In many countries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a critical role in democratization by both promoting citizen oversight of the government and providing goods such as healthcare and education. However, there is conflicting evidence on how these NGOs affect political behavior and institutional development. I develop a new theory that conceives of NGOs as information signals that shape the informal social institutions that either incentivize or undermine collective political participation. I argue that the increased prevalence of NGOs in a community also increases citizens’ exposure to information suggesting that more of their neighbors are exiting from government services. When an individual exits from a government service, that individual no longer has an incentive to engage in oversight or pay taxes for government provision of that service. Therefore, when citizens are exposed to information suggesting that their neighbors are exiting from government services, it signals that fewer people will join in any collective action directed towards government service providers and reduces the incentives to engage in costly political activity.
I test this theory with original survey data from four informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya. I find wide variation in the prevalence of NGOs across and within the four communities. For example, 41% of respondents in Kibera say they received a service or benefit from an NGO within the past year compared to 25% in Mukuru. However, within Kibera, NGO utilization ranges from just 18% up to 63%. I use regression analysis to estimate the effects of this variation on individual’s political behavior. I find that individuals who live in areas with more NGOs are substantially less likely (by about 35%) to say they would contact the government or support increased taxes. Further analysis shows that individuals’ political behavior is strongly and positively linked to their expectations of their neighbors’ behavior. That is, as an individual’s expectation that their neighbor will contact the government increases so does that individual’s own reported willingness to contact the government. In addition, expectations about neighbors’ political behavior is negatively linked to the prevalence of NGOs in a community. As the prevalence of NGOs increases, respondents are less likely to believe that their neighbors will contact the government or support increased taxes. These results are robust even after considering the possibility that other factors, such as government capacity, explain both NGO prevalence and political behavior.
Working paper available upon request.