Democracies are commonly thought to provide greater levels of public goods than autocracies. Given that many public goods are provided locally, higher levels of local democracy are further thought to result in better rates of provision in both autocratic and democratic systems. However, several studies have cast doubt on democratic superiority in public goods provision both nationally and locally. We re-examine these contested relationships, investigating a locally provisioned public good: access to basic water. To determine what, if any, effects democracy has on public goods provision, we analyse the effects of both national and local democratic institutions, in conjunction with economic development. In cross-national regression analyses, we examine a global sample of 140 states from 2000 to 2015, arriving at three findings. First, access to basic water varies little by national regime type once accounting for development. Second, the existence of local elections and the degree to which they are free and competitive are positively correlated with basic water access rates in poor states. Finally, the positive effects of local democracy on water access in poor states increase with democratic institutional longevity. The findings of this study suggest two necessary additions to future research. First, more nuance is needed in the study of public goods provision beyond resources or a theoretical rationale for increased provision related to national regime characteristics. Second, considering the conditional influences of local institutional characteristics, development metrics could help illustrate the complicated circumstances determining access to basic public goods.
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