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When is knowledge power?

05:03 AM December 20, 2019

Washington—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 percent 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.

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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.

Equally important is the power to act on information. For policymakers, this means designing and implementing policies that reflect data-informed priorities. For citizens, it means having the legal right, competence and mobility to change their behavior.

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As research on agricultural governance in Nigeria shows, knowledge and power do not always go hand in hand. Agricultural experts often have little influence over government spending decisions, and decision-makers lack sufficient technical knowledge. This imbalance exists even within government: Local policymakers, who have more information about the situation on the ground, often face constraints in making spending decisions.

The final condition relates to incentives: There must be some net benefit for those who act on the information they receive. Politicians are more inclined to use their power to pursue initiatives with highly visible, short-term benefits than they are to invest in projects that the data indicate will do substantially more good, but less noticeably or in the longer run, such as after they have left office.

But there is also evidence that, when all three conditions are met, information does improve outcomes for poor communities. In India, women’s self-help groups facilitate the exchange of relevant information and provide a support system for members, thereby empowering them socially, politically and economically, including by helping them to take advantage of public services. One study found that women who participate in such groups are more likely to have a voter identification card, to have voted in the last election, to attend village council meetings and to believe that the village council is responsive to their needs.

This does not mean that all three conditions should—or can—be established immediately. After all, doing so effectively would require advance knowledge of the likely effects of particular types of information, and that demands more data. Instead, we should begin with more modest, shorter-term goals, such as disseminating relevant information.

Government has the power to make information work for development—or to stop it. Nonstate actors—including development practitioners, as well as media, civil-society groups and researchers—can also play a role, by disseminating relevant information in settings where power and incentives are already likely to be present.

The aphorism “knowledge is power” holds a lot of truth, but it can be misleading. If information is to help rural populations thrive, the right conditions must be in place. Project Syndicate

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Katrina Kosec is a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Leonard Wantchekon is professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

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