City Size and Public Service Access: Evidence from Brazil, India, and Indonesia


Abstract: The fiscal federalism and decentralization literatures suggest that larger cities often deliver better public goods more effectively because of scale economies. Yet small cities exhibit higher rates of access to basic health and education services in Brazil, India, and Indonesia. Why is this the case? Building on modernization theory and models from urban economics, we argue that citizens in smaller cities prioritize investments in basic health and education facilities because there are few low- cost substitutes for government offerings, and because they face few characteristically “urban” problems, such as congestion and insecurity. Residents of larger cities, in contrast, prioritize investment in a wider set of policy areas because they experience more negative externalities from urban growth and can turn to a larger supply of non-state providers of basic social services. Moreover, public officials in smaller cities find it easier to earn political returns for investments in “divisible” infrastructure for service delivery, such as schools and clinics, because they can coordinate lobbying and credit-claiming more effectively than politicians in larger cities. We illustrate the mechanisms underlying these differences across policy areas through data analysis and paired comparison of representative cities of different sizes in Brazil, and with shadow cases from Indonesia.

Alison Post is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Global Metropolitan Studies.  Her research lies at the intersection of comparative urban politics and comparative political economy, with regional emphases on Latin America and South Asia. Her research examines regulation and business-government relations, decentralization, and urban politics and policy.  She is the author of Foreign and Domestic Investment in Argentina: The Politics of Privatized Infrastructure (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and articles in the Annual Review of Political Science, Comparative Politics, Governance, Perspectives on Politics, Politics & Society, Studies in Comparative International DevelopmentWorld Development, and other outlets. She is currently the President of the Urban and Local Politics section of the American Political Science Association and Chair of the Steering Committee for the Red de Economía Política de America Latina (Repal). 


This event is co-sponsored by Center for Latin American Studies and Center for South Asia

Professor Alison Post