On Monday, Dr. Ruth Carlitz (Tulane University) presented, “When do services reach the poor? Street-level discretion and pro-poor targeting” at the Institutions and the State in Africa Working Group. In the past twenty years, there has been increased attention in the international community on public services—such as education, health, and clean drinking water—motivated by Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals. Many countries exhibit considerable discrepancies across geographic areas and communities – particularly when it comes to meeting the needs of the poor. Thus, Dr. Carlitz argues that focusing just on national targets leaves a lot of the story untold. Her work seeks to understand sub-national variation that can be attributed to public services, highlighting the role of street-level discretion in pro-poor targeting. Common explanations for sub-national variation in public services include urban bias or distributive politics such as ethnic favoritism, punishment in dominant party regimes, etc. Previous research has tended to focus attention on the availability and distribution of resources but has given insufficient attention to the “last mile,” the stage when public services reach the end user.

Dr. Carlitz’s research suggests that in many cases access to public services is constrained by disadvantages encountered in street-level interactions with services providers. Moreover, she points to the difference between physical access to public services versus effective access, where needs are actually met. Using Afrobarometer data, regression analysis finds relatively higher rates of physical access to schools/clinics among the poor, even when controlling for region fixed effects. However, once in contact with relevant service providers, the poor face disadvantages. More educated respondents were seen to have an advantage when it comes to effective access to health/water. This suggests support for an information asymmetry and/or advocacy capacity mechanisms.

As this research project is still in its early stages, in the next steps of the project Dr. Carlitz would like to better account for country specific factors such as quality of government, characteristics of public employment, and availability of exit options. She would also like to further query proposed mechanisms by exploring: Under what conditions does discretion facilitate or inhibit needs-based targeting? and, How to disentangle information asymmetries from advocacy capacity?