NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
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Decentralization and Efficiency of Subsidy Targeting: Evidence from Chiefs in Rural Malawi

Pia M. Basurto, Pascaline Dupas, Jonathan Robinson

NBER Working Paper No. 23383
Issued in May 2017
NBER Program(s):Development Economics, Political Economy

Developing countries spend vast sums on subsidies. Beneficiaries are typically selected via either a proxy-means test (PMT) or through a decentralized identification process led by local leaders. A decentralized allocation may offer informational or accountability advantages, but may be prone to elite capture. We study this tradeoff in the context of two large-scale subsidy programs in Malawi (for agricultural inputs and for food) decentralized to traditional leaders (“chiefs”) who are asked to target the needy. Using high-frequency household panel data on neediness and shocks, we find that nepotism exists but has only limited mistargeting consequences. Importantly, we find that chiefs target households with higher returns to farm inputs, generating an allocation that is more productively efficient than what could be achieved through a PMT. This could be welfare improving, since within-village redistribution is common.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23383

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