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

When the provision of public goods depends on voluntary contributions, informal institutions and norms can play an important role in increasing contributions. While the literature provides examples of decentralized management of common-pool resources such as irrigation infrastructure, we know little about how successful institutions emerge and evolve. In this paper I ask whether exposure to the strategic considerations of a collective action dilemma in an experimental setting can change behavior in real-world scenarios in which those individuals face similar strategic trade-offs. Among 800 rice farmers who are 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 66% more likely than the control group to volunteer. The mechanism through which the experiments seem to operate is by affecting participants’ expectations of others’ contributions to the public good, suggesting that experiments provide a setting in which to learn about one’s neighbors and develop common norms of behavior.