Does radio access improve public service provision? And if so, does it do so by increasing government accountability to citizens, or by persuading households to take advantage of publicly-provided services? Using data from Benin, this paper finds that literacy rates among school children are higher in villages exposed to signals from a larger number of community radio stations. However, government inputs into village schools and household knowledge of government education policies are no different in villages with greater access to community radio than in other villages. Instead, households with greater access are more likely to make financial investments in the education of their children.
Prior research in this area has argued that citizens with greater access to mass media receive greater benefits from targeted government welfare programs. However, it has not addressed these questions for public services such as in education and health. This paper is based on a ‘natural experiment’ in the northern communes of Benin.
Media access is found to have a substantial effect on children’s educational performance. The literacy scores of eight and nine year-olds are significantly higher in villages with greater access to community radio:
- Community radio is established to cater to local audiences and tends to sell broadcasting time to ministries and donors. These attributes enable it to provide information that influences household decision making with regard to education.
- However, access to community radio does not influence education outcomes through greater collective demand for better government performance.
- Instead, greater access to community radio leads to significantly greater private investment by households in the education of their children.
These effects of community radio suggest that lack of policy information in itself may not be the main impediment to the collective action that is needed to hold governments accountable. Instead, citizens need specific information in order to attribute service delivery failures to specific political or public agents. Further:
- Radio stations that depend on government programming or on donors are less likely to broadcast programs that question government performance in education or other areas.
- However, programming is the product of media markets. For example, a market in which commercial radio, (dependent on traditional commercial advertising), is more firmly entrenched may be less hospitable to extensive public interest programming.
- Even in the absence of an accountability channel, media interventions can have an effect on service delivery outcomes through their influence on household incentives to optimise their use of public services.