Industrial Policy meets Doing Development Differently: an evening at SOAS

March 18, 2016

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March 18, 2016

Does “Rational Ignorance” make working on transparency and accountability a waste of time?

March 18, 2016
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Guest post from Paul O’Brien, Vice President for Policy and Campaigns, Oxfam America (gosh, they do have Paul O'Brienaugust sounding job titles, don’t they?)

As the poorest half of the planet sees that just 62 people have more wealth than all of them, collective frustration at extreme inequality is increasing.  To rebalance power and wealth, many in our community are turning to transparency, accountability, participation and inclusion.  Interrogate that “development consensus,” however, and opinions are fractured over the benefits and costs of transferring power from the haves to the have-nots.

In truth, our theories of change often diverge.   Most development organizations may agree on the need to advocate for more Investment, Innovation, Information, strong Institutions and Incentives, but some organizations are genuinely committed to only one of those “I’s”, and that can be problematic:  Oxfam often finds itself choosing and moving between the relentless positivity of politically benign theories of change (e.g. we just need more “investment”

Too much information

Too much information

or “innovation”), the moderation of those who focus exclusively on transparent “information” with no clear pathway to ensure its political relevance, and the relentless negativity of activists that think the only way to transform “institutions” or realign the “incentives” of elites is to beat them up in public.

Oxfam’s challenge is to be both explicit in our theory of change, and show sophistication and dexterity in working across that spectrum.  If Oxfam’s theory of change is based on a citizen-centered approach to tackling global systemic challenges like extreme inequality, then our opportunity may be engaging the “rational ignorance” of citizens and consumers.

Ignorance is rational when the costs of gaining knowledge outweigh the benefits.   Rational ignorance is why I don’t read the Washington DC education budget even though my child goes to a public school here.   It is why I never used to pick General Mills or Kellogg cereals based on their social justice performance.  Until that answer was here and easy to find, my gut said it would take too much time, be irrelevant to my personal needs, would not give me a pathway to action, or when it did, wouldn’t be worth it.  Even professionally, as more donors fund transparency work, there is just too much data and too many indices, to follow it all.  In short, I would like to think my growing ignorance is mostly rational.

Rational ignorance is a profound threat to our theory of change.  Oxfam recognizes that without systems for public accountability and active citizenry, states tend to forget their primary duty to regulate opportunity and power amongst their people.    Instead power is captured.  Oxfam’s relevance depends on our ability to overcome the rational ignorance of potentially active citizens.  Our challenge is urgent—active citizenship cannot wait until states have capacity, elites get comfortable or political rights open up.  Like Acemoglu and Robinson, we think public

Definitely too much information

Definitely too much information

institutions work best when political power is distributed at the same time as states build legitimate institutions.

That is why we celebrate when Ghanaian farmers march and present 20,000 signatures to successfully increase Ghana’s agriculture budget, or when consumers take more than 700,000 actions to get a slew of corporate reforms from the world’s biggest food manufacturers.

That doesn’t mean we are winning.  As information channels grow, so does the rationality of ignorance, and our task is to make active citizenship more worthwhile.  Peixoto and Fox’s findings are useful in this respect:

1) institutional responsiveness to citizen engagement tends to happen when online and off-line support are blended;

and 2) donor-driven transparency and citizen “voice” initiatives rarely yield institutional responsiveness.   The ideas have to be owned by local institutions—either government or CSOs or both; and (3) exclusively demonizing the very elites from whom power must be distributed may not work.

Other lessons on overcoming rational ignorance:

too-much-data(1) Translating data into relevance for citizens requires not just cutting-edge broadcast communication skills (see e.g. Tanzania) but interactive dialogue that allows citizens to shape debate, strategy and outcomes (see e.g. Burkina Faso).

(2) Timing matters.  See how citizens increased engagement in Zambia and the Dominican Republic before elections.

Our field is awash with slick terms that re-describe but fail to resolve old challenges.   “Rational ignorance” may be one such term.   But if it signals that consumers and citizens will ignore transparency and accountability efforts unless and until those efforts meaningfully engage the personal self-interest or civic energy of the people we ultimately serve, then it is worth chewing on.


  1. The expression “Rational Ignorance” is laden with judgment. It implies that people are ignorant by choice; that confronted with information they deliberately make the wrong choice. It presupposes that there is a right choice to make, and that “we” know what that is.

    In a complex system, there is no right or wrong. There are choices that people make because that is what they do when confronted with their circumstances. I worked a water supply system on Lake Victoria where people were vandalizing their own recently installed clean water tap stands, reverting back to ditch water that they had to pay more for, that they knew made them ill. This was not ignorance; this was a choice. Our inquiry into the dynamics revealed that there were youth who stood to lose their jobs carrying water with the arrival of new tap stands. Moreover, the wider community agreed that these youth should be able to make money in this way, so there was no resistance to the vandalism.

    There is a movement based change approach documented in our recent work, “Navigating Complexity in International Development” that we espouse. Rather than assume that there is a preferred change pathway through a complex system, understand that complexity means that there is no predictability, and that our engagement must therefore be iterative. Burns and I argue that, by building on the action based participation of people at the “point of pain” and those around them, we not only harness their context specific knowledge, but also their enthusiasm and energy.

    Rational ignorance, as you put it, would imply a sense of obduracy among the poor that we need to overcome through better information and engagement. I would argue that it is the other way around. It is the expert outsider who needs enlightenment. The willful making of choices that experts define as ignorance is, in my experience, a perspicacity grounded in local understanding of the system patterns and attractors that exist. It is rational. Not ignorance.

    That is not to say that there is no role for new knowledge. On the contrary, once we recognise that local choices are not ignorant, then we can offer new knowledge that might be useful. I have spent years working with profoundly competent agricultural producers who were facing profound context changes that were driving them towards poverty. Offering knowledge that they could pick through and mess about with create spaces for conversations that resulted in transformative action.

    The good governance sense of accountability, transparency, participation and inclusion builds on the idea (I think) that everyone has something to offer. If we are careful in handling power that comes with a sense of agenda defined certainty, we can engage widely and stimulate change through the actions of many. Sadly though, these four principles are also used as a hammer to derail the agendas of other people less powerful than ourselves as evidenced by loan conditions that connect to the principles of liberal democracy.

    So I do not agree that Rational Ignorance is a useful term applied to the poor. It merely casts those that think differently from experts are being obdurate. Perhaps it is time for expert led development to realize that it is us who are ignorant of most relevant dynamics.

  2. That’s a fascinating comment but I didn’t read ‘rational ignorance’ as meaning deliberately making the ‘wrong’ choice but rather, as Paul says, making no choice at all; deliberate non-engagement because of the profusion and confusion of information. It’s a trait I recognise in myself! The costs of gaining knowledge seem to outweigh the benefits. I don’t think Paul’s suggestions really provide answers to how to overcome rational ignorance of this kind (except via ‘translation’ – turning complex information, calls, demands into something personal, immediate and important). One question re. the Lake Victoria case: are you sure ‘the wider community’ agreed with the youths (and so their vandalism), or was this something they felt they had to go along with out of fear?

  3. Interesting. This deserves a lot more dialogue. I like the broader structural analysis that Marcel Giroux’s thinking brings to these discussions around the U.S.. The challenges of political responsibility given the increasing power of market and corporate forces. He calls it “the violence of organized forgetting” where commodification chips away at civic action and imagination. He sees critical pedagogy as a crucial response. More societal and coercive than what I understand of “rational ignorance” where individuals decide the opportunity cost of knowing. The U.S. election comes to mind around these issues.

  4. Interesting. This deserves a lot more dialogue. I like the broader structural analysis that Henry Giroux’s thinking brings to these discussions around the U.S.. The challenges of political responsibility given the increasing power of market and corporate forces. He calls it “the violence of organized forgetting” where commodification chips away at civic action and imagination. He sees critical pedagogy as a crucial response. More societal and coercive than what I understand of “rational ignorance” where individuals decide the opportunity cost of knowing. The U.S. election comes to mind around these issues.

    oops that’s Henry Giroux, not Marcel…

  5. John. Participatory inquiry revealed this surprising information, and this centered around concerns for sons and nephews, not a fear dynamic. It was a surprise to me that highlighted that there were wider dynamics that we could only see with such an approach. Employment and youth income was, to those people, more important than clean drinking water. Now we could have persuaded them that clean water was better than employment. But that simply would shift the agenda to the expert agenda as opposed to the intrinsic one. With that approach comes a loss of energy and a loss of momentum.

    I have learned to respect the ideas of the poor, not only because they are quite accurate in terms of the specific context, but more because they represent what people want to do. When we harness the energy of action, we are well on the way to engaging with change processes that might actually work. My objection to the term rational ignorance is that the rational choice of the poor is rarely, if ever, ignorant. The surfeit of information that encircles is just that. A surfeit of information. That people choose not to engage with this it is not a matter of ignorance. Rather it is a comment on the functional irrelevance of that information to the context. Let us not therefore ascribe ignorance to those that find little resonance with the information that abounds.

  6. Stuart. one immediate benefit of using the “rational ignorance” term is getting your insight so on that basis alone it’s been worth it. I think you ascribe too much blame to “ignorance”. Maybe think of it as the poor “ignoring” experts until they say something relevant.

    John thanks for eloquent reflection. Agree fully. on your last comment, while fear can be rational, I take your point that my answers were weak. I like the seven cases where fox and piexeto found evidence of real civic power achieving change.

    Nancy. Yes. Collective amnesis is related and perhaps the greater problem but it’s a cousin of deciding not to engage in the first place.

  7. Your conclusion will be no surprise to politicians who artfully present complexity in simple, inspiring phrases. They aim to win our support. My grandmother, a politician, also knew that citizens responded more actively when information is interpreted and presented so that they can relate to it. You have experienced this yourself as a citizen. So, where’s the news in your conclusion?

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