Information can be powerful

This is becoming a theme of my ramblings recently, so much so that I’m seeing evidence everywhere. Reading today that the FDA is proposing to ban all artificial trans fats, what stood out is not the strength of the proposal (though does seem to be a pretty unequivocal ban). It’s that a lot of potential resistance to a ban – big companies that used trans fats – has already been neutralized back in 2006, when the FDA required that artificial trans fats be listed in food labels. Imagine if McDonald’s and Kraft still used huge quantities of trans fats. They would be fighting tooth and nail against a ban! But make them tell their customers how much trans fats they’re using? They find ways to eliminate or slash the content. And now, banning it is no big deal for them.

So, can we apply this to international development? This example shows how facilitating access to information (amount of trans fat on labels or menus), combined with mechanisms for accountability (choice of where to spend their dollars), can lead people to change their behavior (consumers buy less food with trans fat, and producers reduce trans fat content). The contexts of course are very different, but the theory at least is the same – access to useful information, that people can interpret and act on, can empower them to create positive change.

A few thoughts on adapting this theory to development, will keep updating:

  • Strengthen mechanisms for acting on information. In the trans fats case, it already existed – the competitive market. In our field, these mechanisms are weak or nonexistent in many cases.
  • Listen to people. Outsiders won’t necessarily know what information will be useful, or how certain types of information will be useful.
  • Mechanisms should be adaptive to the extent possible. So that people can keep making them more useful!



About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

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