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Family networks and distributive politics

Politicians may have the opportunity to interfere with the allocation of public services to help to achieve their electoral objectives. This column argues that politicians share rents with central players to build and sustain coalitions. Using detailed data from the Philippines, it examines social networks and the allocation of municipal services. Households with greater potential to broker political coalitions do indeed appear to receive more services from their municipal government. 

Elected politicians often influence who receives government services. A common theme in this literature is that identifying the beneficiaries of political interference provides useful information about how incumbents attempt to achieve their electoral objectives (Dixit and Londregan 1996, 1998).

So far, the literature has assumed that incumbents were interested in changing individual voters’ decisions. While there is ample evidence that politicians interfere with the allocation of services, what is less clear is the direction in which the allocation is distorted (Hicken 2011). Depending on the context and service to be provided, politicians appear to target their core voters, swing voters, or their relatives.

In a recent paper, we take a broader approach and argue that politicians share rents with central players to build and sustain coalitions. More precisely, we look for evidence that municipal politicians target services towards individuals who, because of their position in the local family network, are most able to bring together disparate groups to form a winning coalition (Fafchamps and Labonne 2016).

We start from the presumption that politicians target municipal public services at individuals who can help them get elected. We argue that politicians seek to mobilise political brokers, that is, people who can help build a local coalition of support. We show that, in this case, politicians should target goods to individuals with high ‘betweenness centrality’ – and hence these individuals should be over-represented among beneficiaries of municipal public services. Betweenness centrality captures how frequently a given household is on the shortest path between households in the network. The measure, introduced by Freeman (1977), has been shown to characterise the capacity of different Florentine families to broker political coalitions in their struggle for control of Florence in the Renaissance period (Padgett and Ansell 1993).

The data and measures

We study these questions using data on the beneficiaries of services provided by municipal governments of the Philippines. We use data collected by the Department of Social Welfare and Development on all individuals in 560 Philippine municipalities. The dataset includes information on 11 different types of public services that cover the majority of services distributed to individual households by Filipino municipal governments.

Importantly, we have access to the non-anonymised version of the dataset and we take advantage of local naming conventions to assess family links between individuals. Names used in the Philippines were imposed by Spanish colonial officials in the mid-19th century. One of the stated objectives was to distinguish families at the municipal level to facilitate census-taking and tax collection (Gealogo 2010). Last names were selected from the Catalogo alfabetico de apellidos, a list of Spanish names and thus do not reflect pre-existing family ties. In each municipality a name was only given to one family.

In the Philippines, sharing a family name is a good indicator of family ties. Individuals have two family names – their middle and last names – and they are transmitted across generations according to well-established rules inspired by Spanish naming conventions. Specifically, a man’s last name is his father’s last name and his middle name is his mother’s last name. Similar conventions apply to unmarried women. A married woman has her husband’s last name and her middle name is her maiden name (i.e. her father’s last name).

We focus on the social network composed of blood ties and marriage ties between families. For each household in the network, we compute centrality measures capturing both brokerage potential (betweenness centrality) and information diffusion (Katz centrality, eigenvector centrality, and degree). This will allow us to test our main argument – namely, that incumbents share rents with central players to build and sustain coalitions. In addition, we are able to rule out that incumbents select beneficiaries of public services to maximise their ability to diffuse politically relevant information through the social network.

The results

Households with higher betweenness centrality – our measure of intermediation potential – receive more services from their municipal government. Importantly, the effects are not driven by one specific service but hold across the six public services most commonly distributed by municipal governments in our sample (out of 11 for which we have data).

First, we rule out that our results are capturing the fact that betweenness centrality is correlated with household characteristics that are themselves correlated with the likelihood that a given household receives services from the government. The results are robust to controlling for household composition, household wealth, and characteristics of the household head, such as education.

Second, we rule out that our results are capturing the fact that politicians are targeting their relatives. Indeed, as argued by Cruz et al. (2014), local politicians are more central. We show that our results are robust to controlling for the distance between households and various politicians both in and out of office.

Third, we rule out that our results capture the fact that politicians seek to mobilise people who can spread their political message along social networks. If this is the case, municipal public services should be targeted to individuals with a high diffusion potential. We control for diffusion-based measures of centrality and, as soon as we control for betweenness centrality, those measures are no longer correlated with the number of services households receive from their municipal government.

Further corroboration

We also present evidence of heterogeneity that is consistent with a coalition-building view of political brokerage. For example, the effects of betweenness centrality are stronger in more electorally competitive municipalities and in more populous municipalities. These two types of municipalities are also those where we expect the incumbent to be more reliant on coalitions. Indeed, in municipalities in which the incumbent is assured of re-election, there is no need to build a coalition; and forming coalitions in large municipalities involves more challenging social bridging efforts that can be helped by coalition brokers.

Finally, we find suggestive evidence that targeting based on betweenness centrality is stronger in municipalities where incumbents need to reach outside of his family circle. To achieve this, we take advantage of the wealth of data available to obtain measures of machine politics and nepotism in each municipality. We then uncover a negative correlation between our proxy for nepotism and our proxy for machine politics. In municipalities where politicians provide more goods and services to their relatives, they target fewer goods to households with high betweenness centrality.


Cruz, C, J Labonne and P Querubin (2015) "Politician family network and electoral outcomes: Evidence from the Philippines", Berkeley - CPD Working Paper 2015-12.

Fafchamps, M and J Labonne (2016) “Family networks and distributive politics", CEPR Discussion Paper 11245.

Fafchamps, M and J Labonne (2014) “Do politicians’ relatives get better jobs? Evidence from Municipal Elections”, Centre for the Study of African Economies Series, WPS/2014-37.

Freeman, L C (1977) “A set of measures of centrality based on betweenness”, Sociometry, 40:35– 41.

Gealogo, F A (2010) “Looking for Claveria’s children: Church, state, power, and the individual in Philippine naming systems during the late nineteenth century”, in Personal names in Asia: History, culture and history, Z Yangwen and C J-H MacDonald (eds), Singapore, NUS Press: 37–51.

Hicken, A (2011) “Clientelism”, Annual Review of Political Science, 14(1):289–310.

Padgett, J F and C K Ansell (1993) “Robust action and the rise of the Medici, 1400-1434”, America Journal of Sociology, 98(6): 1259-1319.

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