“I never thought that a poor family could benefit so much by me giving just a small amount of money,” the old man said with an intrigued yet hopeful expression on his face. We were sitting in a small classroom in Aqaba, Jordan, chosen as part of a behavioral experiment on Social Safety Nets (SSN). Although I have worked on social issues for many years, this statement was eye-opening to me. I knew of course that one of the main hurdles we face in our work is that citizens lack awareness of how the government can redistribute finances (using public revenues from taxation and other sources) to help the poor. Governments in the Middle East and North Africa region usually rely on subsidies to lower the cost of fuel and food, but the problem is that the rich benefit far more from such assistance than the poor. Still, citizens tend to resist subsidy/SSN reform for various reasons and it is not easy to convince them that good alternatives exist. For this reason I was particularly astonished that a simple yet practical game could help citizens grasp the social safety nets concept. And it was also enlightening to those of us who work on SSN as to whether citizens are supportive of redistributive programs as alternatives to subsidies, and if so, who and under what conditions?
As the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) usually conducts focus group discussions and surveys to gather information, we were excited when we were asked to take an unusual approach: an experimental behavioral game called Jordan Gives. The game would be conducted as part of a World Bank MENA report Inclusion and Resilience: The Way Forward for Social Safety Nets in the Middle East and North Africa. The innovative design would be fine-tuned in collaboration with us at CSS since we know the local reality. Given that the concepts in question were difficult to explain, the idea was to have participants “work through” certain decision-making processes, structured so that their decisions within the game also reflect their real-life preferences.
We took the game to 21 public schools across Jordan involving 420 participants. Initially, we worried about the additional burden on the school administrators. However, we quickly learnt that many felt grateful to host the experiments. One principal told us that she felt proud that the parents and community were involved and could join forces within the walls of their school. As an added bonus visitors could also come to see how organized and engaged the school was.
Game participants were recruited from randomly-selected middle-class communities across Jordan, as the middle class is often the group that may tilt the balance in favor or against safety net reforms. In each location, 20 recruits were divided equally into two groups – treatment and control – who played the game simultaneously in separate rooms. Before the game, each participant received fuel vouchers from the Jordan Petroleum Refinery, redeemable for fuel at any gas station in Jordan. Besides the 5 JD voucher as a show-up fee, they received a 10 JD voucher to play the game. We chose 10 JD, the equivalent of the minimum daily wage, to ensure that participants took the decisions in the game seriously. When playing, participants were offered four proposals, one at a time, and had to decide for each proposal whether to give up the 10 JD voucher to have the proposal implemented or to keep the 10 JD voucher instead of implementing the proposal.
The proposals mimicked different safety net program design along the following lines:
- Unconditional cash transfers in which the team gives JD 20 cash per family to five poor families in the community;
- In-kind transfers in which the team gives a food basket worth JD 20 per family to five poor families;
- Conditional cash transfers in which the team gives JD 20 cash per family to five poor families, conditional on their completion of a free training program on work-related skills; and
- Cash transfers together with a public good in which the team gives JD 20 cash per family to two poor families, and JD 60 cash goes to the local school.
The treatment group received additional information before making their decisions, including a potential “shopping cart” that a poor family would be able to buy for 20 JD. Also, players in the treatment group were invited to join the facilitator to witness the distribution of the selected proposal to the poor families so they could have full trust in implementation. All the participants were encouraged to carefully think about the trade-offs of their choices as their decisions would translate into concrete monetary costs and benefits. At the end of the game, all the decisions in the room were placed in a jar, with one decision randomly picked and implemented on the whole room. For us, all the individual decisions would indicate the real-life preferences of citizens for various forms of redistribution.
This experience brought important results:
- Approximately two-thirds of the participants decided to donate their vouchers in exchange for helping the poor in their communities.
- Unconditional cash transfer was the most popular option in the treatment group, while in-kind (food) transfer was the most popular in the control group.
- Citizens with low trust in effective delivery of public resources were significantly less altruistic in the control group. Moreover, they tended to have a stronger preference for food rather than cash than other citizens.
- The game also showed that allowing for monitoring of benefit delivery improved donations among two groups: the youth and the low-trust participants, suggesting that enhancing credibility through transparency measures is an important element in increasing the support for SSN reform, particularly for the middle-class population that was at the center in the Arab Spring.
The game became a mood setter for the rich focus group discussions that followed with lively debates spurred by the fresh experience from the game. These reflections revealed that participants had absorbed the concepts involved in the game. In the words of one: “The terminology seemed complicated at first but once we learnt more through the game about how social safety nets can work, we also better understood that we can have a more equal society.” With these categories clear in everyone’s mind, it became easy to discuss how redistributive choices depend on the design of safety nets.
It was also crucial for us to learn that the way people had made choices during the game was in line with what they thought it would take for them to tolerate a bit more taxation for the benefit of the needy. In order to pay for redistribution, for instance through higher commodity prices, people would want to see the impact of their sacrifices on the ground, and be able to monitor who reaps the benefits of a reform.
To me, this experiment highlighted two things: first, the absolute importance of transparency. When people were able to see and understand how their donations and contributions actually reach the intended people, the credibility of the proposals rose. The same would apply to government social safety net programs – if they are transparent, then citizens will become more supportive. Second, I saw first-hand the importance of bringing the community together and learning from one another for the benefit of greater society. All in all, this was one of the most interesting research projects that I have been involved in. Although Jordan Gives had many logistical elements that were difficult to implement, the benefits outweighed the challenges not only because of what we learnt about people’s preferences but also because we learnt more about social safety nets and how reform in Jordan could better benefit the poor.
Read all the posts in the social safety net blog series:
Who should pay for the poorest in Lebanon?
NOW is the time to bring MENA's poor Into the net
It is time for the Arab world to invest in people not subsidies
Fighting poverty in the Arab world: with Soap Operas?
Can a game teach us how to better invest in the poor in Jordan?