Lily Tsai receives 2015 Levitan Prize for research that empowers citizens

Founder of MIT Governance Lab researches new forms of civic engagement, and creates immersive opportunities for MIT students around the world


Lily Tsai awarded MIT SHASS's highest research honor for citizen-empowering projects that are "technically feasible, and morally and politically significant."

Lily L. Tsai, associate professor of political science, has been awarded the James A. (1945) and Ruth Levitan Prize, a $30,000 grant that supports Tsai’s study on approaches to improve citizen-government communication on urgent needs amidst the Ebola crisis in Liberia.”

“Lily Tsai’s proposal is both technically feasible and morally and politically significant,” said Ruth Perry, the Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of the Humanities, and head of the Levitan Prize selection committee. It is research designed both to teach and model “the usefulness of citizen participation in gathering information.”

Providing communication platforms for citizens in Ebola-stricken Liberia

Tsai has already begun to put her Levitan funding to work, in response to the humanitarian crisis that continues to unfold in Liberia even as the Ebola outbreak is apparently waning. Through real-time phone polling and a field survey, Tsai is providing citizens of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, novel and near-instant means for alerting government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to food shortages, Ebola-related medical emergencies, and the need for health care assistance. She is also collecting data on the efficacy of this kind of communication, to help inform outreach efforts in future crises.

On this project, Tsai is collaborating with MIT political science doctoral student Ben Morse, who has significant fieldwork experience in Liberia, and Parley, a Monrovia-based NGO. For their interactions with hundreds of Monrovia citizens, this team is designing a high tech communication and data collection system, incorporating an online platform, direct outreach to government and NGO authorities, and door-to-door surveys using mobile software for real-time data processing and analysis.”

Enabling citizen communications and cooperation about urgent needs

“We hope to enable ordinary citizens in Monrovia to provide information about urgent economic and welfare needs in communities where individuals would not otherwise have ways of communicating directly with authorities in charge,” said Tsai. Her study is also aimed at learning whether this innovative system encourages “citizens with few resources to take action under the most difficult circumstances,” and whether policymakers and NGOs make full use of these new channels of information.

“These are tough practical questions, and core political science questions,” said Tsai. “Citizens and governments don’t always have the best relationship in a crisis, but they need to cooperate and collaborate constructively.”  This might be especially true in a nation like Liberia, which is struggling to emerge from years of civil conflict, and lacks a robust political and economic infrastructure.


Data from Tsai's Ebola Data Recovery project indicates that government outreach in the Ebola crisis has much more impact than international NGO outreach.


Research on empowering citizens was inspired by historic family village

Liberia may be new territory for Tsai, but the kinds of questions she poses have preoccupied her since the start of her academic career. “My research interests all center around the question of how relatively powerless people with not a lot of resources are able to get people in power to provide things they are supposed to.”

This quest got its start during Tsai’s graduate school years, when she visited her mother’s childhood village in China’s Hunan province. She was surprised to see the mud brick house built by her grandfather, unchanged, after nearly six decades. The entire village was untouched by the massive rural industrialization underway throughout China, and people struggled to subsist in much the way they always had.

With great effort and some good breaks, Tsai’s parents had been able to flee this hardscrabble life for a better future in the United States. But, Tsai saw, her mother’s village “was also full of hardworking people, and yet for them, nothing had changed.”  With hard labor and luck Tsai realized, these villagers might fractionally improve their own living standards, “but that did not magically create better public roads, schools, healthcare, or a functioning government.”

How can citizens catalyze needed governmental services and accountability?

Galvanized by this experience, Tsai began studying the systemic problems that prevent citizens from receiving essential government services they require, and the institutional arrangements that promote responsive governance.

Tsai’s dissertation work revealed that in parts of rural China touched by rapid economic development, some villages thrived, while others foundered. She also discovered that economically successful villages often featured unusually responsive local officials. “This was a mystery: Why were they exceptional?” Tsai wondered.

In detailed field research, she learned that traditional religious and community institutions allowed citizens to hold local officials accountable, punishing them for being indifferent or corrupt, and rewarding them for performing well — all without representative government, or recourse to official legal or government channels. This work became the basis for her book, Accountability Without Democracy: Solidary Groups and Public Goods Provision in Rural China (Cambridge University, 2007).

While Tsai has continued her ethnographic field work and analysis of governance and accountability in rural China, she has more recently branched out to east Africa, which offers some interesting contrasts. In Kenya, a multiparty democracy, “average citizens don’t think there is any point in communicating with the government or pressuring elected officials,” she said. “In China, with its one-party system, when people are not satisfied with a school or health clinic, they often go to complain, because there are informal channels for citizens to pressure officials for public provisions.”

The takeaway, she said, is that “places where you have a competent bureaucracy and strong state capacity, and institutions that enable people to hold local officials accountable are oftentimes where you get the most citizen engagement.” Put simply, “greater top-down capacity leads to better bottom-up participation.”

The MIT Governance Lab — MIT GOV/LAB — provides immersive opportunities for MIT graduate students to investigate and test new forms of civic engagement around the world, often in partnership with international NGOs hungry to shape more effective interventions using advanced technologies.

Founding an MIT lab to test new forms of civic engagement

After studying the theoretical underpinnings of government accountability and responsiveness in specific settings, Tsai has become interested in widening her focus, promoting real-world innovations in citizen participation and government responsiveness. In 2013, she launched the MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB), which provides immersive opportunities for MIT graduate students to investigate and test new forms of civic engagement around the world, often in partnership with international NGOs hungry to shape more effective interventions using advanced technologies.

Tsai's 2014 projects included engaging Tanzanian youth in politics through specially designed comic books, community leadership training in the Philippines, and studying ways to engage women and the poor in local government meetings in Bangladesh.

The Levitan-winning Ebola project, which emerged from MIT GOV/LAB, is already bearing fruit. The preliminary website is up, and some provocative data have emerged. Tsai’s team has learned that government outreach in the Ebola crisis “has much more of an impact” than international NGO outreach. “In Liberia, because government presence is often minimal, when authorities do something, people believe it must be really important, and listen.” A more alarming finding is that one-third of citizens polled in Monrovia report that Ebola survivors have faced eviction and harassment in their communities.  

Tsai is now plotting phase two of the study, which she hopes will provide a detailed view of the kinds of communication that offer citizens the greatest political leverage during a national crisis, and if this communication moves authorities to action. “Meaningful problems are tough and systemic, so progress will be slow and incremental,” said Tsai. “But these are the challenges worth taking on.”


About the Levitan Prize

The prize was established through a gift from the late James A. Levitan, a 1945 MIT graduate in chemistry, who was also a member of the MIT Corporation and of counsel at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom of New York City. The prize, first awarded in 1990, supports innovative and creative scholarship by faculty members in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. 


Suggested links

Lily Tsai webpage

MIT Political Science

MIT GOV/LAB website

Ebola Recovery Project website

Accountability Without Democracy:
Solidary Groups and Public Goods Provision in Rural China

Lily Tsai (Cambridge University, 2007)

In this book, Tsai finds that even when formal democratic and bureaucratic institutions of accountability are weak, government officials can still be subject to informal rules and norms created by community solidary groups that have earned high moral standing in the community.

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Story Reporter / Writer: Leda Zimmerman
Photograph of Lily Tsai: Stuart Darsch