How Does Delegating Decisions to Beneficiaries Affect Their Access to a Public Service? Evidence from a Field Experiment in Bangladesh.
Abstract: Community participation in providing public services has the potential to improve access to services, but how different types of participation improve access, for whom, and under what conditions is not well understood. This experiment demonstrates how access to safe drinking water changes when the beneficiaries have the authority to make decisions that influence access compared to the implementing agency having the authority to make the same decisions. The project installs sources of safe drinking water in villages in Bangladesh. We allocate villages randomly to a top-down approach and two different delegated approaches. In one delegated approach, the community organizes itself to make decisions (community participation). The second seeks to limit elite control by requiring that the community make all decisions in a meeting, which is subject to participation requirements, and that all decisions be unanimous (regulated community participation). The proportion of households who use safe drinking water increases under all three approaches, but delegating decisions improves access relative to the top-down approach only when the approach limits the influence of elites. The regulated community approach increases the use of safe water about 70% to 80% more than do the other two approaches. The top-down approach uses local information less effectivelyectively, and installs fewer sources than do the two participatory approaches. Under the community approach, elites restrict access to safe water sources. The regulated community approach expands participation in decision-making, and it results in bargaining that limits the influence of elites. The relative benefits of the three approaches depend on the context.