There seems to be 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 provides free access to a selected slice of the internet (including, of course, Facebook). In arguing for Free Basics, Mark Zuckerberg says 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 whether Free Basics will help do that. Critics argue that it is a “walled garden” approach—indeed, a threat to net neutrality. There have been proposals for other options using subsidized internet data packs, as in the proposal for India made recently by Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah.
Neither the Facebook proposal nor that of Nilekani and Shah includes explicit pro-poor targeting. 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 we decide on Free Basics versus subsidized data packs, or some other option, we should see 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. While there may well be frictions for knowledge diffusion, associated with illiteracy and caste-based social exclusion, how important are they? Are the poor still sufficiently well connected socially to tap into the flow of knowledge, or does poverty come with social exclusion, including exclusion from information about programs designed to help poor people? Is a more explicitly targeted approach called for? An understanding of the sources of current inequality in information access is a pre-condition for thinking seriously about policies.
Using edutainment to learn about knowledge diffusion
The use of entertaining media—“edutainment” as Eliana La Ferrara dubs it in her paper “Mass Media and Social Change”—is attracting attention as a means of both directly informing poor people of their rights and entitlements and changing preferences and how existing communities operate. Such interventions can also provide a lens on existing processes of knowledge diffusion.
In a new paper, “Social Frictions to Knowledge Diffusion,” with Arthur Alik-Lagrange, I have used an edutainment intervention to identify key aspects of how knowledge is shared within villages in rural Bihar (a relatively poor state of about 100 million people in the Northeast of India). We show how an information campaign can throw light on the extent to which information is shared within villages. The campaign we studied used an entertaining fictional movie to teach people their rights under India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) (a motivating example used by Nilekani and Shah). NREGA created a justiciable “right-to-work” for all rural households in India. The most direct and obvious way NREGA 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 on 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 men and three-quarters of women had heard about NREGA, but most were unaware of their rights and entitlements under the scheme. Given that about half the adults in rural Bihar are illiterate, a movie made sense as an information intervention. The setting and movie are described in Right to Work? and you can see the movie (audio in Hindi) 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 story line was centered on a temporary migrant worker returning to his village from the city to see his wife and baby daughter. He learns that there is BREGS work available in the village, 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 NREGA in this setting, the movie was randomly assigned to sampled villages, with a control group not receiving the movie. Knowledge about NREGA 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 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.
There is a methodological challenge here, namely how to identify the knowledge gains (if any) for those in the assigned villages who did not actually watch the movie. We postulate that there is a latent process of knowledge diffusion among households within the village. An individual’s knowledge reflects both this process and a latent individual effect representing the individual’s “connectedness.” The latter is assumed to be time invariant, as it depends on long-standing networks of association between people, reflecting how each individual fits within the village social structure including caste positions and the ability of that individual to process the new information. Having two observations within each household allows us to obtain an estimate that is robust to latent heterogeneity in household factors. By exploiting the differences over time, our method is also robust to latent individual effects.
Socially differentiated knowledge spillovers
We find robust evidence of spillover effects, which account for about one third of the average impact of the movie on knowledge about NREGA’s key wage and employment provisions. While knowledge sharing is evident, poorer people, by various criteria, appear to be less well connected, and so benefit less from the spillover effect—relying more on direct exposure to the intervention.
Our key finding is that the knowledge diffusion process is far weaker for disadvantaged groups, defined in terms of caste, landholding, literacy, or consumption poverty. For poor people, it appears that the direct effect of watching the movie is all that really matters to learning about NREGA. There is also some indication of negative spillover effects for illiterate and landless households, suggesting the strategic spread of misinformation.
More effective pro-poor knowledge diffusion does not, of course, assure an effective public response on the service supply side. In another paper, “Empowering Poor People through Public Information?,” it was shown that the (direct and indirect) knowledge gains from the movie did rather little to assure a more responsive program. Right to Work? documents a number of specific, fixable, deficiencies in the responsiveness of NREGA in Bihar to the needs of poor people.
These research findings confirm that efforts are needed to improve the access of poor people to knowledge about public services that can help them, and that edutainment can work. The research also suggests 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.