Collective Action in Games as in Life: Experimental Evidence from Canal Cleaning in Haiti

Working Paper 57
Publisher: Oakland, CA: Mathematica Policy Research
Nov 29, 2017
Abbie Turiansky

Key Findings:

  • Farmers exposed to a collective action dilemma in a framed field experiment setting were more likely than control group farmers to contribute to a real-world public good.
  • Treatment did not have an observable impact on farmers’ understanding of how canal cleaning impacts the effectiveness of the canals or of how clean canals impact agricultural yields.
  • The treatment effect was only observed for farmers whose fellow game participants participated more than average to the public good, suggesting that the treatment shifted beliefs about one’s neighbors. 

When the provision of public goods depends on voluntary contributions, informal institutions and social norms can play an important role in increasing contributions. I explore the impact of exposure to a collective action dilemma in a framed public goods game on farmers’ behavior in real-world scenarios in which they face similar strategic trade-offs. Among 875 rice farmers who were part of an agricultural technology adoption study in rural Haiti, I randomly selected 300 to participate in public goods games framed to mimic the real trade-off they face between private work and participation in the management of shared canals. Over the subsequent planting season, the local irrigation association organized voluntary canal-cleaning work days to manage the shared canal systems that irrigate farmers’ fields. Treated farmers were 47% more likely than the control group to volunteer. The mechanism through which the treatment seemed to operate was by shifting participants’ expectations of others’ contributions to the public good, suggesting that public goods games provide a setting in which to learn about one’s neighbors and develop common norms of behavior.