Civic engagement underpins a healthy democracy when it provides channels outside of elections for citizens to express preferences and demands to politicians. This mechanism of democratic accountability is undermined when groups of citizens face differential access or barriers to participation. It is well-documented that marginalized groups participate less, particularly in developing countries where economic and social inequalities are higher. I discuss two primary constraints: marginalized groups face higher material and social costs, and they are less likely to have the information and knowledge necessary for engagement. I test the second of these two explanations in the West African country of Mali with a field experiment that randomly assigned an information intervention to some localities and not others. An exogenous increase in civic and political information had no net effect on treated communities, but had significant effects conditional on gender: men participated significantly more in civic activity while women participated less. I show this disparity is not driven by pre-existing differences in knowledge or skills but rather higher social costs faced by women. However, it appears the increase in civic activity among men is driven by individuals more dissatisfied with government and the decrease among women is driven by more satisfied individuals dropping out. Together, these findings suggest that citizens face an information constraint to civic participation that can be addressed, in part, by improving information, but that information alone cannot overcome inegalitarian social norms – and may even exacerbate them.
Jessica Gottlieb is a 2012-2013 CDDRL pre-doctoral fellow and a PhD Candidate at Stanford University. She studies political behavior, institutions, and government performance in developing countries with a regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Her dissertation demonstrates how low voter expectations, collusion among political parties, and social inequalities together undermine electoral accountability in Mali. In her past and current research, Gottlieb combines extensive field work, sound research design and rigorous methods such as field, survey and behavioral experiments. She received an MA in Economics from Stanford in 2011 and expects to complete the PhD in Political Science by June 2013.