Ethnic Heterogeneity and Public Goods Provision in Zambia
Evidence of a Subnational “Diversity Dividend”
The “diversity debit” hypothesis – that ethnic diversity has a negative impact on social, economic, and political outcomes – has been widely accepted in the literature. Indeed, with respect to public goods provision – the focus of this article – the conventional wisdom holds that a negative relationship between ethnic heterogeneity and public goods provision is so well-established empirically that future research should abandon examination of whether such a relationship exists and focus instead on why it exists, that is, on the mechanisms underlying a negative relationship.
This article challenges the conventional wisdom on empirical grounds. It demonstrates at the sub-national level strong evidence for a “diversity dividend” – that is, a positive relationship between ethnic heterogeneity and some measures of public goods provision, in particular welfare outcomes related to publicly provided goods and services. Building on the literature, the article draws on new analysis at district level for Zambia, using a new dataset compiled by the authors from administrative, budget, and survey data, which cover a broader range of public goods outcomes than previous work, including information on both budgetary and welfare outcomes. The article explores why relationships may differ for sub-national budgetary and welfare outcomes, considering separate models for each. Analysis shows results to be robust across a variety of alternative specifications and models.
Given the more nuanced relationship between ethnic diversity and public goods provision documented, the article argues that the key task for future work is not to address why the relationship is negative, but to study under what conditions such direction holds true, and the mechanisms that underlie a diversity dividend. It concludes by considering key explanatory hypotheses against the Zambian data to identify promising areas for such theory development. More broadly, while the diversity debit hypothesis highlights the costs of diversity and could be interpreted as providing support for polices that minimize it, the findings in this article are consistent with a view that diversity can be good for communities, not only for normative reasons, but also because, under some conditions, it can support concrete welfare gains.