My research agenda is driven by a fascination with how civil society and the state work together to tackle complex public problems related to social exclusion.

The Politics behind New Institutions for Citizen Participation

In this research project, I examine the origins, construction, and impact of new state institutions that incorporate citizen participation into policymaking at the local level.

Building Participatory Institutions in Latin America: Reform Coalitions and Institutional Change. 2019.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Abstract: While prior studies have shown the importance of participatory institutions in strengthening civil society and in improving policy outcomes, we know much less about why some participatory institutions take root while others do not. This book explains the divergent trajectories of nationally-mandated participatory institutions’ “stickiness” by highlighting the powerful and lasting impacts of their origins in different policy-reform projects. I argue that participatory institutions take root when they are bundled into sweeping policy reforms, which upend the status quo and mobilize unexpected coalitions behind participatory institution building. In contrast, participatory institutions created through reforms focused on deepening democracy are easy for entrenched interests to dismantle and sideline. Building Participatory Institutions in Latin America draws on rich case studies of participatory institutions in Brazil and Colombia across three policy areas, offering the first cross-national comparative study of participatory institutions mandated at the national level.

The Origins of Strong Institutional Design: Policy Reform and Participatory Institutions in Brazil’s Health Sector.” 2019. Comparative Politics 51(2): 275-294.

  • Abstract: Why do some participatory institutions develop strong institutional designs, when most have limited powers?  Existing literature emphasizes the importance of institutional design in shaping the impact of participatory institutions, yet falls short in accounting for the origins of design.  Through an analysis of the Brazilian health councils, this article argues that bundling the creation of a participatory institution with substantive policy reform can create opportunities and incentives to build a strong institutional design.  First, these state reforms introduce shifts in the political opportunity structure that make it easier to pass the laws and regulations needed to establish a strong design.  Second, these policy changes can create incentives for otherwise reluctant stakeholders to support the participatory institution as an instrument to obtain their substantive policy goals.  This paper highlights an unexpected benefit of institutional conversion, demonstrating that shifting the base of stakeholder support can sometimes strengthen institutions, rather than undermining them.

“Society-Driven Participatory Institutions: Lessons from Colombia’s Planning Councils.” 2019. Latin American Politics and Society 61(2): 93-114.

  • Abstract: This paper challenges the conventional wisdom that that enthusiastic state support is a prerequisite to build strong participatory institutions. Through an analysis of Colombia’s planning councils, I develop the concept of the “society-driven participatory institution,” in which civil society actors, rather than the state, undertake the core tasks involved in implementing participatory institutions. I argue that while state neglect limits their involvement in decision-making, society-driven participatory institutions can still develop important policymaking roles in agenda-setting and in monitoring and evaluating public policy.

“The Politics of Participation in Latin America: New Actors and Institutions.” 2019. Introductory essay for special issue of Latin American Politics and Society 61(2): 1-20. (With Jessica Rich and Alfred Montero)

  • AbstractThis essay sets out a roadmap to understand the new politics of participation in Latin America by exploring the intersection between two important transformations in society and the state. First, we highlight new actors in state and society who are pressing for policy reform. Whereas the existing literature focuses on interests organized around social class and indigenous identity, we reveal a rainbow of societal actors that span class lines, as well as the emergence of activist bureaucrats, who work together to demand greater social inclusion and policy change. Second, while prior studies emphasize representative institutions as the main site to advance policy change, we analyze the importance of new institutions for participation in the executive and the judicial branches of government. These sites have been central for activism in a range of underexplored policy areas, including the environment; the rights of women, people with disabilities, and sexual minorities; and crime. Together, we argue, these new actors and institutions are redefining the politics of participation today in Latin America.

“How Do Legal Strategies Advance Accountability? Evaluating Mechanisms in Colombia.”  Forthcoming, Journal of Development Studies. (With Veronica Herrera.)

  • Abstract: While prior studies have suggested that legal strategies offer promising tools for social accountability, the existing literature has not yet identified the underlying mechanisms that link legal strategies to accountability improvements. We argue that there are four mechanisms by which legal strategies can enhance accountability. First, courts can help those affected by policy failures to overcome the collective action problem. Second, courts can provide civil society with access to information about rights violations, malfeasance, and poor policy performance. Third, legal strategies can set in motion court-backed reforms that redress immediate rights violations and strengthen state capacity for more accountable governance. Fourth, court recognition can increase the symbolic and discursive resources of claimants, making their demands for accountability more effective. We illustrate these mechanisms through a comparative analysis of two policy arenas in Colombia, environment and healthcare—areas in which civil society engagement with the judiciary opened up new routes for social accountability. 

“Delegative Democracy Revisited: Colombia’s Surprising Resilience.” 2016. Journal of Democracy 27(3): 139-147.

  • Abstract: Facing a devastating security crisis, Colombian president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) concentrated power into the executive branch. Once a country moves in the direction of delegative democracy, it is difficult to break the cycle of institutional weakening.  Yet, Colombia’s delegative democracy trend reversed course under Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos.  This essay argues that in delegative democracies with origins in security crises, strong judiciaries can impose limits on efforts to concentrate power.  Even if judiciaries fail to stop initial moves towards delegative democracy, they can ensure that liberal democratic institutions survive for the next round of politics.

“Brazil’s Participatory Infrastructure: Opportunities and Limitations for Inclusion.”   Forthcoming in The Inclusionary Turn in Contemporary Latin America, eds. Diana Kapiszewski, Steven Levitsky, and Deborah Yashar. New York: Cambridge University Press. (With Jessica Rich)

  • Abstract: Nearly every democratic country in Latin America has adopted a national framework of participatory policymaking to incorporate citizens into the policy process. This chapter explores the Brazilian case to assess how these participatory institutions aggregate to form an overarching participatory infrastructure, which deepens inclusion by opening up granting policymaking access to popular sector interests. Nevertheless, inclusion is limited: participatory institutions provide popular sector interests with greater access in social rights policy than in other public policy areas, including economic policy. Moreover, interests that challenge state priorities are excluded from these spaces. This chapter suggests that participatory institutions provide important opportunities for popular sector inclusion, but will face many of the challenges experienced by institutions of representative democracy.

Urban Security and Social-Citizenship Rights of Marginalized Groups

In an ongoing research project, I examine the politics behind state raids to advance security in Latin American city centers, and their impacts on the rights of street-connected youth and people experiencing homelessness.  

“The Power of Human Rights Frames in Urban Security: Lessons from Bogotá.” Available by request. 

  • Abstract: In May 2016, the government of Bogotá, Colombia led a large-scale security operation of a small zone called “The Bronx” in the center of Bogotá, which had been the epicenter of criminal networks, homelessness, and illicit activity in the city.  This intervention was led by security forces, yet was framed by state actors as an effort to advance the human rights of marginalized children and homeless citizens who had been trapped into sexual slavery and drug addiction by powerful criminal organizations.  I analyze the case of the Bronx as a lens into the impacts of rights frames on accountability for militarized security projects.  I argue that rights frames can create unique discursive resources and institutional openings that can both legitimate human rights abuses but also strengthen the potential for accountability. On the one hand, rights frames can provide legitimacy for militarized interventions that abuse human rights of marginalized citizens.  On the other hand, government adoption of rights frames can also create discursive resources and new institutional opportunities for rights advocates in the state and civil society to push for greater accountability in the face of rights violations. While the literature on policing and urban security has largely overlooked the role of ideas and discourse, this paper reveals that rights frames can serve as an important political tool in advancing security policy.

“Urban Securitization in the Name of Human Rights.” Available by request.

  • Abstract: Why do states harness human rights frames to advance urban security interventions? In May 2016, the government of Bogotá, Colombia led a large-scale security operation of a small zone called “The Bronx” in the center of Bogotá, which had been the epicenter of criminal networks, homelessness, and illicit activity in the city.  This intervention was framed by security forces as an effort to advance the human rights of marginalized children and homeless citizens who had been trapped into sexual slavery and drug addiction by powerful criminal organizations.  While the literature on policing and urban security has largely overlooked the role of ideas and discourse, this paper reveals that rights frames can serve as an important political tool in advancing policy.  This paper develops a typology of different frames used to justify urban security interventions, comparing rights frames with the more common frames of fighting crime and revitalizing public space. 

“Mobilizing the Grassroots against Human Rights: The Dark Side of Participatory Security in São Paulo.” (With Yanilda González.) 

  • Abstract: Can participatory institutions amplify societal demands to constrict social citizenship? The conventional wisdom highlights the potential of participatory institutions to promote accountability and expand social rights.  However, few studies have analyzed the record of participatory institutions across different kinds of policy areas. Through an analysis of São Paulo’s Community Security Councils, this paper shows that expanding institutional access for citizen voice in policing can articulate, aggregate, and channel grassroots demands for repressive security initiatives targeting marginalized groups, including street-connected youth, homeless people, sex workers, and street vendors.  We develop this argument through a combination of participant observation, more than 70 semi-structured interviews, and analysis of over 900 meeting minutes from security councils. 

Mobilizing Communities to Combat the Sexual Exploitation of Children 

Whereas my first book project examined how social-rights reforms enable the construction of participatory institutions, my next book explores how and why new social rights emerge in the first place. Mobilizing Coalitions against Child Sexual Exploitation in Latin America asks: How and why do cities institute effective, rights-based policies to protect vulnerable children from exploitation in the sex trade?  I compare the construction of national frameworks in Colombia and Mexico, and their implementation across different cities in each country to analyze the emergence of surprising alliances between state and societal actors, which include NGOs, the private sector, religious organizations, and sex worker movements to combat the sexual exploitation of children. I highlight the ways that these broad coalitions can work together to disrupt the societal norms that condone sexual exploitation, prevent exploitation before it happens, and bring currently exploited children to safety.  

Mobilizing Coalitions against Child Sexual Exploitation in Latin America will make major theoretical and empirical contributions as the first study of sexual exploitation within comparative politics. While scholars from international relations examined transnational sex trafficking networks, we know very little about the domestic political dynamics involved in reducing sexual exploitation.  Moreover, this study offers important lessons for scholars and policy practitioners focused on a range of complex public problems, such as disaster management, homelessness, and violence against women.  Like sexual exploitation of children, these public problems extend beyond the boundaries of traditional policy sectors and require collaboration between a wide array of state and societal actors.  This book will explore the institutional factors that enable cooperation among such diverse actors, the role of leadership in building coalitions, and strategies to advance complex processes of social change.

The Grassroots Right in Latin America

Along with Amy Erica Smith, I am co-editing a special edition of Latin American Politics and Society that will be dedicated to understanding the “grassroots right” in Latin America: the diverse citizens, civil society associations, and religious groups supporting right-wing issues, politicians, and identities. Their causes range from restricting abortion, affirmative action, and LGBT rights, to expanding gun rights and violently repressing crime. This special issue turns the lens to the grassroots right in both public opinion and civil society. It will analyze the public-opinion foundations, ideological schema, and diverse mobilizational strategies undergirding Latin America’s right turn. For more information on the special issue, see

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