Poverty & Inequality

Access to information and the poor

  • Blog Post Date 19 February, 2016
  • Perspectives
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The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India recently ruled against charging different subscribers different prices for data services. In this article, Martin Ravallion, Edmond D. Villani Chair of Economics at Georgetown University, contends that we certainly need to improve access of the poor to knowledge about public services that can help them, but such efforts should be explicitly targeted at them. Relying on prevailing processes of knowledge diffusion may simply reflect and even reinforce existing inequalities.

There is much enthusiasm today for efforts to improve access to information about poor people’s rights and entitlements. In a much debated recent example, Facebook’s “Free Basics” platform aims to provide free access to a selected slice of the internet (including, of course, Facebook). In arguing for Free Basics, Mark Zuckerberg said that “everyone … deserves access to the tools and information that can help them to achieve all those other public services, and all their fundamental social and economic rights.” I think we would all agree; less obvious is how much Free Basics would do that. Critics argue that it is a “walled garden” approach - indeed, a threat to net neutrality. There are other options using subsidised internet data packs, as in the proposal for India made recently by Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah. (On February 8, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruled against differential pricing for data packages; so India will not get Free Basics.)

Neither the Facebook proposal nor that of Nilekani and Shah includes explicit pro-poor targeting of efforts to enhance information access. Is that needed? It might be argued that it is likely to be the poor who are least connected now, so the gains will automatically be greater for them. Against this, those who have the hardware and are currently connected are less likely to be poor and will probably be in the best position to benefit from these initiatives, including enjoying any new subsidies.

Before India decides on how to enhance information access, more needs to be known about how well information spreads at present. There is already lots of ‘public information’ out there relevant to poor people in India, and there are various dissemination channels, including the internet. Are the poor still sufficiently well connected socially to tap into the flow of knowledge, or does their poverty come with social exclusion, including exclusion from information about programmes designed to help poor people? Is a more explicitly targeted approach called for? In short, does new knowledge trickle down?

MNREGA as an example

In arguing for subsidised internet data packs, Nilekani and Shah use the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) as a motivating example. MNREGA created a justiciable ‘right-to-work’ for all rural households in India. The most direct and obvious way the scheme tries to reduce poverty is by providing extra employment in rural areas on demand. This requires an explicit effort to empower poor people, who must take deliberate unilateral actions to demand work under the scheme from local officials.

In a book I wrote with Puja Dutta, Rinku Murgai and Dominique van de Walle, Right to Work?, it was found that most people in rural Bihar had heard about MNREGA, but most were unaware of their rights and entitlements under the scheme. Women were especially ill-informed about these matters.

Given that about half the adults in rural Bihar are illiterate, an entertaining movie made sense as an information intervention to try to inform people about the scheme. The setting and movie we produced for this purpose are described in Right to Work? and you can see the movie on my website, economicsandpoverty.com. The movie was tailored to Bihar’s specific context. Professional actors performed in an entertaining and emotionally engaging story-based plot whose purpose was to provide information on how the scheme works, who can participate and how to go about participating. The storyline was centred on a temporary migrant worker returning to his village from the city to see his wife and baby daughter. He learns that there is work available in the village under MNREGA, even though it is the lean season, so he can stay there with his family and friends rather than return to the city to find work. It was intended that the audience would identify strongly with the central characters.

With the aim of promoting better knowledge about the scheme in this setting, the movie was randomly assigned to sampled villages, with a control group not receiving the movie. Knowledge about the scheme was assessed in both treatment and control villages. Residents were encouraged to watch the movie, but not (of course) compelled to do so. Some watched it and some did not. The movie was found to be successful in enhancing knowledge about the scheme.

Social frictions to knowledge diffusion

In a new paper, “Social Frictions to Knowledge Diffusion (2016),” written with Arthur Alik-Lagrange, I have used the movie to identify key aspects of how knowledge is shared within villages. The paper shows how such an information campaign can throw light on how new knowledge spreads within villages. The new paper studies the impacts on knowledge, and the channel of that impact — notably whether it was purely through the direct effect of watching the movie or whether it was through knowledge sharing within villages.

While we find robust evidence of knowledge sharing, the knowledge diffusion process within villages is far weaker for disadvantaged groups, defined in terms of caste, landholding, literacy, or consumption poverty. For poor people, the direct effect of watching the movie is all that really matters to learning about MNREGA. In the main, it is the non-poor who learn from knowledge sharing. There is also some indication of negative spillover effects for illiterate and landless households, suggesting the strategic spread of misinformation.

More knowledge about public programmes like MNREGA does not assure an effective public response on the service supply side. The movie worked quite well in enhancing knowledge, but the supply-side response was still poor. Right to Work? also documents a number of specific, fixable, deficiencies in the responsiveness of MNREGA in Bihar to the needs of poor people.

There is no denying that efforts are needed to improve the access of poor people to knowledge about public services that can help them. But these new research findings also suggest that such efforts need to be directly targeted to poor groups, rather than relying on prevailing processes of knowledge diffusion, which may simply reflect, and reinforce, existing inequities.

This article first appeared in The Indian Express

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