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

March 18, 2016 7 By Duncan Green

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.