Best Dissertation Defended in 2019 Honorable Mention


Winner: Tesalia Rizzo, MIT 

Title of the winning dissertation: “Intermediaries of the State: Bureaucratic Transaction Costs of Claiming Welfare in Mexico” 

Tesalia Rizzo’s dissertation is a wonderful example of a how PhD students can inform an exciting field experiment through in-depth fieldwork, which increases our ability to learn from the experiment by making treatments contextually powerful. Specifically, Rizzo spent 13 months of fieldwork gaining qualitative and quantitative evidence to characterize the relationship between citizens and clientelist brokers in Mexico regarding citizens’ ability to access welfare. Problematically, when people rely on such brokers to access welfare benefits, it undermines autonomous interactions and thus connection between the citizen and the state. Further, citizens receiving such help feel obliged to reciprocate by politically supporting the broker’s party by attending rallies or in vote choice. In an attempt to strengthen bureaucratic skill-building and weaken clientelism, Rizzo partners with a Mexican NGO to test the efficacy of an intervention to sink the costs of making a welfare claim more independently. Rizzo randomly assigns the NGO’s facilitators to communities in order to invite them to appointments, where they are assisted to learn their eligibility for different welfare benefits and apply for them. The intervention succeeded in attracting individuals to apply for welfare benefits without the help of clientelist brokers and led to less support for clientelism. This result is important given that much research in Latin America suggests that clientelist relationships are very strong and hard to weaken. In a context where clientelist brokers have filled in historically to connect the citizen and the state in weak-state settings — thereby undermining autonomous participation in a democracy, this dissertation shows that civil society can fill in to strengthen the citizen-state connection in a non-quid-pro-quo manner. This dissertation is a single-authored book-length project from which several papers have been drawn. We will be excited to see the finished products in the near future.