Why are “free” policy benefits left on the table?: Examining the role & cost-effectiveness of informational assistance strategies on policy take-up in India
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‘Non-take-up’ of welfare benefits has emerged as a recurring empirical phenomenon across social welfare schemes around the world. People from disadvantaged backgrounds are often seen not utilizing ‘free’ benefits they are entitled for and in greatest need of. Numerous studies have pointed to incomplete information about rights and informational complexity regarding take-up procedures as possible reasons for poor take-up. As a result, much of the recent reform efforts to ensure effective delivery of public welfare programmes have revolved around information-based interventions. This recent enthusiasm has been centered on the premise that information (or the lack of it) is a decisive demand-side factor for explaining the puzzle of low take-up of welfare benefits. However, its salience still remains an open empirical question. To examine whether information is indeed a causative factor in determining a program’s low take-up, we designed and implemented a randomized controlled field trial around a public information campaign, spanning the entire urban district of a state in western India. Situated under the context of India’s ambitious ‘Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act’, the campaign employed a range of communication media varying in terms of facilitating channels (AWWs, trained student volunteers, IVRS technology) as well as mediums of interaction (face-to-face, telephonic). All of these components aimed at raising awareness, dispelling misinformation and doubts, and providing any other form of informational assistance and handholding to potential beneficiaries. Through the campaign, we were able to evaluate the following: (a) to what extent does a targeted and sustained interpersonal communication campaign, using such campaign components, lead to greater policy take-up when compared to ‘business-as-usual’; (b) the relative impact of the different campaign components on the primary outcome: policy take-up; and (c) their comparative cost-effectiveness. For the current setting, our ITT estimates lend credence to the salience of the information component. However, we find these effects to be far less pronounced for those they should have been most critical for i.e. the poorest among the poor. A closer examination of this group points to the need for introducing greater enabling measures from the supply side to complement such information-based interventions. In terms of sheer impact of the different campaign components, the trained student volunteer group is found to be the most effective while IVRS is found to be the least effective. In terms of relative cost-effectiveness, the trend is seen to be exactly reversed. Such evidence holds important implications for policy makers and programmers aiming to design, adapt, and scale-up different communication strategies for future interventions, especially in resource-constrained settings. Its absence inhibits state capacity to make informed decisions on committing, allocating and providing funds and resources for communication interventions globally.
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