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July 14, 2020

Information and power relations

Opinion

July 14, 2020

Does provision of information make all the difference in decision-making at the grassroots level or is it determined by the dictates of power relations?

We ask this question as economists move disciplinary boundaries, and there is a need to broaden the scope of inquiry as well. We review some literature (Acemoglu et al 2018; International Growth Centre’s ‘Candidate Attributes and Political Accountability’ description; Grossman et al, Growth Brief, 2019).

In institutional economics, information asymmetry is a well-known concept such as in decisions leading to transactions, one party is better informed than the other. There is information imbalance reflected for example in the sale of used cars where the seller can have more knowledge about the car than the potential buyer. This information asymmetry can lead to market failure. Hence, there is so much emphasis on sharing information.

Acemoglu et al have used the concept of provision of verified positive information about reduction in delay in the state’s courts to people in a field experiment in Sargodha as a measure to help them overcome their distrust of the formal courts resulting in higher willingness to use courts. It also led people to downgrade their perceptions of the usefulness of informal dispute resolution mechanisms such as the panchayat. In rural areas, the majority of cases are resolved by the informal mechanisms such as panchayat and people in general do not much trust the police or courts.

The authors also experimented with two field games whereby they gave a certain amount of money to respondents and then asked them to allocate money on the basis of their perceptions of effectiveness of courts or panchayats. As a result of provision of positive information about reduction in delay;,people’s perceptions changed and they reported less likelihood to opt for informal mechanisms and allocated less funds to them in their field game compared to the baseline. There were both direct and indirect effects of this field experiment.

For authors, these results indicated that despite the low trust of state judicial institutions at the grassroots level, if people are provided with credible new information through “motivated reasoning” about the effectiveness of formal courts then it could change behaviour and beliefs and also reverse the negative feedback loop between ineffectiveness of state courts and legitimacy of informal mechanisms.

While we do not contest the results of these findings as credible and esteemed authors have carried out this study, we want to point out that it is not merely the provision of information that makes all the difference. Anyone who has done qualitative fieldwork in rural Pakistan knows that there are entrenched power structures in the communities. People may opt for the informal dispute resolution mechanisms due to the prevalent structures of power relations and provision of information may be one of the factors but may not be the key determinant in decision-making.

For example, when we did our fieldwork on the judicial system in the early 2000s, we found out that in certain parts of Balochistan, the villagers could not even register a FIR without the permission of the tribal chief. No amount of information about the efficacy of formal courts versus the informal mechanisms is going to make much of a difference unless you take into account the prevalent power relations at the local level. Patron-client relationships are the main expressions of behaviour in rural areas and access to justice is part of it. Though as a woman, I wish the effective formal courts wholly replace the informal dispute resolution mechanisms.

Moreover, as Khan, Khan, Akhtar (2007) state that in rural areas courts and informal mechanisms’ proceedings can often go on simultaneously in a coexistence mode. People use the formal court proceeding to have a bearing on the negotiations in the informal systems. So a binary clear-cut divide between the formal and informal dispute resolution mechanisms may not exist as this above-mentioned study implies.

The importance of power relations is also proven by other research. A randomized experiment by the IGC research team found that for local government elections, people tend to vote for candidates who have political connections compared to those who have proven to be competent in the past.

In this study, voters for local government elections in Sargodha were provided with information on the performance of the prevalent government, ability of the local government candidates to have connections with higher-level politicians, and some unrelated information. A survey of voter’s preferences was conducted before and after this information.

Local government candidates with better political connections with higher level politicians got more votes and were more likely to succeed compared to those with past public service record. It again shows the limitation of provision of information only. Even if campaigns for transparent democracy provide voters with information on the performance of electoral candidates, it may not sway the voters too much as they are likely to follow the patron-client relationship logic.

Grossman et al (2019) have also found out that there is only “mixed” evidence in linking provision of better information to improved political performance. There are many other factors that influence voter behaviour. While one may intuitively link provision of more information to a change in the behaviour of voters, the correlation is not as straightforward.

Overall, it is a welcome development that economists are crossing disciplinary boundaries to apply their concepts in the field on other disciplines; yet the importance of Marxian and sociological analysis of power relations cannot be ignored. Similarly, a mixed methods study is preferable to only quantitative analysis as certain aspects can only be reflected in in-depth qualitative analysis.

The writer is an Islamabad-basedsocial scientist.

Email: [email protected]