Manufacturing Legitimacy: The Politics of Giving Money to the Poor in Brazil and Mexico (Under Contract with Princeton University Press)

In the last 20 years, the drive for evidence-based policymaking has been coupled with a concurrent push for the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) as the “gold standard” for generating rigorous evidence on whether or not programs, policies, and interventions work. Similar to medical trials, RCT evaluations institute experiments in everyday life to measure the impact of different social policies by comparing the results of treatment and control groups. While RCTs seem to be widely accepted in the biological sciences, they have recently become consequential in critical policymaking processes. What types of evidence do RCTs produce and how do they relate to the complex goals of the policy process? Most importantly, what are the implications of turning the real- world into a laboratory? My book project, Manufacturing Legitimacy, answers these questions by comparing the experience of two Latin American countries as they evaluate their respective, new poverty alleviation programs. In turn, my project has implications for understanding how social policies are made and maintained in two of the largest economies in the developing world, Brazil and Mexico.

In the 1990s, Brazil and Mexico were pioneers in the implementation of conditional cash transfer programs (CCTs). Such programs have been emulated by 65 other countries, and have benefitted an estimated one billion poor families around the world. However, the initial evaluation strategies pursued by each state were different: Mexican officials partnered with US economists to implement an RCT evaluation, while Brazilians used a combination of statistical simulations and qualitative studies and aimed to secure the generation of policy knowledge to domestic experts. Based on eighteen months of participant observation in Mexico City and Brasília, 150 interviews with political and academic elites, content analysis of more than 10,000 pages of policy documents, and historical-process tracing methods, my book will explain why these two similar countries, implementing the same policy, took different routes to assess the merits of CCTs, and what unintended consequences followed from these choices.

Archival work in Rio de Janeiro, 2016
Fieldwork in Mexico City, 2017
Waiting for an interview in Mexico, 2017