Research News

Michelitch named Carnegie fellow, receives $200,000 for research

Kristin Michelitch (Vanderbilt University)
Kristin Michelitch (Vanderbilt University)

Vanderbilt political science professor Kristin Michelitch was named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow and awarded $200,000 to support her research on politicians and democracy in Uganda.

Michelitch was one of 35 fellows announced April 26 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to receive grant money to go “toward the funding of significant research and writing in the social sciences and humanities.”

Michelitch, assistant professor of political science, will research methods of holding politicians accountable in low-income, newly democratizing nations.

“This important research has the potential to transform how leaders of developing nations do business, increasing the chances of democracy succeeding,” said Susan R. Wente, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “It is gratifying that the Carnegie Corporation of New York agrees. Vanderbilt awaits the results of this study with anticipation.”

Michelitch said that most social science research examines citizens’—rather than politicians’—behavior because the latter is much more difficult.

“Performance of individual politicians, let alone initiatives to improve such performance, is understudied, because gaining access to politicians is much more labor- and time-intensive,” she said. “Moreover, research on monitoring efforts aimed at improving politicians’ job performance can be challenging, because politicians wield the power to discredit or shut down the monitoring or research efforts if NGOs and researchers are not successful in involving the proper stakeholders and walking a tightrope in which politicians maintain confidence in the process while submitting themselves to monitoring.”

Michelitch and her collaborators have maintained a unique five-year partnership with Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Uganda, to test multiple policy interventions aimed at improving politicians’ performances at the subnational (equivalent to a state in the United States) level. Tracking the work of politicians, Michelitch and her collaborators will investigate the following:

  • Whether the dissemination of a performance scorecard, which tracks how politicians fulfill legally defined job duties, to citizens subsequently improves politician performance;
  • Whether text-messaging technology for citizens to communicate policy priorities and public service deficiencies to politicians results in politician representation of those priorities in plenary sessions;
  • What drives underperformance by female politicians and whether they are nonetheless better at representing women’s interests;
  • Whether poorly performing politicians are ultimately challenged by new candidates and voted out in an election, and whether that improves post-election performance; and
  • Whether the NGO’s activities resulted in superior performance as a whole compared with subnational governments that do not get any assistance.

“There are few more important topics than the performance of elected officials and their success representing ordinary citizens in developing countries,” said David E. Lewis, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor and chair of the Department of Political Science. “This research has the potential to transform our understanding of the citizen-elected official relationship and how to improve it.”

Carnegie Corporation

Overall, the Carnegie Corporation of New York will distribute $7 million in grants to 35 fellows. The winning proposals will address issues including inequity in U.S. education, climate change and the legal limbo facing immigrants.

“The health of our democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and our universities, academies and academic associations play an essential role in replenishing critical information and providing knowledge through scholarship,” said Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. “The Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program is designed to support scholarship that brings fresh perspectives from the social sciences and humanities to the social, political and economic problems facing the United States and the world today.”

Carnegie Corporation of New York was established in 1911 by industrialist Andrew Carnegie to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding. The corporation’s work focuses on issues that Andrew Carnegie considered of paramount importance: international peace, education and knowledge, and a strong democracy.

Large pool of candidates

Michelitch was nominated out of all Vanderbilt faculty by Wente to represent Vanderbilt in this scholarly competition. Thirty-three prominent scholars, educators and intellectuals served as evaluators of 200 universities’ candidates. The jurors were asked to consider the merits of each proposal based on its originality, promise and potential impact on a particular field of scholarship. Each fellow is expected to produce a book or major study.

Michelitch grew up in Atlanta. She received her Ph.D. in political science from New York University in 2013, and her bachelor’s in economics and international studies from Emory University. She has worked with democratization and development organizations, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (BPB).