers or even radio. In much of the developing world, this information vacuum is a harsh reality — and a major reason why low-income countries with democratic elections continue to struggle.

In the extreme, if voters have no information about candidate performance or competence, “Why even have elections?” asks Katherine Casey, a SIEPR faculty fellow and associate professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “They won’t help governments perform better or be more accountable.”

Casey has devoted her career to studying Sub-Saharan African countries and how information can help voters elect better leaders, dampen ethnic rivalries, and strengthen democracy.

In Sierra Leone, an electoral democracy since the end of a brutal civil war in 2002 and Casey’s home from 2004 to 2006, she has shown how voters with access to information about candidates are less likely to vote along ethnic lines. Even the seemingly trivial act of publishing photos of candidates on ballots can give some information to voters about how trustworthy and persuasive a politician is likely to be.

In a field experiment, Casey and co-authors worked with a local media partner to organize moderated debates among candidates for Sierra Leone’s national parliament in 2012. Videos of the debates were then taken to communities and projected onto the exteriors of polling centers.

“For these voters, this was a massive information shock,” says Casey. In the election that followed, voters who had seen the video debates were more likely to cast ballots for politicians who shared their concerns about policy issues like health care. Among voters who did not see the debates, around 60 percent could not name the candidates in the election they had just voted in.

There was another payoff. Voters who watched the video debates learned from them that parliamentarians each get $11,000 upon taking their seats. Once politicians knew that voters were aware of the money, they were more likely to follow through on their pledges to spend the money helping constituents and their communities — not themselves.

“We now know from empirical evidence that people are willing to move away from ethnic loyalties when they have good, credible information about candidates,” says Casey. “We also know that publicizing information about politician performance can change the way they behave, and for the better.”

Casey is now interested in the question of how political parties can attract more competent candidates to run for office. She is also in the early stages of a pilot project on government worker productivity in Ethiopia, in partnership with a SIEPR senior fellow and Stanford economics professor Edward Lazear. This research is supported by the Stanford Economic Development Research Initiative.

Determined to help struggling economies, Casey earned her masters degree in public policy from Harvard in 2003. Soon after, she joined the World Bank, where she worked as a consultant in Madagascar, the Comoros, and Indonesia. Through the bank she also served as a consultant to the Sierra Leone government for two years. She then earned her PhD in economics from Brown in 2011 and joined Stanford’s faculty.

Casey credits her insights into African politics to the massive proliferation of randomized trials in development economics in recent years. “There are lots of fads in the foreign aid world,” says Casey. “[But] we’re starting to get a lot of scientific evidence on the strategies that are most effective.”