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How Postcards Solved the Problem of Disappearing Rice (npr.org)
166 points by sogen 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

In Uganda, only 20% of the money allocated to schools (the amount differed depending on the number of pupils they have) was actually ending up at the school. Over a few years, the problem was fixed by publicizing the amount for each school in newspapers, so parents could check with the school what they got and what the schools did with it. A few years later, 80% of the money actually reached the schools.

(An example taken from Trial and Error by Tim Hardford)

Should do the same thing for immigrants on various work visas, to make sure they are aware of what salaries and conditions they are entitled to.

This kind of exists already. Job information for H1B candidates is public information. https://h1bdata.info

Unfortunately, as the article mentions, the problem isn't with the availability of the information it's with the actual knowledge of the information. That's why the post cards matter so much, the program had a publicly available website for seven years, yet the solution lay in actively distributing the information instead of passively distributing it.

The opening joke in hitchhikers about the highway plans being behind the "beware of tiger" door in the basement comes to mind...

There's some charities operating here in Europe that do just that, making sure the employees know their rights - which includes minimum wage, and not to have their passports taken from them.

> There's some charities operating here in Europe that do just that, making sure the employees know their rights - which includes minimum wage, and not to have their passports taken from them.

In America, it's required by law to post notices of employee rights in some common area of the place of employment. My current job has about 20 pages of notices posted just inside a secondary entrance, I doubt anyone's read them.

I think that system is pretty flawed. I like the idea of the government sending people periodic notices of their employee rights, and maybe regular reminders that focus on one particular right at a time (as a big packet given around your start date is unlikely to be read completely or remembered when a relevant issue arises).

This possibly points to a need to homogenise the programs so that there is only one contract for doing one type of work, regardless of whether the person doing that work is citizen, resident, work visa, sponsored visa, etc.

Unfortunately some groups (and governments) in Europe are now trying to criminalize providing information to immigrants.

Do you have a citation for this claim?

I believe the GP refers to Hungary's "Soros Law": https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/20/world/europe/hungary-stop...

"Under the terms of a new law, helping migrants legalize their status in Hungary by distributing information about the asylum process or providing them with financial assistance could result in a 12-month jail term."

Migrants, not immigrants. There is a difference.

It's the "Stop Soros Law", not the "Soros Law".

Also you (accidentally?) Glossed over the part that it's targeting illegal immigrants.

> Glossed over the part that it's targeting illegal immigrants.

It's specifically targeting potential asylum seekers that are “illegal immigrants” only to the extent that they are unaware of the proper asylum process by criminalizing correcting that deficiency.

Laws like that tend to spill over into the legal migrant community. When someone asks for help, it now becomes your onus to verify their legal status lest you break the law, making people less likely to help out at all.

> Laws like that tend to spill over into the legal migrant community.

If / when that happens, OP would then be correct in his claim. Until then, he is incorrect.

Downvoting based on differences of opinion is fine, and in accordance with HN guidelines. Downvoting on matters of fact is something else entirely. I'd love to know how people justify this intellectual dishonesty in their minds, "the ends justify the means"?

Be careful of the precedent you are setting, normalizing fact-free judgement in society might someday turn on you.

Yeah. Like the people who hire ships and basically offer a taxi service from Europe to Africa. The migrants sit on tiny boats, let the boats drift a few miles into the sea, send an emergency signal, get picked up and instead of getting brought back 5 miles to Africa, they are shipped to Europe. Then, let other people pay for health care, food, shelter, pocket money.

If you continue to use HN for ideological and national battle, we are going to have to ban you. Please re-read the rules and use this site as intended.


Dealing with corruption and misuse of public resources is hard in any country.

Finding an elegant yet financialy viable and low trade-off solution is not trivial and the article seems to be underselling the thoughts that went into that for comedic effect.

The sad part is it only improves the situation by 26%.

> The sad part is it only improves the situation by 26%.

That's pretty good though going from 50% to 63% with just a simple postcard is a huge reward for a tiny investment. That's before they did any other efforts like the common knowledge campaign talked about later in the article.

Is an interesting history but the best part is the web having a plain text option as alternative to the "I agree on you taking my info" button. Saying readers that other options are possible is a very good example of the "common knowledge" referred in the article.

It would be great if it worked, but it forgets the link to the article and redirects you to the home page in plain text instead which is completely useless...

Here is the article on the text-only site:


I just realised how absolutely fine I would be to read articles in that manner.

not useless but you do have to record the article ID and use it to get the article you actually want, if it's not in the list. For example this article's text-only version is https://text.npr.org/s.php?sId=627355954

I vastly prefer the text-only site and am glad NPR has it. The photos and other page crap never help with the article anyway, just slow down reading.

This is interesting. By making things more transparent, you have obvious and measurable positive effects. Here's my question. What happens when someone moves up a social class such that they're no longer in poverty? I suppose then that they're no longer eligible for the program. How do you administrate the program so that those people are no longer given rice?

I suppose then that the lists held by the distribution centers need to be regularly updated. But then when someone is on the margin (or perhaps for everyone above the poverty line), they can have incentive to say, "Look, here's my card, I'm eligible!" Then the distribution center says, "Nope, says here that you're not poor anymore." Those disputes would need to get resolved, and I can imagine that they can get bogged down in bureaucracy. Worse still, for cases on the margin, distribution centers may have ability to let corruption decide that recipients should be ineligible when they're eligible.

I think that the idea and results are great. I'm just curious how they deal with the cases on the margin. Or does resolution just wait until the next year's income taxes get filed and everyone gets reprocessed accordingly to check for status changes?

A much cheaper way is to not care. If someone wants their Us$0.50 of rice allotment just give it to them.

Universal basic rice.

My impression with this sort of thing is that the restrictions aren't because the people administering the program are worried about cheating, but because they're worried about cratering the local agricultural economy.

If everyone is able to buy rice airdropped in by a richer government or charity for a token amount (or free), it becomes very difficult to support yourself as a local rice farmer. If only a subset of the population which was previously unable to buy a significant amount of rice is able to do so, it doesn't affect the local rice market.

The misdistribution mentioned at the beginning of the article is a worst possible case: the poorest people not given their cheap rice are unable to afford enough to eat at all; people who may be hurting but aren't the worst off get cheap or free rice instead of buying rice they might (barely) be able to afford from local rice farmers.

No. "Free" has an odd effect on people.

For example they may think the item has less or no value ("Why are they just giving this to us? Are they trying to poison us?"), or think the item is unlimited.

The point isn't to recoup costs, but to make the recipients value the item.

If you are struggling enough to go through the effort to try and scam the government for a small portion of free rice then I think it's obvious they value the item. Not caring about the edge cases is almost certainly the correct choice here.

I don't mean "just give it to them" as in without cost, I mean don't disallow anyone from getting it, regardless of whether they're supposedly eligible or not.

Nope, because you will find that people will start using rice for unintended purposes like bean bags, animal food, and smuggling rice into other nations that need to pay money for rice, etc.

... so?

Rice isn't unlimited.

Oh, sorry. I thought we were discussing this in good faith.

Ok, fine, rice is unlimited and your idea is great.

Reminds me of a story.

A wise man was called to solve a problem for the Emperor, and he did so. The Emperor asked what he could give him as a reward. The wise man said humbly, "I do not ask for much. I wish for a chess board with one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second square, four grains on the third square, and so forth." The Emperor agreed. Any idea on how the story ends?

Emperor beheads the wise man for being cheeky.

>Look, here's my card, I'm eligible!

The card doesn't tell a person that they are eligible, the card tells a person what makes them eligible for what.

The problem you're mentioning is an unrelated problem that every income based social program faces.

Question is, how often does that happen?

You can also send these cards yearly, and mark then as such.

> You can also send these cards yearly, and mark then as such.

And send the village head a paper saying so-and-so is no longer eligible this year, and also post that info in the local newspaper, etc.

The system depends on common, widespread knowledge to prevent people from cheating. If it depends too much on a single proof like the postcard, it's vulnerable to forgery.

I think the difference is that there are other safety nets in place to prevent people from taking too much. Those are most likely still in effect with the postcards, the only difference is people now know when they can escalate their issues with not getting rice from a local official and succeed. The local official never wants this since the official knows what the citizen is actually due and escalating the issue will confirm this. If someone is demanding too much from the local official, they will have no worries about the complaint running up the chain because they are doing their job correctly.

If there are so many rich people that this becomes a concern, simply *don't worry a out it". A little free rice to a rich person is a "Cadillac problem".

This is the same Banerjee of "Poor Economics"[1] fame. Really fascinating work.

[1] https://www.pooreconomics.com/

An informed citizenry is the bedrock of democracy?

Interesting solution.

Also interesting: there are people for whom a kilo of rice is meaningful. Holy f'ing hell, this world is imbalanced.

Without reading, I first thought the postcards would be in the bags of rice, and then by going on which postcards were (or weren't) returned, they could see the areas where corruption was preventing people from getting their rice.

That was my initial guess as well, but I was a bit confused -- unless bags of rice were getting destroyed without being opened, it would be pretty easy for corrupt distributors to send back the ACK postcards anyway. This out-of-band checksum should be harder to compromise.

Essentially, they started mailing a statement to recipients of public benefits, whereas previously they assumed that recipients knew what they were entitled to and duly received it.

Text only no tracking version https://text.npr.org/s.php?sId=627355954

"Sigh. I guess now we have to cut the local Post Office in on the graft."

Instead of mailing postcards, mail rice.

Logistics of such scale is not trivial and sending kilo of discounted rice can easily cost more than the rice themselves. I'm quite sure that the end-mile delivery was delegated to the village heads just for this reason.


That's not actually what's described. The program was simply to tell the recipient what the deal is, not give them a book of coupons, and to tell them specifically by sending them a card with their name on it, not just by putting up posters.

The other point is that notifying the endpoint was simple and effective and did not require any changes (typically added complexity) to the rest of the system.

The thing to take away from this story is that it is the asymmetry of information that is usually the problem.

This is universally a common problem. You have an account on some social site, the owner and the advertisers know everything about you and you know nothing about what they know. You may not even know that people know. How can you make a valid decision to use the service? It's also true of governments, they make decisions that affect you in secret, and then tell you whatever they want; you have no idea what is being done in your name, and you are powerless to affect these decisions. Knowledge is power.

I haven't looked at it this way until just now, but GDPR addresses exactly this. You are entitled to know what data exists about you.

I just wish the EU wasn't so overly bureaucratic in how it's managed or explained.

Or food stamps, to give it another name.

The program itself is like food stamps (kind of, US food stamps/EBT doesn't subsidize the cost of food) but the issue is still getting people to know the benefits they're entitled to and to get the officials to give it out properly.

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