Events & Media

The Bren School of Environmental Science & Management
at the University of California, Santa Barbara



"How do protests shape public policy?
The case of protests and water policy outcomes in Mexico"

Jaime Sainz Santamaria
PhD Candidate
Bren School of Environmental Science & Management

Monday, August 12, 2013
10:30 a.m.
Bren Hall Dean's Conference Room

Sarah Anderson, faculty advisor
Christopher Costello, Gary Libecap, Oran Young, PhD committee members

Contentious actions such as protest (from sit-ins to sabotage) are pervasive in many democratic countries, yet their effect on public policy has been overlooked, leaving a gap in our knowledge of how the public may influence the policy-making process. From the social welfare perspective, the crucial question is the following: What is the overall effect of protest (performed by a few) on policy outcomes (affecting the utility of a wider group)?

I analyze how a propensity to protest in Mexico negatively affects, at the municipality level, the provision of a key public service — potable water. Even though protestors frequently are successful in obtaining a response from local or federal agencies, the aggregate result is a reduction in the number of households having reliable potable water service. In this chapter, I argue that this result is due to the specific tactics used in water-related protests: citizens involved frequently mobilize against water-rate reforms that may increase a water utility's funding, groups having the capacity to mobilize may cause authorities to concentrate their provision efforts in ways detrimental to the neighbors of the protesting groups, and many protests have the explicit objective of blocking major water infrastructure projects that supply water to the cities.

The last two chapters analyze why citizens engage in protest, contributing to a better understanding of a behavior that has consequential effects for social welfare. I address why citizens engage in protest as an alternative or as a complement to electoral participation. The results show that the chosen actions depend of the relative costs and benefits of each strategy. The fourth chapter explores why some citizens engage in illegal protest specifically. The empirical model shows that affiliation to some organizations increases the probability of that type of protest. As a whole, the paper expands the knowledge of political participation in Mexico and addresses the implications for policymaking in democratic countries.