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When Is Knowledge Power?

In theory, a growing supply of information could help improve governance, infrastructure, and delivery of services such as education, health care, and agricultural extension. But if information is to meet its potential to help the world's poor, three conditions must be met.

WASHINGTON, DC – Nowadays, most of us have vast amounts of information at our fingertips. In theory, that information could help improve governance, infrastructure, and delivery of services such as education, health care, and agricultural extension. But there are major gaps in access to relevant information, especially in rural areas, where nearly 68% of the world’s poor live. And even where there is relevant information, translating it into action is no simple task.

Consider governance. Policymakers need data about economic output, consumption, migration, citizen demands, and myriad other factors to make informed decisions about taxation and expenditures, including social programs. Likewise, citizens need information about politicians’ mandates and performance, if electoral incentives are to work. Even in autocratic settings, information can boost accountability, such as by spurring popular protests.

The same goes for the delivery of infrastructure services. Governments and service providers need data about where and how people live – especially those who are most geographically, politically, and economically isolated – to make sound investments. Citizens, for their part, need to know which services are available, where, and how to access them. They also need to know how they can influence the policy process, to ensure, say, that a school is built in a convenient location.

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