Jonathan Andrew Harris, NYU Abu Dhabi assistant professor of political science, says “being in the field and understanding the day-to-day of my informants helps me build a more complete theoretical picture of governance problems in Kenya.”
What research are you working on right now?
I'm currently focusing on two projects:
1. To what extent is electoral fraud facilitated by the presence of dead voters on the voter register?
In developed countries, bureaucratic processes regularly filter deceased individuals from the voter rolls.
In many African contexts, bureaucracies are not well-equipped to do so, leading to a buildup of dead individuals on voter registers. In Kenya, my main field site, it was estimated that, in 2007, well over one million dead remained on the voter register, more than enough to swing an election.
Since polling stations are allocated ballots according to the number of registered voters, the accumulation of dead voters on the rolls creates an opportunity for political agents to use those excess ballots to stuff the ballot box in favor of a candidate. In my work, I show how we can estimate the number of dead voters, and how those dead voters get translated into votes.
2. How can we improve voter registration processes in Kenya?
A current trend in political science focuses on how the provision of information to citizens can improve their political engagement. For example, if we provide information to citizens about voter registration, we can improve voter registration rates.
While some evidence exists that information is effective, current research in African politics fails to examine fundamental material constraints to political participation. For instance, how much does it cost for an individual to actually travel to the local election commission office and register?
In a place like Kenya, where my co-author and NYUAD colleague Peter van der windt, we ran a field experiment where we randomly decreased the costs of voter registration for citizens by bringing the computerized registration equipment right to the village, effectively reducing the cost of registration to zero.
We're currently writing up the results and hope to present them soon. Most exciting about the project was that we worked directly with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission of Kenya, so the work will have a chance to feed back directly into policy-making.
NYU Abu Dhabi is an ideal place for a scholar working in Africa. Being in the same timezone as my field site makes it simple to coordinate with sources and research assistants in a way that would be impossible from the US.
Why is fieldwork critical for your research?
Fieldwork is only effective if you have a network of colleagues, sources, and research associates to help uncover answers or data related to research questions. In addition to interviews, archival visits, and research administration, I spend a large amount of my time in Kenya simply getting to know politicians, activists, and bureaucrats in order to build relationships and trust. Sometimes, these conversations parlay into research projects; other times, I learn about the inner workings of government. Regardless, being in the field and understanding the day-to-day of my informants helps me build a more complete theoretical picture of governance problems in Kenya.
How does your location in Abu Dhabi contribute to your scholarly work?
NYU Abu Dhabi is an ideal place for a scholar working in Africa, given that it is so easy to travel to Kenya for work. I fly there at least 4 or 5 times a year for research. Additionally, being in the same timezone as my field site makes it simple to coordinate with sources and research assistants in a way that would be impossible from the US.