Of course, incomplete information is not the only reason why poor people do not take up their entitlements. And nor is knowledge exogenous to the forces that create their poverty. What one considers one’s “rights” in an Indian village (say) may depend more on what local officials and elites say than on rather abstract central dictates in official legislation, far removed from the realities of daily life. Possibly people do not know their rights because there is no point knowing them when the reality of their lives does not admit those rights in practice. An information campaign will not then be sufficient for people to be willing and able to take action to get what they are due. The same factors that create poverty may make information about one’s legal rights largely irrelevant to one’s agency in accessing services.
The social psychology of an information campaign is relevant here. We learn from psychology that information absorption is a selective, choice-based, process. If new public information about one’s rights under the law is in an uncomfortable dissonance with long-standing beliefs based on the realities of one’s experiences then that new information will be suppressed or simply ignored as some irrelevant fiction. The information campaign will fail.
Alternatively, the campaign may succeed in changing social perceptions relevant to the public program but not individual efficacy in accessing that program. In principle, a persuasive campaign may make one think differently, and more positively, about the local environment in the abstract, but not change the reality for anyone. The campaign creates a “groupthink.” Each individual may instead come to think that he or she is an exception to the norm described by the information campaign. This distortion to beliefs may well come to be corrected in time through the sharing of experience via social interaction. But this will take time.
So does information on rights and processes make a difference?
India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme
Amongst those antipoverty programs in the developing world for which this question is salient, India’s ambitious National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of 2005 stands out. NREGA created a justiciable “right to work” for all rural households implemented through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. This could well be the largest antipoverty program ever; according to the administrative data, over 50 million households in India participated in 2010.
The scheme promises 100 days of work per year to all rural households whose adults are willing to do unskilled manual labor at the statutory minimum wage notified for the program. Work is to be made available within 15 days to anyone who asks for it, failing which the state government is liable to pay an unemployment allowance. Open village meetings (Gram Sabhas) are supposed to identify suitable projects and local government institutions (Gram Panchayats) are given a central role in planning and implementation.
The puzzle of Bihar
One would hope that NREGA—the country’s (and possibly the world’s) largest antipoverty program—worked well in India’s poorest states, where it is presumably needed most. Bihar is one of the poorest two or three of India’s larger states if not the poorest. Yet Bihar has the lowest participation rate in MGNREGS of any state—well below what one would expect given its poverty rate.
So NREGA in Bihar poses a puzzle. (When referring to the scheme implementing NREGA in Bihar I will abbreviate to “BREGS.”) The state has one of the highest poverty rates, but lowest participation rates in this massive antipoverty program. Also, Bihar’s participation rate is low conditional on its poverty rate. Essentially, the central government is willing to fund more employment on the scheme in Bihar, where it is surely needed, but the money is not flowing to workers.
A pilot information campaign
A new paper, “Testing Information Constraints on India’s Largest Antipoverty Program ” (written with Dominique van de Walle, Puja Dutta and Rinku Murgai), aims to see whether information is the binding constraint on poor people accessing BREGS. The paper asks: How aware are people of their rights under the Act? Can their awareness be changed by a well-designed information intervention? If so, does that new knowledge generate better results—changes in BREGS’s ability to reach poor people? Or does it only create new social perceptions that are largely divorced from reality?
We began with an extensive, state-wide, survey of rural households’ knowledge about BREGS in the context of a multi-purpose survey of 3,000 randomly chosen households, with separate interviews of adult men and women. For those who had heard of NREGA, we asked 12 questions about the scheme’s rules and processes. The results revealed that public awareness is low. Men gave the right answer for only 4 of the 12 questions on average, while the average score for women was 2.5.
To assess whether poor awareness is a causative factor in determining the program’s low participation rate we designed and implemented a randomized control trial for an information intervention in the form of a high-quality and entertaining fictional movie, which aims to inform people of their rights under the Act. After showing the movie in 40 randomly chosen villages (with 110 retained as controls), we did a second round of surveys, returning to the same villages and households, and with the same 12 questions.
We found that the information intervention was successful in enhancing knowledge of entitlements and processes under BREGS. The test scores improved significantly. But it did not result in better program performance on average. There were earnings gains for illiterate individuals who were already BREGS participants, but no gains (alas) for those who want help but are not getting work from the scheme.
The movie did not significantly change aggregate objective outcomes, but appears instead to have created a groupthink within the treatment villages—a distortion to widely-held beliefs. This is evident in the fact that perceptions of program efficacy and of conditions in the village as a whole became more positive, but this did not translate into better outcomes at the individual level for most people.
We conclude that complementary actions are needed on the supply side to assure that the scheme’s potential is realized. In a forthcoming book, Rozgar Guarantee? Challenges of Fighting Poverty in a Poor State of India, we go further into the scheme’s supply-side problems, and outline some reforms to the scheme that could assure that well-informed poor people can get the services they are entitled to under this ambitious program.