SGPIA Alumnus Mitchell Cook, Researches the Influence of Information Systems on Municipal Finance in India, as Fulbright Scholar

Published on April 20, 2015

Mitchell Cook is a graduate of the International Affairs program where he focused on cities and urbanization taking one semester to conduct independent research on land use policies in Chongqing, China. His graduate thesis focused on regional development in India and led to consulting work with the Asian Development Bank after finishing. Mitchell is currently a Fulbright Scholar in India where he is conducting dissertation research as part of a PhD program in Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. His ongoing research is centered on how rapidly growing cities in the developing world implement municipal finance reforms and how those reforms affect urban governance and accountability.

Why did you decide to focus on cities and urbanization at The New School?

What attracted me to the cities and urbanization concentration initially was a general fascination with the urbanization process. I had spent some time in China between 2002 and 2007 before I started at the Graduate Program in International Affairs (GPIA) and became very interested in understanding the different ways urbanization fit into the country’s development strategy. After starting at GPIA, I was struck by the encouragement given to critical analysis of urban development problems and the eclecticism of the faculty. I took courses taught by economists, political scientists, sociologists, and architects. Heterodox approaches, rather than being relegated to the sidelines, were encouraged. Richard Sennett was taught alongside Ed Glaeser. Ultimately, the decision to continue in the urban concentration was solidified when I realized that the professors in the concentration were receptive to my own ideas and willing to help refine and situate them in broader debates about cities and development. I also really appreciated the attention given to normative debates on urbanization and development. The concentration really grapples with questions of poverty and inequality and with the debates on the role of the state and markets in promoting development.

What aspect of underdevelopment in India did your thesis explore?

My advisor (Michael Cohen) presented regional development in the state of Bihar to me as a longstanding puzzle in development studies. At the time, Bihar was located at the bottom of the rankings for many human development indicators in India, per capita income in Bihar was the lowest in India, growth was stagnant over much of the previous decade, and governance failures were pervasive across economic and social policy. So the challenge was to understand the deeper causal mechanisms that were contributing to regional underdevelopment within a fast growing national economy. In the thesis I integrated data on the regional economy, education, health, regional governance institutions, and national development policies in India since independence drawing on and extending Gunnar Myrdal’s notion of circular and cumulative causation. Through the research and writing process I gained a new appreciation for the complexity that comes with trying to attribute subnational development outcomes to national, regional, and local policy decisions. In the case of India, the three levels are very difficult to untangle.

Why did you decide to pursue a PhD in Urban Studies and Planning at MIT?

Between graduating from GPIA and starting at MIT, I worked for a year and a half on a few consultancies and contributed a couple book chapters to an edited volume on the global economic crisis in Latin America. The initial impetus to do a PhD was the feeling that I had only scratched the surface, so to speak, of development studies during my time at GPIA. I guess my goals and objectives then were to acquire advanced research capabilities and try to make some contribution to the fields of fiscal decentralization and local government finance. In full disclosure, the global financial crisis also played a part. By the beginning of 2009, we all thought any professional opportunities we once considered possible were doomed! Businesses and NGOs were instituting hiring freezes, people were getting laid off, and everywhere you turned budgets were getting slashed. It was somewhat bizarre to watch the crisis unfold as a graduate student in international development. As a topic of conversation and research it was terribly interesting but as a job seeker it was terrifying! So, at the time, a PhD seemed like a way to get around some of those issues. There was also quite a bit of overlap between the intellectual approaches to development at GPIA and at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at MIT. At GPIA I became familiar with the work of Alice Amsden and Judith Tendler who were faculty members in the department at MIT. This was a major factor in my decision to apply to MIT.

What interests you about municipal finance reform in India?

First, I have been working on different aspects of it for the past five years so I’m familiar with the institutions and recent policy changes related to municipal finance in India. However, fully understanding the complexities of urban public finance in India is a lifelong process. India is a very big country with a lot of regional variation in the extent and quality of implementation within broader institutional and governance mechanisms related to urban finance. Second, the Government of India has made municipal finance reforms a priority in the urban sector. For now, there is significant interest in seeing cities pursue a specific set of reforms related to property taxation, fees for urban services, and budgeting. The million dollar question though is how do you do it. How do you get cities to increase their revenue yield from less than 1% of GDP to over 3%? Local governments in India are sprawling, highly distributed bureaucracies so it is a real challenge getting all the relevant actors to cooperate to change entrenched routines and patterns of state-society relations. So I’m trying to understand the way politics at the micro-level mediates different types of local government finance reforms during different stages of implementation and institutionalization.

You are currently conducting dissertation research in India. What new information have you uncovered while there?

I’m looking at the use of information systems and cloud computing technology to improve local public financial management so its been very interesting to observe which features of the technology actually influence behavior at the political, policy, and operational levels. There is a tradition in development studies, extending back to Albert Hirschman and perhaps earlier, which argues that the specific qualities of different technologies associated with public goods shape the political and operational dynamics that drive implementation and outcomes. In short, the position is that the technical is political. Reforming public financial management processes, particularly at the local level, is often treated as a purely technical problem with progress conditioned by local capacity. My initial observations have been that the type of technology (in my case, web-based information systems that update in real-time) matters for the nature of reform implementation and for important outcomes like efficiency, transparency, and accountability.

What GPIA class or professor left a lasting influence on you?

Michael Cohen left an indelible mark on how I think about the multidimensional nature of development problems and my intellectual approach to cities. I will never forget the aphorisms about the perils of “entering the city through the kitchen, the bedroom, or the bathroom” while neglecting the factors that make cities locations of immense productivity and value creation. Global Flows, taught by Lily Ling in my first semester, was a very influential class. Lily taught me how to dissect an argument to identify implicit assumptions and how to integrate political and historical factors into my understanding of the dynamics of development.

What advice would you give to students currently in the GPIA program?

Well, the program has evolved in very positive ways since I was there so some things are different. One of the neat things about GPIA is the flexibility granted to students to chart their own paths based on their own intellectual interests. So the advice I would give would be to do an independent study with a professor focused narrowly on a topic of your interest. Doing an independent study while you are on campus will give you regular access to resources and to the professor’s knowledge, but it can also be done while abroad. Working one on one with a professor can be a very valuable experience and can really advance your understanding of a topic that may only be covered once or twice in a normal course.