(Un)Natural Disasters: Distributive Politics in Northeast Brazil

The following is part of a series of posts written by 2016 MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences.

(Un)Natural Disasters: Distributive Politics in Northeast Brazil
Photos from Cooperman’s fieldwork in Ceará, Brazil. Top left: A fleet of water trucks owned by a wealthy local family are parked outside their home. Bottom left: Local water sources, including this former pond, and even state reservoirs are dry after five years of drought. Right: A donkey carries water jugs from the neighborhood well to nearby homes.

Most international attention on Brazilian politics focuses on the president’s recent impeachment and high-level corruption scandals. However, my fieldwork has shown me that “all politics is local” is more apt. Many Brazilian citizens are especially concerned about the politics of two issues salient for their day-to-day lives: Water and drought.

I argue that natural disasters, especially those that are cyclical and occur over longer periods – such as droughts – can provide electoral and economic opportunities for local politicians. Since disasters are seen as ‘exogenous’ and ‘natural,’ it is much easier for politicians to justify emergency and targeted funding to certain populations over others.

Campaigns for the upcoming municipal elections (to be held October 2, 2016) have begun, and in Northeast Brazil, the country’s poorest region suffers through its fifth year of devastating drought. The phenomena of “water for votes” and “the drought industry” are likely to be in full swing this election season. The overlap of electoral budget cycles and natural disasters can have drastic consequences for the distribution of critical and scarce public resources.

My research evaluates the politicization of disaster relief, focusing on drought and access to water resources. Even within the drought-prone region of Northeast Brazil, I find puzzling variation in the distribution of drought relief across states and municipalities. Some appear to follow programmatic policy based on need, while others receive drought relief even during high rainfall periods. Interviews that I conducted with rural farmers in Northeast Brazil highlight the incredible dependence that poor, subsistence farmers have on local leaders and politicians for sending water trucks and distributing drought-related cash transfers.

This study asks: where and when is politically-targeted (vs. need-based) distribution of basic services most likely, and how do politicians benefit from providing targeted relief?

Research Design

I utilize two sources of exogeneity to isolate the effect of non-climatic factors on declarations of drought: the exogenous timing of rainfall and the fixed electoral cycle. Since rainfall shocks are orthogonal to election year timing or other political factors, I am able to identify the relationship between political drivers and drought relief. By controlling for climate and local agricultural conditions, I test political hypotheses using the remaining variation.

I use a generalized difference-in-difference model with municipal and year fixed effects to tease apart political and temporal factors through administrative data, which provide the opportunity to explore systematic patterns and variation across 991 municipalities from 1999-2012. I explore the mechanisms through interviews of rural farmers, community leaders, and local politicians in the drought-prone Brazilian state of Ceará.

Main Findings and Discussion

I find that relief is more likely during mayoral election years, in both drought and high rainfall conditions. Incumbent mayors who provide drought relief in an election year are more likely to be re-elected, and mayors from the PT party are more likely to receive drought relief. These results are robust to the inclusion of controls for precipitation, agriculture and cattle, and municipal and year fixed effects.

Interviews that I conducted during fieldwork in Northeast Brazil in 2014 and 2016 suggest that drought relief is a political tool, especially water trucks and crop insurance cash transfers that can be targeted by neighborhood and household. Farmers sometimes even “pray for drought,” since the drought relief funds actually increase household stability for the vulnerable population relative to non-drought years.

Many local citizens and researchers also describe the pervasive “drought industry” (indústria da seca). Local elites, who sell water from private sources on their land and also own the water trucks contracted by the government, can profit immensely during periods of drought.

Local politicians have perverse incentives to provide drought relief – with its electoral and economic rewards – instead of maintaining existing water resources and reducing local vulnerability to chronic climate shocks.

Further Research

My broader dissertation further explores the local political economy of water resources and drought.

I study the sub-municipal relationships that affect who gets water access, drought relief, and other essential services:

  • What explains variation in access to water and other public services?
  • What are the electoral and economic incentives to receive and distribute disaster relief vs. to create sustainable, resilient water systems?
  • What is the role of local collective action and community associations in improving citizens’ access to basic services?

I am currently conducting a pre-election household survey in rural Northeast Brazil of 500+ households across 9 municipalities to study micro-relationships between water access, drought relief, participation in civil society and community associations, and electoral politics. I will continue my fieldwork throughout 2017.

About the Author: Alicia Cooperman is a 4th year Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. Her paper “(Un)Natural Disasters: Distributive Politics in Northeast Brazil” was awarded the Westview Press Award at the 2016 MPSA Conference for best paper delivered by a graduate student.