Anyone who doubts the power of information need look no further than the Arab Spring of 2010-2012. Social media had a profound impact on anti-government protests and has been credited with toppling dictators (though it has also been credited with allowing them to survive). But is information powerful enough to help rural people get access to better services and improved governance?
The year’s award of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer further cements the value of an experimental evidence-based approach to policy-making. There is enormous potential in experiments—including those focused on increasing the information available to citizens and governments.
Greater access to information has been proposed as a route to economic prosperity and good governance. In theory, information could help improve governance and delivery of services— such as agricultural extension, infrastructure, education, and healthcare—in rural areas, which are home to about 68% of the world’s poor. However, as we show below, there are a lot of intermediate steps between receipt of information and these critical outcomes for poverty alleviation.
To explore how information affects rural service delivery, we co-edited a special issue of World Development that lays out when information can be a powerful tool for better governance. (An Oct. 21 IFPRI policy seminar examines these issues.)
We examined 48 empirical studies from developing countries. We found that information can indeed help improve rural governance when users perceive it as relevant, and when they have both the power and the incentives to act on that perception. Frequently, one (or more) of these three ingredients is lacking, and our review linked this directly with no or poor impacts of information.
Why information is critical
Information plays a critical role in governance. Politicians base their decisions about taxes, spending, laws, and policies not only on the set of rules and institutions in place, but also on the information at their disposal.
At the same time, for electoral incentives to work, citizens must have information on what politicians’ mandates are and how well they have performed vis-à-vis those mandates. Even in more autocratic settings, information in the hands of citizens can discipline policy makers to respond, such as through protests.
Although access to information has increased in low-income countries, the remoteness of rural areas presents logistical challenges in delivering services and in holding governments accountable. Rural areas are often not well-integrated with the rest of the country, either politically or economically. Service providers frequently lack information about the demands of service users. And service users know little about the mandates and capabilities of service providers. In this environment, policymakers may use information gaps to their own advantage and to the detriment of rural citizens’ welfare, especially when citizens lack education and are not politically engaged.
Information alone, our study found, is no panacea. Many efforts to expand access to information—either for individuals or for policymakers—have yielded few if any benefits for rural governance or service delivery.
Information must be relevant
Our study showed that to be an effective tool for change, any information must be deemed relevant by the individual receiving it. That is, it must touch on an issue or concern that is salient to the recipient, who must also perceive it as accurate, credible, meaningful, and sufficiently specific.
A high noise-to-signal ratio can render the information irrelevant. In Uganda, for example, Guy Grossman, Melina Platas, and Jonathan Rodden found that a new platform allowing citizens to send free, anonymous text messages to local government officials failed to improve service delivery. Complaints were generally too vague to be actionable. Because messages could be sent freely and at virtually no cost, it was also difficult for individuals to convey the importance of their concerns. As a result, local government officials ignored them.
Individuals must have the power to act on information
Individuals who receive information must also have the power to act on it. For policy makers, this means being in a position to meaningfully change their behavior. For citizens, it means having not just the legal right to act, but also the capacity, ability, and even mobility to do so.
A separate study by Tewodaj Mogues and Tolu Olofinbiyi of agricultural governance in Nigeria showed how expertise and authority can be misaligned. People with superior information and expertise about agricultural issues often do not have sway over government spending on agriculture, while those making the decisions tend to have inferior technical knowledge. Moreover, local government budgets are controlled largely by state-level policymakers even though one might expect local policymakers to have greater local knowledge.
Individuals must have the incentive to act on information
Finally, individuals receiving information must have an incentive—a payoff or net benefit—to act on it. There are many reasons, however, that this may not be the case.
For example, a policy maker may be loath to invest in a project if it has low visibility or the returns will not be realized while the policy maker is in office, as Mogues and Olofinbiyi underscore. As a result, public investments can be biased toward activities that may have low returns but are highly visible.
Success stories do happen
Several success stories suggest that when relevant information, power, and incentives are brought together, governance-related outcomes can improve.
Women’s self-help groups in India provide one example. Neha Kumar and co-authors show that belonging to a self-help group made women more likely to have a voter ID card, to have voted in the last election, to attend the village council meeting, and to believe that the village council was responsive to their needs. The information provided by these groups was relevant, and the support provided by the groups gave women the power and voice to take action.
Government wields tremendous power to bring these three elements together—or to block them from doing so. But even without government support, nonstate actors can play a role. The media, grassroots civic organizations, NGOs, development practitioners, and even researchers can provide relevant information in settings where power and incentives are likely to be present.
Still, bringing all three of these factors together is challenging, partly because doing so requires knowing in advance what impacts the information is likely to have—despite the natural unpredictability of human behavior and the many unknown factors that might intervene.
This challenge suggests that we may need to temper our enthusiasm about the prospects for information to generate accountability. In the short term, more modest goals—such as increases in knowledge rather than immediate changes in behaviors or in policies—may be more appropriate. In the longer term, governments and practitioners can pilot interventions, paying close attention to the conditions that are likely to influence information relevance, power, and incentives.
Finally, as research by David Evans, Brian Holtemeyer, and Katrina Kosec demonstrates, information alone can lead to changes in trust and attitudes toward government—thus possibly providing the building blocks for greater public sector accountability.
Assuming the growing reliance of development economics research on experiments continues, this body of research turns a critical eye to issues of design in information-related experiments such as public deliberation. Understanding the formal and informal institutions that mediate the impacts of information interventions is critical, and it may require more qualitative work to get our fingers on the pulse of these institutions.
Katrina Kosec is a Senior Research Fellow with IFPRI's Development Strategy and Government Division and a leader of PIM's research cluster "Gender, Agricultural Productivity, and Rural Transformation" within Flagship 6; Leonard Wantchekon is a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. The work on the special issue was undertaken as and supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), led by IFPRI and funded by the CGIAR Fund contributors. This post first appeared on the IFPRI Blog.
Photo: Local women attend the gram sabha, or village assembly meeting, in Barrod village of Rajasthan’s Alwar district. Photo credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh Chandok