02/06/2013 01:54 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Why Do the Poor Complain So Little?

You are visiting a poor village somewhere in the developing world. No paved roads, no electricity, no running water, no clinic and only a thatch-roofed shack for a school. You soon hear stories of malnutrition, disease and illiteracy -- all symptoms of no or lousy public services. But you know this is a country booming with oil, gas and minerals. So the inevitable question comes to your mind: Why don't these people organize and demand more from their government?

In the past, it was easy to attribute the seeming passivity of the poor to a lack of political freedom -- it is not for nothing that poverty and repression are closely associated words. The spread of democracy, especially over the past two decades, has given the poor a new voice. But they have used it much less than one would have expected. Yes, from South America to South Asia you see angry demonstrations when governments try to cut subsidies to fuel, bread or fertilizer. But why not complain about things like the terrible quality of primary education, preventable child mortality, or corrupt civil servants? And what of the billions of oil dollars the government may have collected over the years but can't account for? Rarely do you see those kinds of demonstrations.

The common explanation these days has to do with information -- the poor just don't know how bad the performance of public schools, hospitals and bureaucrats is. They may not even know how much money their government gets from selling the country's natural resources. So official donors, development banks and NGOs have put a lot of effort in giving the poor information about the quality of public services. The idea makes sense: once aware of the gravity of the problem, people will pressure their politicians to do something about it. The proliferation of communication technology -- especially cellphones -- has made all that easier.

Has it worked? Do better-informed poor people demand better government? The evidence is mixed. New research shows widely different results across countries and across services. Using pretty scientific methods -- called "Randomized Controlled Trials" -- it has been possible to compare how social groups react (or not) when faced with the reality that their leaders are under-serving them. For example, facilitating meetings between communities and their public health-care workers in Uganda led to better performance by the latter -- and fewer children dying. But showing parents in rural Kenya how shamefully low their kids scored on standardized tests made little difference in parental involvement with the local school. Training community volunteers to hold remedial, after-school reading camps in India improved the reading skills of the children that attended. But a heart-wrenching movie about Peruvian second-graders trying to read -- and failing at it -- caused only a short-lived public outcry. For almost every case where information led to activism, you will find one where it didn't. Why?

Because information is a necessary but not sufficient condition for people -- especially poor people -- to react. Even when the information is easy to understand -- "a second-grader should read at least 60 words per minute" -- and its content is bad enough to outrage --"only ten percent of our second-graders can read 60 words per minute" -- people may still not demand reform. To start with, it is easier to take individual than collective action. When parents in Benin were informed about the status of their local schools, many made an extra effort to pay for private tutoring, rather than together complaining to the principal. Then there is the question of patronage: you may forgive your long-serving member of parliament for doing nothing about the village's clinic because he has been good at providing government jobs to the village's folk. Culture plays a big role too: different societies care differently about different issues. And, even when you care deeply, you may not think you are able to deal with or be responsible for the problem ("I do my job; that school principal should do his!").

All that rings true. But perhaps the most promising explanation comes from something called "behavioral economics." This involves experiments designed to understand why people do things that make no sense or neglect doing what would benefit them. [You can watch for free a wonderful set of easy-to-understand lectures on behavioral economics by some of its most advanced practitioners.] One increasingly common finding is that human beings seem to have a limited mental "bandwidth" -- think of it as your attention span when it comes to economic decisions -- and that poverty can occupy most of it. When your preoccupation today -- and yesterday and tomorrow -- is getting enough food for your family to eat, you can be excused for not worrying too much about forming a civic movement to reform public education, health or the fiscal budget. Yes, you know that it is important, and would love to do something about it, but you just can't focus on it right now. That does not ignore that many heroes of social change came from abject poverty. But it confirms what sounds obvious: information is power as long as you have the possibility to act on it. It would also suggest that richer societies hold their governments more closely accountable. Economic development and citizen activism feed on each other.