WP182: Is there an anti-politics of electricity? Access to the grid and reduced political participation in Africa

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Working papers
Jennifer N. Brass, Kirk Harris, and Lauren M. MacLean

Almost all African states face pressure to deliver improved public services to their citizens. In both emerging democracies and persistent authoritarian regimes, politics profoundly shapes how states distribute public goods such as roads, schools, health clinics, and electricity access (Briggs, 2014; Dixit & Londregan, 1996; Harding & Stasavage, 2014; Kramon & Posner, 2013; Min, 2015; Weingast, Shepsle, & Johnsen, 1981). But in addition to questions of how politics shapes distributive outcomes, scholars have recently turned to a new question: How does variation in public service provision subsequently shape political participation (Bodea & LeBas, 2016; Harding, 2015)? Here, the findings are less clear. Where some authors find that the receipt of public service provision stimulates participation (Bleck, 2015; Wantchekon, Klašnja, & Novta, 2015), others caution that service provision may actually undermine engagement or have no effect (Croke, Grossman, Larreguy, & Marshall, 2015; Kam & Palmer, 2008; Mattes & Mughogho, 2009). Most of this literature has focused on the political effects of the delivery of social welfare services, especially education. Meanwhile, the political effects of electricity provision have been largely overlooked.

Electricity provision is important for political outcomes for several reasons. Historically, in some African countries, electricity provision was tightly linked to the independence struggle and to rights of citizenship (MacLean, Gore, Brass, & Baldwin, 2016). Yet despite these expectations, African countries continue to have the lowest rates of electrification in the world. Only about one-third of Africans have access to electricity (International Energy Agency, 2014), and only two-thirds live in a community with any grid access (Oyuke, Penar, & Howard, 2016), and these rates are much lower in rural areas in most countries (Leo, Morello, & Ramachandran, 2015).