Gautam Nair recently joined Harvard Kennedy School as an assistant professor of public policy, bringing an expertise in the politics of inequality and economic growth in the developing world, particularly South Asia. His work seeks to understand the conditions under which democratic competition revolves around broad-based public investments and social transfers rather than politically targeted private goods. He is especially interested in the role that business plays in this process. A faculty affiliate of both the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and the Center for International Development, Nair teaches “The Politics of Development” (DPI-410), which explores how political competition, institutions, and organizations shape economic growth.
Q: How do your research and teaching connect to the solution of pressing problems in the world today?
My research and teaching focus on the politics of inequality and redistribution in democracies. I am particularly interested in the interface of business and government in South Asia.
My work is primarily motivated by the question of how we get from a system in which democratic competition revolves around the distribution of politically targeted private goods to more broad-based and efficient public investments and social transfers. This is an important question because, while many developing democracies have experienced rapid economic growth and rising government revenue over the last couple of decades, the combination of weak political parties and close ties between politicians and special interests have meant that these resources have not always been put to the best uses from the perspective of citizens and voters. Yet special interests, businesses chief among them, can also play a vital role in advancing development and democracy. Examples abound: consumers in poor countries gaining access to cheap, high quality communication and internet services, firms funding opposition parties, and businesses working (when it is in their interests) to support the expansion of social insurance programs. One theme of my research is that, while it is important to correct instances of corruption and crony capitalism in developing countries, it is also essential that we recognize divisions within business interests and indeed harness them to promote growth and political competition.
Let me give you one example from my research. Politicians in developing countries have implemented huge government programs that directly distribute consumer goods—televisions, laptops, bicycles, cellphones, and so on—to millions of households. In some cases, government spending on these programs can exceed even public investments in sanitation or education. These large contracts are prone to waste and corruption as politicians can use them to build mutually beneficial ties with businesses. But while some businesses gain, other businesses lose by paying higher taxes to fund these programs or, in the case of the retail sector, losing potential customers and revenue. One idea I am exploring is how consolidation and greater efficiency in this sector may lead to a shift on the part of politicians towards a greater emphasis on income transfers and public goods. This is part of a broader book project and research agenda on the influence of business in politics in developing countries like India.
In my other work motivated by public policy challenges, I’ve studied Americans’ preferences for international redistribution; the relationship between inequality, redistribution, and democratic breakdown; and the conditions under which minorities identify with the nation or their ethnic group.
Q: What do you want students of public policy to take away from your teaching?
One of the main lessons I would like students to grasp is that development is a political process. It involves the exercise of power, contending interests, and winners and losers. But politics also makes big, positive social change possible when you have the right combination of effective institutions, capable organizations, and political entrepreneurship. I am excited for our MPA/ID students to grapple with these issues in my spring “Politics of Development” course.
Our students can acquire lots of tools that they will go on to apply in their careers. Because we live in a world that is now rich with many forms of quantitative and qualitative data, the application of those tools requires asking the right questions, developing sound frameworks, rigorously analyzing evidence, and, above all, exercising judgement to make decisions. Through theory, cases, and projects, I hope to help students of public policy develop and apply these skills. I should also emphasize that I am very much looking forward to learning from our students. They have a truly extraordinary range of backgrounds, knowledge, accomplishments, and experiences. I have at least much as to learn from them (and they from each other) as they do from me.
“One of the main lessons I would like students to grasp is that development is a political process. It involves the exercise of power, contending interests, and winners and losers.”
Q: How has COVID-19 changed your work?
I think that the impact of COVID-19 will be felt around the world for a long time to come. It has really brought home both the importance of well-designed social safety programs and strong government action, especially (though by no means exclusively) for those whose lives are precarious. It’s demonstrated the vital role that businesses play in our lives, whether it is through pharmaceuticals, logistics, or communications. One is grateful for the ability to interact with distant colleagues and loved ones despite the upheavals of the pandemic. It has also brought to the fore important questions for developing countries as security competition increases and global economic integration shows strong signs of reversing itself, which may halt the progress many poor countries have made recently. Even as the pandemic has raised these questions, it has effectively stopped travel and fieldwork. One can often learn more from a single conversation than from many hours spent analyzing data. While I continue to make progress on my work on other dimensions, those interactions are vital to my research and (like everyone else), I can’t wait for them to resume.
Q: How do you plan on connecting with your students and the HKS community while we remain remote?
I’ve tried to be proactive in reaching out to students and colleagues while we remain remote. I've met a fairly large number virtually and am already working with several students on various projects. If things go according to plan (fingers crossed—it’s obviously a very fluid situation), I’ll be able to teach at least some students in person during the spring term. If you’re a student reading this and are interested in chatting, please get in touch.
Banner image by Rupak De Chowdhuri; faculty portrait by Martha Stewart