Room to Read (RtR) is a San-Francisco based organization whose mission is to improve the quality of child education in impoverished countries such as Nepal, Vietnam, and Tanzania. One of the ways in which RtR seeks to accomplish this goal is to construct actual school buildings within communities that could otherwise not afford them. As a means of instilling a stronger sense of ownership and mitigating construction costs, RtR uses a ‘challenge-grant model’ which requires communities to pledge a certain value of materials and labor up-front towards the building of the new education facility. However, subsequent to the beginning of construction, the communities often failed to deliver on their commitment, causing RtR to struggle to make up the shortfall in order to deliver on its promise to donors.
To help find a way to address this problem, SIRLab conducted a series of on-the-ground interviews with field staff, community members, and managers of RtR, and subsequently designed a pilot involving all construction projects to be undertaken in Sri Lanka for 2012. Specifically, the construction projects were randomly divided into two groups – a ‘competition’ condition and a ‘cooperation’ condition. The two treatment conditions relied upon somewhat contested perspectives of social interdependence which suggest that group motivation can be most improved either by instilling a stronger sense of rivalry (competition) or by establishing a sense of psychological inter-dependence (cooperation). A detailed protocol was subsequently developed and presented to the field staff as a guide for implementing the field-experiment.
Prior to the beginning of the pilot, an up-front survey of members of each community’s construction committee was undertaken. Throughout the year, each community’s’ relative contribution to the other community with which it was paired was subsequently tracked and reported using a chart as a means of continuous feedback. Final statistical results, combined with subsequent follow-up interviews, suggested that communities within the competition condition were, on average, more motivated to fulfill their challenge grant commitment than those within the cooperation condition. However, the level of motivation was in fact the same in cases where cooperating communities were relative strangers – the opportunity to learn new information by means of collaboration was particularly powerful. Thus, RtR was able to modify its challenge grant model to be much more effective, and to mitigate the costs associated with communities that struggled to meet their commitments.
Community Enterprise Solutions (CES) is a nonprofit organization that distributes solar lamps, eye drops, and other socially-valuable products in rural Guatemala as a means of fighting poverty. In order to both address distrust towards outsiders, as well as develop native capabilities, CES uses local salespeople to distribute its products using a micro-consignment model. However, the problem CES was facing was that their salespeople were failing to take proper care of the products (damage and/or theft), and were not exerting a great deal of effort to sell the products to members of the rural communities.
After visiting Guatemala to conduct a series of interviews, and speaking extensively with the staff of CES, SIRLab designed a field experiment that would require salespeople to purchase the most inexpensive product up front while continuing to receive the rest on consignment. Although existing theory would predict that such an action may indeed improve the salespeople’s behavior on the purchased product, it would likely decrease their efforts with regard to the non-owned products. However, SIRLab hypothesized that within impoverished settings, having the salespeople purchase the cheapest product would create a new ‘owner identity’ that was both novel and represented higher levels of self-esteem. The end result would be a positive rather than negative ‘spillover’ effect in the salespeople’s treatment of the other products.
After collecting baseline data, the salespeople were divided into two groups (treatment and control) and their sales level and care of the products tracked for a period of three months. At the conclusion of the pilot, post-treatment measures were collected and final interviews conducted. Our analysis of the data suggested that that salespeople within the treatment condition sold not only more of the purchased product than those in the treatment condition, but more products overall. Additionally, interviews with salespeople indicated that the new ‘ownership identity’ that was created was indeed viewed as highly desirable, and significantly changed the way in which they took care of all their products. Thus, as a result of the engagement, CES was able to address their implementation problem in a creative way that represented very little additional costs to either the organization or its salespeople. In return, SIRLab was able to create and disseminate new knowledge regarding how to overcome agency costs within developing country settings.