When is Knowledge Power? (Project Syndicate)

WHEN IS KNOWLEDGE POWER? (PROJECT SYNDICATE)

by Katrina Kosec and Leonard Wantchekon

In this commentary, originally published by Project Syndicate, Katrina Kosec (IFPRI) and Leonard Wantchekon (Princeton University) discuss the role of information in governance and delivery of infrastructure services. The piece draws on the review of 48 empirical studies collected in the Special Section on Information, Governance, and Rural Service Delivery in the recent issue of World Development journal, co-edited by the authors and supported by PIM.


In theory, a growing supply of information could help improve governance, infrastructure, and delivery of services such as education, health care, and agricultural extension. But if information is to meet its potential to help the world's poor, three conditions must be met.

Nowadays, most of us have vast amounts of information at our fingertips. In theory, that information could help improve governance, infrastructure, and delivery of services such as education, health care, and agricultural extension. But there are major gaps in access to relevant information, especially in rural areas, where nearly 68% of the world’s poor live. And even where there is relevant information, translating it into action is no simple task.

Consider governance. Policymakers need data about economic output, consumption, migration, citizen demands, and myriad other factors to make informed decisions about taxation and expenditures, including social programs. Likewise, citizens need information about politicians’ mandates and performance, if electoral incentives are to work. Even in autocratic settings, information can boost accountability, such as by spurring popular protests.

The same goes for the delivery of infrastructure services. Governments and service providers need data about where and how people live – especially those who are most geographically, politically, and economically isolated – to make sound investments. Citizens, for their part, need to know which services are available, where, and how to access them. They also need to know how they can influence the policy process, to ensure, say, that a school is built in a convenient location.

Although access to information has drastically improved across low-income countries over the last decade, rural service providers and users alike often lag far behind their urban counterparts. Providers may not have enough data to determine what users need or want, and users lack information about the capabilities of service providers. Given these information gaps, political leaders often overlook the needs of rural citizens – especially those who are uneducated and politically disengaged.

But even where there is broad access to information, this is not enough to bring about measurable gains in poverty reduction, governance, and services delivery. According to our examination of 48 empirical studies from developing countries, information actually improves rural governance only when three conditions are met: the information is credible, meaningful, and sufficiently specific; users have the power to act on it; and incentives encourage them to do so.

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More on the topic:

When information leads to better governance in rural areas—and when it doesn’t (blog)

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