10 January 2020

"Public Good Provision and Traditional Governance in Indigenous Communities in Oaxaca, Mexico", Comparative Political Studies

By Beatriz Magaloni, Alberto Díaz-Cayeros, Alexander Ruíz

We investigate the role of traditional governance institutions for public goods provision in Oaxaca, Mexico. Results show that communities ruled by traditional governance practices offer more effective provision of local public goods than equally poor communities ruled by political parties.


We explore whether traditional governance is better than partisan governments at providing public services and preventing both political parties and privileged elites from benefiting from public development projects.


In 1995, a constitutional reform formally validated the structures of traditional governments—better known as Usos y Costumbres—in most of the municipalities of Oaxaca, Mexico. In these types of structures, community assemblies, instead of mayors or local councils, make the most important budgetary decisions; citizens are obliged to perform tasks or duties for the provision of public goods, and conflicts are resolved through informal mediation by the community instead of through formal dispute mechanisms offered by the courts.


We use a multi-method research strategy composed of ethnographic work, a household survey on accountability and citizen participation in public affairs, and a statistical analysis of geographical discontinuities. Our analysis employs a causal identification strategy that compares public goods provision between communities that are very similar in sociodemographic and geographical terms, yet differ in the way they are governed.


  • The allocation of local public goods is more effective and equitable in Usos y Costumbres municipalities.
  • Survey and ethnographic evidence suggest that traditional institutions distribute local public goods relatively equally and tend to favor the poor.
  • In communities governed by political parties, the supply of water and other public goods are distributed more unequally and their allocation is politically mediated. This tends to favor households aligned with the mayor's political party.


The deep institutional differences between traditional and partisan forms of governance affect the provision of public goods through three mechanisms: 

  • A greater level of social integration of municipal presidents in the communities of Usos, which leads to greater accountability,
  • A broader civic commitment to collective decision-making, which produces more informed citizens and outcomes that better represent the average preference of voters, and
  • An effective community service system implemented alongside credible sanctions that allows widespread community cooperation to promote its well-being.


Magaloni, Beatriz, Alberto Diaz-Cayeros, Alexander Ruiz. (2019). “Public Good Provision and Traditional Governance in Indigenous Communities in Oaxaca, Mexico.” Comparative Political Studies 52(12): 1841-1880.