A ‘with the grain’ interpretation of community-driven development

DialogueConflicts surrounding CDD illustrate powerfully (and depressingly) how the development discourse can be a dialogue of the deaf.  The recent report on CDD by 3iE, the conclusions of which are summarized in this blog post by Duncan Green, continues in this frustrating tradition.  In this blog post, I extract two sets of reflections on the CDD discourse which appeared  in my 2014 book,  Working with the Grain (p. 137).  (In a series of tweets linked here, I summarize my view on the 3iE report; and this new (updated)  link takes you to a May 2018 paper by Susan Wong & Scott Guggenheim, which is an implicit response by eminent practitioners to the 3iE report.)  Section I of the blog explores the process through which the discourse has unfolded; section II offers some suggestions as to what would comprise constructive assessment:

I: The discourse. ” Throughout the almost quarter century in which I was a staff member at the World Bank there was ongoing tension between boundary-breakers and ‘keepers’ of the dominant way of doing things. Part of this tension could be traced to the usual kinds of bureaucratic tension — inevitable in any organization, but perhaps more endemic in one filled with a highly-educated and highly ambitious staff, and with a complicated, ambiguous and difficult to measure ‘bottom line’.  But there also turned out to be an even more fundamental source of tension than fights over turf or personal ambition  – namely the conflict between competing ‘first principles’ as to what could provide a viable platform for moving forward with development.

I  confronted one of these fights to the (professional) finish while I was leading the Bank’s Africa public sector reform group. I was becoming increasingly aware of the very uneven results from efforts at public sector reform. Meanwhile, some remarkable gains were beginning to be reported from ‘bottom-up’, community-based approaches to development work. Surely, I reasoned, there were opportunities for synergy: Participatory approaches potentially offered the gains in accountability which were missing from many public management reforms. Conversely,  public management reforms offered the potential for longer-run institutionalization, the Achilles heel of the community-driven approaches. But what I had not reckoned with was the degree of mutual (professional) detestation among champions of each of these two approaches.

All too often, protagonists of working with communities derided government as the enemy to be avoided at all costs. And, in a mirror image of virulence, all too often public management types derided their community-oriented counterparts as short-sighted romantics. So, all too often, bringing these warring tribes into the same room felt like facilitating a dialogue of the deaf. (Actually, in classic bureaucratic fashion, the meetings themselves generally had a tone of formal, distant politeness; it was in the corridors, or behind closed doors, that the true virulence of mutual professional dislike was voiced.)” (p.137)

“…. From small beginnings in the early 1990s, as of 2011 the World Bank had approximately 400 active CDD project, valued at almost $30 billion, on its books. For advocates of bottom-up development, this is a remarkable triumph. For champions of ‘long-route’ approaches to institutional development, the mushrooming of CDD warrants a special place in hell.….” (p.170)


II: Key issues for assessing CDD:  In the link below I provide a long extract from  Working with the Grain  (pp. 170-176) which comprises my effort to suggest how more balanced assessments could usefully incorporate  careful attention to context, counterfactual, & unfolding dynamics.  Here’s the link: –  CDD WWG extract – 



South Africa’s challenge: Defusing the inequality-institutions time bomb

defusing a time bombIn March, 2018,  I published in Project Syndicate the first of a series of articles on a ‘New Deal’ for South Africa. This is the initial,  more detailed  version of the Project Syndicate piece. I include at the end links to two subsequent pieces. 

At a time when populism, creeping authoritarianism and corruption seem to be ascendant globally, South Africa has taken a remarkable turn in the opposite direction. Within three months of displacing Jacob Zuma as leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Cyril Ramaphosa has become the country’s president. In a measured, understated, yet cumulatively decisive way, Ramaphosa has signaled that competence,  principled commitment, rules, due process, and openness – not under-handed deal-making in the dark –  will be the basis for decision-making and action.  Evidently, South Africa has new lessons to offer; but what are they?  The answer varies depending whether the focus is on the short-, medium-, or long-term.

The epic character of the South African drama invites interpretation as a morality play, with Jacob Zuma cast as  villain, and Cyril Ramaphosa as hero.  Such a narrative misleads.  Deeper structural forces are at work – both in what has gone right and what has gone wrong.

What has gone right are the country’s institutions. South Africa illustrates how, with time and patience, robust checks and balances  can trump self-dealing  concealed by populist smokescreens. US Ambassador Patrick Gaspard  has highlighted how a strong civil society, carefully researched journalism, robust political opposition and an independent justice system underpinned South Africa’s turnaround

What has gone wrong has, to be sure, had more than a little to do with the person of Jacob Zuma, whose  influence was unusually venal. But Zuma’s exit does nothing to address the core challenge.

A difficult lesson from the recent global wave of democratic reversal is that these reversals do not spring from nowhere; they arise from unaddressed imbalances within societies. In South Africa, as elsewhere, the roots of this reversal can be traced to what I term the ‘inequality-institutions time bomb’ – the pernicious ways in which high and/or rising inequality can corrode the institutions that provide the foundations of sustainable democracy. Unless this time bomb can be defused, optimism is premature.

South Africa is a country where poverty, inequality and ethnicity continue to collide in especially pernicious ways.  Its per capita income ( $12,000 in PPP) puts it  in the middle-income country (MIC) range –  similar to Brazil, Mexico and Thailand; four times low-income Kenya;  but only one-fifth the USA.   As I explored in a paper co-authored with Alan Hirsch and Ingrid Woolard, when compared with other MICs,   inequality  is stark:

  • The most affluent 10 percent accounted in 2010 for 53% of total spending; The equivalent proportion was 47%  in 2000 Brazil (at the time  the poster child of MIC inequality).   White South Africans, who make up less than 9% of the country’s total population,  comprised 56% of this top 10%..
  • In the middle of the distribution is a stark cliff. South Africans are either affluent or poor, with little in-between. 2010 per capita expenditure in the  seventh ventile (ie 31st-35th percentile from the top) was only 29% of the third ventile (11th-15th percentile). For other MICs, the equivalent proportions were 45% (Brazil); 51% (Mexico)  and 57% (Thailand).
  • The bottom 40% of South Africans accounted for only 6.9% of 2010 expenditure (versus 8.1% in 2000 Brazil). As of 2011, 15 million people (30 percent of the country’s population) survive through social grants.

This starkly unequal distribution has both a corrosive effect on institutions and adds to political volatility.

The corrosive effect plays out differently across the distribution.  At the top,  in the immediate post-apartheid years, black South Africans pathways to affluence came via the elimination of discriminatory practices, the incorporation of  some ANC leaders into management positions in the corporate sector (plus some equity-sharing arrangements), and the implementation of new rule-based codes for black economic empowerment. But these opportunities soon were exhausted. In the absence of a thriving, entrepreneurial economy, the focus shifted to less governance-friendly approaches —  patronage employment; factionalized contestation for elected and other relatively high-paying political positions; and personalized (and often corrupt) procurement practices.

In the mid-range, with a ladder of opportunity largely missing, the focus has been on using all means necessary to cling to the upper edges of the distributional cliff: cultivating an exclusionary labor aristocracy,  patronage appointments into mid- and lower-level positions in the public sector, and corrupt small-scale public procurement. At the bottom,  with government so central in the economic lives of the poor,  opportunities have been rife for building clientelistic networks –  increasingly with politically-affiliated traditional leaders as the fulcrum.

If the heartening recent reversal of state capture is to be sustainable over the longer-term, the inequality-institutions time bomb detailed above needs to be defused – no small task in this era of automation and jobless growth which is squeezing middle- and high-income countries alike.

In seeking  hope, I find it useful to shift focus from the long- to the medium-term.   Reflecting on the changing tolerance for inequality and the  rise of authoritarianism in 1970s  Latin America, the late, great development economist, Albert Hirschman captured both the challenge and opportunity in a way which has particular relevance for contemporary South Africa:

“Suppose I run into a serious traffic jam in a two-lane tunnel. After a while the cars in the other lane begin to move…. Even though I still sit still, I feel much better off  because of the expectation that I shall soon be on the move…. As long as the tunnel effect lasts, everybody feels better off, both those who have become richer and those who have not… Tolerance for inequality is like a credit that falls due at a certain date. It is extended in the expectation that eventually the disparities will narrow again. If this does not occur, there is bound to be trouble and, perhaps, disaster…”

Hirschman’s ‘tunnel effect’ cautions that inequality is neglected at a country’s peril. It also points to a  crucial and hopeful  insight – namely that finding a way forward depends less on an immediate and far-reaching reversal of inequality than on ongoing cultivation of a sense of possibility that  a better future lies ahead.  In a follow-up piece, Hirschman put it this way:

“Growth creates imbalances. In time pressures will arise to correct some of these imbalances.  Two principal functions must be accomplished  – an unbalancing, entrepreneurial function, and an ‘equilibrating’, distributive or reform function.”

Nelson Mandela’s ‘democratic miracle’; Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s ‘rainbow nation’; the ANC’s promise of ‘a better life for all’ – all of these can be seen, in retrospect, as strategies for evoking the tunnel effect in the wake of apartheid.  But by the latter 2000s, these strategies had lost momentum. Viewed through the lens of Hirschman’s framework, the Zuma era can be interpreted as  a manifestation of unresolved imbalances.   Ramaphosa’s task is to renew the entrepreneurial-imbalance-reform cycle through a skillful enactment of the reform function.

What  South Africa needs now is a 21st century ‘New Deal’ – a  new economic agenda  that is inclusive, inspires renewed hope and  can serve as a platform for  economic dynamism.   Given the need to address pervasive inequities, such an agenda  is sure to make established elites (and purveyors of easy truths about governance, markets and development)  deeply uncomfortable. Crafting the agenda is a challenge of the first order.

But South Africa hardly is alone in facing this challenge (although the challenge is far more daunting there than in, say, the USA which has five times the per capita income). Rising inequality and jobless growth are squeezing middle- and high-income democracies the world over.   Indeed,  I have come to see the country as something of a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for many middle- and high-income countries.

In putting a brake on its downward spiral, South Africa illustrates the power of robust institutions. But for constitutional democracy to thrive over the longer-term, ways will need to be found to defuse the inequality-institutions time bomb.  We – all of us committed to finding ways forward that can support thriving, inclusive democratic societies, in South Africa and elsewhere – indeed, we have work to do.

For follow-up pieces which explore this ‘new deal’ further, see:

A thriving, inclusive South Africa – from vision to action

Ladder of skills – where is South Africa under-investing?



A thriving, inclusive South Africa – from vision to action

Ramaphosa new deal 2This is the more detailed  version of a piece on a ‘three-pronged new deal’  for South Africa which appeared in The Conversation in early May. 

The first few months since Cyril Ramaphosa became president have started “brilliantly”. However, unless the country’s citizens become convinced that the core challenge of constructing a more inclusive economy  is being addressed effectively, the gains will prove ephemeral.

As the great development economist  Albert Hirschman argued in the 1970s in the context of Latin America,  to provide a platform for progress, society’s problems don’t have to be comprehensively solved. Rather, what is needed is a credible narrative that can kindle hope that the country’s pernicious collision between inequality, poverty and ethnicity  is indeed being addressed. This article highlights  three mutually-reinforcing pillars as central to a credible ‘new deal’ for South Africa:

  • Strengthening ‘ladders of opportunity’ – enhancing the potential for upward mobility by the excluded middle of South African society;
  • Providing the  fiscal resources needed for the ladders of opportunity to be effective; and
  • Active citizenship – as a key governance underpinning to enhance the effectiveness and legitimacy of the public domain.

Ladders of opportunity

In the quarter century since the demise of apartheid, South Africa has made significant progress in reducing extreme poverty – the proportion of the population who confront hunger on a daily basis declined from 27% in 1995 to 11% in 2010.  However, it has been much less effective in addressing the challenges of inequality.  As a paper I co-authored with Alan Hirsch and Ingrid Woolard details, relative to other middle-income countries (MICs), South Africa’s economy is extraordinarily dualistic – its citizens   are either affluent or poor, with little in-between. The richest 10% accounts for a much higher share of spending than in other MICs; unionized white and blue-collar workers also do relatively well. But beyond these narrow segments, opportunities for upward mobility have been harder to come by.

How might this be turned around? The stale ideologically-driven discourses of the left (“beneficiation”) and the right (“liberalize labour markets”) are unhelpful. Focusing on ladders of opportunity offers a fresh, hopeful way forward.  Here are some illustrations of what is doable. (Some already are  part of the policy discourse, but with the wider purpose lost in inconclusive, ideologically-driven debates over the details.):

  • Ladders of skills – the quality of basic education is an obvious area of continuing focus. Resources for schooling are in line with what is available other MICs, but with governance (on which more below) the critical challenge. However, as I detail further in the piece linked here, compared with other MICs, South Africa’s efforts turn out to be strikingly weak both earlier in childrens’ life cycle (ie early childhood development) and once adolescents leave school (especially in technical and vocational education). Much more needs to be spent on both – so long, that is, that it is spent effectively.
  • Ladders of earnings opportunities – accelerated economic growth and private sector job creation obviously are a necessary  part of what is needed. But equally obviously given South Africa’s toxic combination of inherited structural economic rigidities and endemic conflict between business and organized labor, a call to leave job creation to the market is not sufficient.  Programmes to support entrepreneurship sound appealing, but have a very mixed track record. Public works programmes, and an employment tax incentive targeted at younger workers have shown some success. Both can and should be further scaled up  – with the latter perhaps also targeted to attract manufacturing jobs moving offshore from China.
  • Ladders of spatial wellbeing – overcoming the continuing bifurcation of South Africa’s cities. Skewed access to urban land and housing is one of the most pernicious legacies of apartheid. For poor South Africans, the costs of transport to-and-from work are the equivalent of 40% of their earnings.
  • Ladders of physical wellbeing – as the foundation for learning, for work, and for a fulfilling life. Ambitious initiatives have been set in motion to expand access to health care – but scaling up barely has begun.
  • Finally, to illustrate the range of what might usefully be considered, here is an example  from Anthony Atkinson’s magisterial book, Inequality: “There should be a capital endowment paid to all at adulthood…A case can be made for imposing a degree of ‘prudence’ on its use…Possible permitted uses could include education or training….down payments on houses or flats, or the establishment of a small business.”

Providing the requisite  fiscal resources

Building effective ladders of opportunity will not come cheap. Strikingly, notwithstanding almost three decades of effort to reverse South Africa’s legacy of extreme historical injustice, relative to many other middle- and high-income countries  the country  is not highly taxed.  At 28%, 2014 revenue collection as a percentage of GDP  was in the mid-range among MICs, well below Brazil (34%) and Turkey (36%) – or for that matter the high-income United States (32%),  Australia (34%) and Germany (45%).    Taxes on wealth are relatively low. In its 2018 budget South Africa increased its maximum inheritance tax on wealth from 20% to 25%. By contrast, from the mid-1930s until the early 2000s, the top inheritance tax rate  in the United States consistently was in excess of 50%.

Though there may thus be (arithmetic)  tax capacity to absorb the costs of strengthening ladders of opportunity, tax compliance depends importantly on the broader legitimacy of government. Given recent history, many South Africans are deeply skeptical of new government initiatives. There are credibility challenges to address  – credibility that resources will be well spent, and credibility that the South African Revenue Service (SARS) is effectively collecting those taxes which are due under the current set of rules. Addressing these challenges will require new action on the governance front. Here, too, business as usual won’t do.

Active citizenship

In his inaugural State of the Nation address, Cyril Ramaphosa invited South Africans to embrace the late, great trumpeter Hugh Masakela’s  call of‘Thumi mina’ –  ‘send me’. In so doing, he was bringing renewed attention to a participatory strand of the country’s political discourse. As the 2012 National Development Plan puts it:

To build an inclusive nation, the country needs to find ways to promote a positive cycle, where an effective state, inspirational leadership across all levels of society, and active citizens reinforce and strengthen each other”.

This engaged  approach goes against the grain  of the  hierarchical (“government should deliver”) perspective as to how the public sector should work with which most South Africans are imbued (drawing variously from colonial, apartheid, ‘democratic centralism’ and patriarchal discourses – all deeply-rooted, all hierarchical). However, as experience from many countries underscores (see here, here, here, and here), focusing narrowly on the management  of public bureaucracies is insufficient to turn around weak public performance.

Building on recent research in South Africa and elsewhere, here are some concrete ways in which an active citizenry  can contribute to the efficacy of efforts to strengthen ladders of opportunity:

  • Leveraging the energy of parents and communities to strengthen educational outcomes. As shown by the experience of Kenya and many other countries (and, indeed, some notable school-level success stories in the Eastern Cape), supporting parents and communities to take on their roles more effectively can have a powerful positive influence. The South African Schools Act gives school governing bodies (SGBs)  substantial decision-making authority.  However, outside of schools which cater to elites, no systematic effort has been made to give life to these formal arrangements. On the contrary, the focus of recent policy proposals has been on scaling back their authority.
  • Leveraging the energy of non-governmental organizations to strengthen early childhood development. Many South African NGOs are doing extraordinary work to improve ECD. There are abundant opportunities to achieve gains at scale through pro-active partnerships between these NGOs and government. But in practice government-NGO collaboration has been difficult.
  • Partnering with the private sector to strengthen work-related acquisition of skills. Opportunities range from support for technical colleges, for apprenticeships, and for sectoral training authorities (SETAs) – indeed the governance structure of SETAs initially was structured around formal partnerships, including with trade unions. As the all-too-often dismal experience with SETAs signals, this potential barely has begun to be tapped. The recent  YES initiative is a promising sign that things may be  beginning to change  (provided it continues to move beyond the realm of flashy public relations).
  • Building inclusion into the fabric of urban development. In many parts of the world, vibrant urban development combines commercial, upscale and social housing as part of an integrated whole – with developers sometimes mandated to incorporate some social housing alongside their more lucrative upscale investments. South Africa’s dismal history of forced removals and apartheid geography makes especially compelling the case for doing this – and, more broadly, for reaching collective agreement on how to make land available for thriving, multi-class urban neighborhoods. Yet so far the discourse between local governments, activists and developers largely has been a dialogue of the deaf.

As the above examples suggest, a successful ‘new deal’ will require renewed commitment from  all South Africans – not only as taxpayers, but also as citizens. Comfortable nostrums which deflect blame and shift  responsibility for action somewhere else will no longer suffice.

A bill  is coming due. The question is: how will it be paid? Through a downward spiral, with an assertion of equal dignity which comes at the cost of diminished material well-being for (almost) everyone? Or through sustained efforts to invest in building a thriving, inclusive economy and society?  Which it will be remains a matter of social and political choice, at least for now. But free rides don’t last forever.

Ladder of skills – where is South Africa under-investing?

ladder-against-wallA South African ‘new deal’ capable of revitalizing hope could, as I explored in a recent piece, usefully comprise three inter-related prongs:  strengthen ladders of opportunity; pay with higher taxes; and embrace active citizenship to improve public services & renew social solidarity.   An implicit claim is that South Africa currently spends too little on some key rungs in the skills ladder. This piece identifies some of the spending shortfalls.

The figure below (prepared by Luis Crouch, co-author of a chapter in the upcoming volume The politics and governance of basic education in South Africa) contrasts trends in enrollments in pre-primary, primary, secondary and post-secondary education for South Africa and for a set of eleven middle-income comparator countries (including Brazil, Hungary, Mexico and Malaysia). As the figure shows, as of 2013, 78 percent of the  total population cohort of 3-24 year olds in the comparator countries was enrolled in some form of education – versus only 64 percent for the comparable cohort for South Africa. The South African shortfalls are two-fold.

The first shortfall is in support for early childhood development. It accounts for 8 percent of all enrollments in the age 3-24 cohort in the comparator countries – but only 3 percent in South Africa.  As Nobel-prize-winning economist James Heckman has detailed,   investment in effective early childhood development (ECD) initiatives is perhaps the single most beneficial development intervention. In common with many other policy areas, South Africa has in place admirable policies to support ECD. But implementation falls way short.

One especially appealing policy (on paper)  is the provision of a $1 per day per child subsidy for low-income children in ECD centres which meet infrastructural and teaching benchmarks. In practice, the reach of this policy is limited. As of 2017, only 2 million of  3.6 million poor children between the ages of 3 and 5  are enrolled in any ECD centre at all – and only 700,000 in centres which qualify for, and receive, the per child subsidy.

In recent research  conducted jointly with Lo Dagerman and Veleska Maphike, we  identified some major  weaknesses in the implementation of  ECD policy in the Western Cape (a province which generally is regarded as among the top  implementers of ECD policy). The Western Cape government underfunds the per child ECD subsidy policy.  Out of the total  200,000 or so poor children in the  2-5 age range in the province, only one third attend ECD centres which receive subsidies; another third attend unsubsidized centres;  the remaining third have no access to ECD learning centres. Perhaps not coincidentally given the revealed budget priorities, the research documented extraordinary  rigidities in bureaucratic responsiveness: Even for qualifying ECD centres, it takes years of intensive effort to access the subsidy.  Addressing these shortfalls (not only in the Western Cape, but in other provinces where implementation has lagged even further) will require major additional effort – both on the governance and (as per the ‘new deal’ argument) on the budgetary fronts.

Turning to the second shortfall, the difference is stark between South Africa and the comparators in the proportion of the age cohort enrolled in secondary education and beyond. In the comparator countries, 31% of the 3-24 year old cohort are enrolled in secondary education, and a further 11% in one or another form of post-secondary learning. The comparable figures for South Africa are 25% in secondary schooling, and an additional 4% in post-secondary.  Demographic differences surely account for part of the gap; South Africa has a different age pyramid from the other countries. But the gap also signals multiple, intertwined weaknesses in the South African system.

An obvious weakness,  highlighted by the ‘fees must fall’ movement, comprises gaps in both access to and financing of university education.  A further, related weakness is in the quality of secondary education (and in learning of foundational literacy and numeracy skills in earlier grades). As Nic Spaull and others have summarized, of 100 children who enroll in first grade;  about 55 end up writing and passing the school leaver (matric) exam; 13 reach the minimum standard needed to continue with university education;  only 6 (mostly from affluent families)  end up with a tertiary qualification.

Of course, all societies vary in the learning proficiency of their young adults – but  democratic South Africa’s   training and vocational education (TVET) is especially underdeveloped. Over the past few years, building on some pre-existing research (see for example here,  here and here)  I have explored South Africa’s TVET system with Nobayethi Dube,  Lucas Malambe,  Thomas Schmelzer, Elizabeth Walters and other graduate students at the University of Cape Town. Some of the  findings include:

  • In the immediate aftermath of apartheid, TVET was an ‘orphan’ subsector of education – overshadowed by the sense of urgency, and the powerful influence networks, associated with reforms of the basic education system and of universities.
  • Technical colleges (as distinct from the ‘universities of technology’, converted from apartheid-era ‘technikons’) comprised an especially stark gap. Their governance framework is obscure. Indeed, a quarter century after the dawn of democracy, it remains ambiguous as to whether their primary target group comprises high-school-age learners seeking a non-academic track, or post-secondary students, who passed matric, and seek to deepen their practical skills. (Often, these two distinct functions are combined in a single college, with predictably poor results.)
  • There is a large continuing disconnect between the educators in these college and private sector employers. The contrast is stark between systematic apprenticeship training for blue-collar (white) workers during the apartheid era, and the collapse of apprenticeships in the first decades of democracy. (There has though been some reversal recently, with state-owned enterprises in particular increasing their apprenticeship programmes.)
  • While an elaborate system of on-the-job training (serving workers of all ages), orchestrated around twenty-one Sectoral Training Authorities (SETAs), was put in place in the first decade of democracy, it has not worked well.  The system was well-funded  (via levies on employers), but failures in governance – rooted in part in the excessively complex design of the system – resulted in performance being poor in all but a few of the SETAs.

In sum, the most neglected rungs of  South Africa’s ladder of skills are early childhood development, and training and vocational education. In both areas there are, of course, major governance challenges – challenges which in my view would best be met by social partnerships with non-governmental organizations, and with the private sector. But gains in both also will require major additional public expenditure — and (as per the ‘new deal’ argument) concomitant increases in taxes.

Finally, a few words on spending for primary and secondary education. The standard argument is that, at the time of the transition to democracy,  spending was increased to appropriate levels (similar, as a percentage of Gross National Product,  to those of the comparator middle-income countries) – and that the binding constraints now concern management and governance of the system. Indeed, my own research (to be published by Oxford University Press in a September, 2018 book)  has focused in depth on the latter. However, a recent piece by Nic Spaull suggests that a relatively sanguine view vis–avis  fiscal adequacy may be wrong; Spaull shows that since 2010 the combination of a demographic bulge and increases in teachers’ salaries which are well above inflation has put pressure on resources for basic education. For the poorest 60 percent of the population, class sizes rose between 2011 and 2016 from 41 to 48 learners per class. Here, too, additional spending may be on the table.

As my ‘new deal’ piece argued,  relative to other middle-income countries – and contrary to the prevailing South African view – the country is not over-taxed.   Given credibility that money will be well-spent, there is significant ‘headroom’ to raise further revenue to cover the fiscal costs of the needs laid out above, as well as other gaps in the ladder of opportunity highlighted in the earlier piece.  At 28%,  South Africa’s public revenue as a percentage of national income is below that of many middle-and-high income countries.  Raising the share of taxes from 28% to, say 34% (the share in Brazil), would be a small price to pay for revitalizing hope – the sine qua non for a thriving future for all South Africans.



The ECD subsidy catch-22

This link  (ECD centres – subsidy benefits & access challenges ) is to a paper Lo Dagerman and I wrote. It describes the extraordinary difference access to a per child subsidy makes for Early Childhood Development learning centers in metro Cape Town – and the extraordinary difficulty of actually accessing the subsidy, even in the relatively well-governed Western Cape. And this link (The ECD landscape scoping + ver2 ) explores the challenges of improving NGO-government collaboration in the Western Cape context, and suggests some potential next steps for improvement.

Navigating Education’s Complexity – a review of the 2018 WDR

WDR 2018 graphicIn  a sector where a proliferation of research seemingly has contributed at least as much to confusion as to progress, the 2018 World Development Report (WDR), Learning to Realize Education’s Promise  sheds new light, and points towards fresh, hopeful pathways forward. It is a landmark contribution.

“Education for all” was the seductive promise of the millennium. The task seemed so straightforward: provide the resources to get children into school; teach; the child learns; development accelerates. Indeed, as the WDR details, there have been extraordinary gains in access. In 1970, gross school enrolment of the relevant age cohort was 47% in South Asia and 68% in sub-Saharan Africa; by 2010 both figures exceeded 100%. (p.59)

Yet in all too many places, the promise has not been realized. Globally, “125 million children are not acquiring functional literacy or numeracy, even after spending at least four years in school…. Across 51 countries, only about half of women who completed grade 6 (but no higher) could read a single sentence”. (pp. 71; 73)

A straightforward problem; a seemingly straightforward solution. Yet repeated failure. Why?

The determinants of educational outcomes

There is no shortage of explanations (and implicit solutions) as to where the problem lies. Here is a partial list: teacher training; child nutrition; parental engagement; textbook availability; school management; the quality of the public education bureaucracy; too few (or too many) private schools; infrastructural quality; incentives and penalties for performance; early childhood learning opportunities; the degree of centralization of the system (some making the case for more centralization, others for less); the role of testing and measurement (sometimes said to be too much, sometimes too little)  pedagogical strategies; the use of information technology (again: sometimes said to be too much sometimes too little); teachers unions; quality of school inspections; recruitment politics; the quality of school-level leadership;  parental (il-)literacy; community influences; classroom size etc. etc….

The trouble, as Lant Pritchett puts it, is that:

“Pretty much everything everyone believes is the key element of better schools has, by now, been rigorously disproved to have an impact on student learning somewhere. Of course, many of these same notions have also been rigorously proven to have an impact on student learning somewhere else.” (p.7)

The aphorism that ‘if you have a hammer you see nails everywhere” fits development practice well – and  seems to apply to the education sector with special force.  (e.g. here, here and here).  What we need is a way through this seeming morass that can  structure and cut through the complexity, help sort what is central from what is peripheral, help distinguish between cause and symptom.  This the 2018 WDR does brilliantly. (Note: A case could be made that this review also is an example of the hammer/nails syndrome: the focus of my research is on the governance dimensions of education,  a central theme of the WDR; I had some interactions with the WDR team; the document cites my work.  In mitigation: what I sought from the document, and believe I found, was a framework that integrates effectively the governance and non-governance dimensions of education systems.)  

The WDR organizes its discussion around the deceptively simple framework laid out in the three-concentric-circles figure at the beginning of this review. Learning, the ‘bullseye’ at the center of the figure, is the target.

The middle concentric circle comprises four sets of  “immediate school-level ingredients” for learning:

  • Prepared learners – adequate child health, support (or otherwise) from families and communities, prior early child development (ECD) opportunities for learning.
  • Skilled and motivated teachers – “teachers are the most important factor affecting learning” (p.10) ; their formal skills make a difference; so, too, does whether they show up, are committed to a teaching mission, and work to continually upgrade their skills.
  • Learning focused inputs – not only the quantum of resources provided, but also whether the inputs get to the classroom in a way which supports learning. And
  • School management – which indirectly has a powerful influence on both teacher quality and whether inputs are used effectively.

Analyzing the availability and quality of each of  these school-level ingredients, identifying  weaknesses,  suggesting ways in which provision might be enhanced, and experimenting with new school-level approaches to teaching, learning and governance – these are  the stuff of technocratic analysis of education systems everywhere.  Such work is necessary; it provides the knowledge base for continuing improvement of education practice.  But it also is limited.

For one thing, insofar as there are complementarities among the ingredients, targeted efforts to address one specific set of shortfalls may not achieve the expected results: even as one ‘binding constraint’ to learning is alleviated, another might constrain the system. This is a reason why interventions that work in one setting (where the relevant complementary inputs are available) will fail in places that lack some of the complementary parts.

There is, though, a more fundamental limitation of  approaches that aim to improve educational outcomes by focusing on the immediate school-level ingredients. As the outer circle in the figure suggests, technocratic decisions are not made in a vacuum – they are embedded within a much more complex, and much more political system of  actors and their incentives.

Education  is a classic example of a complex, interdependent system, one where each of the various actors bases their actions on expectations of how  other actors  behave. The incentives and behaviors of these actors could be contradictory or  mutually  reinforcing.  When the expectations of the players are aligned, a complex system (education or otherwise) can be described  as coherent  – in the sense that each of the players base their actions on accurate perceptions of how the other stakeholders in the system are likely to behave. Expectations and the de facto rules of the game, are aligned. But aligned towards what purpose?

The desirable answer, as the bullseye at the center of the concentric circles diagram signals, is aligned towards learning.  That, however, is not the only feasible outcome.

As voluminous comparative analyses have underscored (see here for example), there is wide diversity across countries in how politics and bureaucracies interact, and thus in the behavior of public bureaucracies.  Rather than being aligned towards learning,   education systems could be aligned around patronage –  or,  in part as a way of managing patronage pressures without falling foul of the law, around  a pre-occupation with ‘process compliance’.  As the WDR puts it:

“Many systems are stuck in low-learning traps.  These traps bind together key stakeholders through informal contracts that prioritize other  goals such as civil service employment, corporate profits or reelection, perpetuating the low-accountability equilibrium….. In low-level traps actors such as bureaucrats and teachers lack either the incentives or the support to focus on learning…. In an environment of uncertainty, low social trust, and risk aversion it is often in the interest of each to maintain the status quo – even if society, and many of these actors, would be better off if they could shift to a high-quality equilibrium.” (WDR p. 15)

In the figure below, I expand on the WDR diagram to illustrate how alignment towards  non-learning goals might influence the motivations and behaviors of some of the key actors in an education system.

WDR 2018 graphic patronage ver3

Transforming misaligned  systems of education – entry points for change

How does insight into the (mis-) alignment of  education systems translate into practical guidance for change?  One classic debate concerns the relative merits of  ‘big-bang’ and more incrementalist approaches. Perhaps surprisingly, given the World Bank’s reputation as the champion of all things ‘best practice’, the WDR is unequivocal in its rejection of  a ‘best practices’ (‘just do it’) approach to reform.

The reason is underscored in the  further  elaboration below (taken from the WDR)  of the concentric circles approach.  As the figure below underscores, the many actors which shape a country’s education system  are enmeshed in a complex web of interdependence – so  the law of unintended consequences looms large, with efforts to push through change in one part of the system likely will produce a reaction in others.  Thus the WDR concludes that:

 “A gradual, negotiated approach to reform may work better than confrontation. Where coalitions of system actors foster collaboration among shared goals, reforms are more likely to succeed…. Even if evidence shows that the reforms improve learning, their sustainability is at risk when they are misunderstood or unpopular among system actors.” (p. 204).

WDR 2018 graphic interdependence

 The WDR highlights Andrews, Pritchett and Woolcock’s celebrated problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) approach to incremental change. As a champion of working with the grain, I am hardly one to argue against incrementalism.  Indeed, as the WDR details (and is evident from even casual observation in almost any country) the education sector is rife with experimentation. Even so,  there is more to be said than ‘just PDIA it’.

Consider, again, the role of context – specifically how  broader political and bureaucratic contexts shape the potential and limits of incremental approaches. Using the WDRs coherence-alignment framework, three distinct contexts can be distinguished:

  • In education systems which are coherent and aligned towards learning, incrementalism is part of the ongoing process of seeking out opportunities for continuous improvement. In such settings, as the WDR highlights, the returns are especially high from research and practical innovations in pedagogy, and in other immediate influences on the teacher-learner relationship.
  • In education systems which are fragmented and lack coherence – perhaps a result of a de jure diffusion of authority, perhaps a reflection of a more broadly-fragmented clientelist polity – incrementalism will have space to  take root within the systems’ cracks, and for  ‘islands of effectiveness’ (such as this school-level example) to emerge.
  • Where an education system is coherent and captured, there will be little space for incremental approaches to take root. In such contexts, as Pritchett put it, “like the bubbles that rise off of a glass of soda, pockets of excellence are effervescent. The innovations in NGOs and in parts of the public system do not expand and often wither away when their ‘champion’ moves on.”

In sum, unless an education system already is oriented towards learning, there are limits to what can be achieved through incremental approaches. In some contexts, they can  yield worthwhile but limited gains –  but these will add up to be less than the cumulative gains which incrementalism’s protagonists (the present author included) might have hoped.  A dysfunctional status quo generally  persists, not simply because of inertia  but because it is underpinned by powerful interests. If a stuck system is to be transformed, something more than ‘cumulative incrementalism’ will be needed.

To engage difficult contexts, the WDR advocates for “mobilizing support and building coalitions to improve learning”,  including by explicit efforts to incorporate into the process “groups that are not involved in agenda-setting or that do not engage with others.” (p.203) As part of such efforts (as the WDR also underscores), investing in better information on learning outcomes  can make a key contribution– not only as a tool for more effective technocratic decision-making by education sector professionals, but as an aspect of advocacy, with transparent reporting on school-by-school outcomes  signaling to politicians, voters, parents and communities both  the limitations of the status quo, and what might be achievable.

Orchestrating interests and leveraging information are powerful tools – but what potentially makes them transformative is not so much coalition-building per se, but their broader impact on a society’s ideas as to how an education system should function. The role of ideas in shaping action is a theme which  was not explicitly explored in 2018, but was central to the 2015 WDR, Mind, Society and BehaviorA shift from patronage/process compliance to learning is as at least as much a shift in ideas about the world of schooling and ones place in it as it is a reconfiguration of interests.

‘Education for all’ was a powerful example of a transformative idea. But for all of the gains which it helped to catalyze, it turns out to be an unhelpful idea vis-à-vis  the frontier challenge of improving educational outcomes.  It induces a  narrow focus on top-down approaches to implementation, aligning action towards input expansion and process compliance, not towards doing what it takes to improve quality.

Consider, by contrast,  the implications for action were education stakeholders  to embrace the idea of unambiguous commitment to a learning-oriented education system:

  • Political leaders could champion the vision of a thriving, inclusive society, built on the foundation of a high-quality, learning-oriented education system which provides opportunities for all – and in which all citizens play an active role.
  • Pro-active parents and communities could play a powerful role in supporting childrens’ preparedness – and in safeguarding schools against stakeholders who prioritize interests other than learning.
  • New momentum could emerge within the bureaucracy for learning-oriented engagement – beyond narrow  pre-occupations with  ‘process compliance’ for its own sake,  or with fostering access to schooling, but without an explicit focus on actual learning .
  • Teacher unions might increasingly embrace a vision of teaching as a profession, as a calling, and move decisively  away from an exclusive pre-occupation with the material conditions  of teachers as employees.
  • New possibilities would arise for adapting national policies (for example towards testing, examinations, and transparency) in ways that enhance a focus on educational outcomes.
  • Civil society activism might more systematically target those aspects of education sector governance which have strong impacts  on

This, perhaps is the central implicit message of the 2018 WDR – that going forward, the crucial transformative idea is no longer the  ‘education for all’ vision of the MDGs, but  a vision of pro-active engagement by all stakeholders; a vision, one might say, of ‘ALL FOR EDUCATION!




Better education – Kenya’s history lesson for South Africa

SA SGBRecent evidence that four out of five South African children in Grade 4 cannot read for meaning has been (yet another) wake-up call for South Africa’s education system. ‘Weak governance’, everyone knows, is a key part of the problem. But what does ‘weak governance’ mean?

In a government-commissioned report on ‘jobs for cash’ scandals in schools and the follow-on Basic Education Laws Amendment proposals, school governing bodies were targeted as a key source of the problem.  In a recent Daily Maverick article, Western Cape premier Helen Zille fingered the industrial relations regime. Others target dysfunction in the education bureaucracy. As a recent paper I co-authored with Robert Cameron underscores, the Western Cape Education Department is indeed one of the  exceptions to the syndrome of bureaucratic dysfunction – but, as the paper also shows, its results also disappoint. [The paper is a chapter in a forthcoming book: Brian Levy, Robert Cameron, Ursula Hoadley and Vinothan Naidoo (editors), The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of Two Provinces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018). ]

One way to get beyond the search for our favorite scapegoat is to look elsewhere for inspiration. So, in that spirit, consider the historical experience of Kenya –   which for almost fifty years subsequent to independence had been a long-standing African over-performer in its education outcomes. (Note: what follows is not intended to address in any way the more recent challenges of Kenya’s system of basic education — fallouts of the way in which the ‘no fees’ policies of the mid-2000s were implemented, and the subsequent rise of low-cost private education.)

In the 2007 standardized tests for sixth graders conducted by the Southern (and East?) African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ), Kenya’s average score was 557 points – well above South Africa’s average of 495 points, and only marginally below the Western Cape (the top performing province) score of 560 points; at the poorer 25th percentile, Kenya (with a score of 509 points) outperformed the Western Cape (496 points). These results were achieved notwithstanding higher levels of poverty,  average per pupil expenditures which were one fifth of South Africa’s, a cadre of teachers who were no better trained, and (when compared with the Western Cape) a relatively messy bureaucracy.

Figure: Kenya’s educational outcomes in comparative perspective


Source: Luis Crouch, chapter 2, The Politics and Governance of basic education in South Africa .

Once the socio-economic influences on educational outcomes are taken into account, Kenya’s 2007 (and earlier)  outperformance  is even more remarkable. South Africa is among the countries below and to the right of the 45 degree line in the figure, which underperformed in SACMEQ relative to their socio-economic characteristics. Countries above and to the left of the line are over-achievers; Kenya stands out in the figure as far and away the most over-achieving of the countries participating in the 2007  SACMEQ assessments.

What seems to have made the key difference in Kenya are the ‘softer’ dimensions of governance. Dr. Ben Piper, a seasoned educational specialist, and long-term resident in Nairobi, put it this way:

 “What one sees in rural Kenya is an expectation for kids to learn and be able to have basic skills….Exam results are far more readily available in Kenya than  other countries  in the region. The ‘mean scores’ for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and equivalent KCSE at secondary school are posted in every school and over time so that trends can be seen. Head teachers are held accountable for those results to the extent of being paraded around the community if they did well,  or literally banned from school and kicked out of the community if they did badly.”

The role of the highly-visible KCPE test is striking, but is not the focus of this piece. Rather, my interest here is on the active engagement of communities.

The roots of active civic engagement in the education sector run deep in the foundational ideas which shaped modern Kenya: in a decades-long effort to resist the British colonial influence; in the vision of the country’s liberation struggle leader and first president, Jomo Kenyatta, of an educated population as the central manifestation what it means to be a proud independent nation; in the inclusion of education as top priority in the country’s first national plan; and in an abiding commitment in the first decade of the country’s independence to Harambee – “self-help” – as the pathway to development, with education.

Already in the 1920s, a young Jomo Kenyatta had emerged, in the context of a vibrant ‘independent schools’ movement,  as a powerful advocate for better quality education for Africans, within a framework of cultural nationalism. Upon returning to Kenya in the latter 1940s (after fifteen years living in Europe) to take up leadership of the Kenya African Union (later the ruling party KANU), he also became director and principal of the Kenya African Teachers College,  run by the independent schools movement. When Kenyatta became the first president of independent Kenya in 1963 (after being released from jail in 1952, following nine years of imprisonment),  he  offered a vision of an independent Kenya imbued with Harambee  (“let us pull together”);  the country adopted the term as its official national motto. As Heinz Fischer described, engagement with education held pride of place within the Harambee movement:

“Harambee was not just a political slogan, a rallying point, or an idea looking for an occasion to manifest itself. For education in particular, Harambee had a meaning all of its own; it was a very influential reality, especially in the area of secondary education… Politicians, concerned with their public image and their re-electability, yielded to public demands for more education… Available funds were running short… The demand and pressure for more schools continued to grow. In this spiral of conflict between demand and ability to supply, Kenyatta’s call for Harambee—let’s pull together—seemed to contain the answer.”

Kenya’s embrace of Harambee  might seem a world away from South Africa’s vision of service ‘delivery’ by government. But, against the Kenya backdrop,  consider the call for ‘active citizenship’ in South Africa’s 2012  National Development Plan:

Active citizenship requires inspirational leadership at all levels of society…..Leadership does not refer to one person, or even a tight collective of people. It applies in every aspect of life…..To build an inclusive nation the country needs to find ways to promote a positive cycle, where an effective state, inspirational leadership across all levels of society,  and active citizens reinforce and strengthen each other.”

As per the NDP, perhaps the key to turning around South Africa’s education system is less to decide who to blame, than to seek out renewed opportunities for engagement. South Africa’s institutional framework for education, promulgated in 1996,  creates multiple entry points for participation by a variety of stakeholders, including a central role for school governing bodies in which parents are the majority. SGBs generally are in the news for all the wrong reasons – as tools for elites to keep control of their schools, and as sites of corruption and capture. But, as a piece I wrote for the Daily Maverick last year underscores,  school-level research also shows that they can be a source of resilience, including in poor communities. Indeed, the central role ascribed to SGBs in the 1996 framework was, at least in part, a consequence of  the participatory vision of the progressive activists who shaped the Reconstruction and Development Plan at the dawn of democracy. In The Constitution in the Classroom, Woolman and Fleisch describe SGBs as a “fourth, albeit limited, tier of democratic governance”.

Perhaps the crucial lesson from Kenya’s history is that our current discourse has it backwards. Fixing education is not someone else’s task, and someone else’s failure.  Active citizenship implies pro-active engagement at all levels – by public officials, by principals and teachers (and their unions), by parents and communities. Perhaps, learning from Kenya, what now is called for is not another top-down ‘education for all’   target from government – but rather ‘all for education’.

Beware of overplanning

hugh masakelaSouth Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa (!! yes !!) in his well-received State of the Nation address on February 16th paid homage to the great jazz musician Hugh Masakela by urging all South Africans to take their cue from his 2002 song, “send me”.  One of the pleasures of being in South Africa in this time of seeming political renewal is the eagerness with which many (myself included) have been answering this call by sharing their favorite ideas.

In general, my response is to be encouraging, and focus on the positive — but some ideas, while seductively appealing, are so prone to perverse consequences, that it feels important to nip them in the bud. So, the moment I read an editorial from South Africa’s respected Business Day newspaper calling on CR to “get cracking with urgency on reconfiguring and co-ordinating government”, I felt compelled to write a response, dashing it out on FB on 2/19  in the hope that someone would take note. A BIG thank you to the eminent journalist Simon Barber for including some quotes from the piece in his column a few days later. I am reposting my FB post below – for the record, and for those who may be interested, but missed the original post or Simon’s article. [The image below –   ‘death by overplanning’ –  captures well my concern,  and gives this post its title — but I couldn’t resist  the contrast with the life-affirming image of Bra Hugh and his trumpet. Apologies to those of you who came looking for a piece on jazz……. 🙂 ]


Death_by_Overplanning“I write this post with a sense of urgency – mindful that decisions taken in coming days could  either add momentum for South Africa’s moment of optimism, or could undercut it. Contra Business Day, I am hugely wary of the swamp of “reconfiguring and co-ordinating government”!!! Business Day’s editorial identified this as an urgent top priority – something Ramaphosa can “get cracking on with urgency”. I led the World Bank’s Africa public sector team for 5 years. I know first hand that gains on this path come slowly at best – and all too often lead nowhere.

What South Africa urgently needs is action – and a focus on ‘reconfiguring and co-ordinating government’ is a recipe for inaction! (Note: this is not a defense of keeping too many Ministers and Deputy Ministers; only a plea to not get overly pre-occupied with the micro-details of re-organizing government.)

Even when the broader political backdrop is supportive (as it now perhaps has become) government in its nature is a complex, unruly organism. Some messiness, some overlap is in the nature of the beast. In my experience, ‘re-configuring and co-ordinating’ is a marvelous agenda for large teams of highly-paid consultants. It offers them an endless work stream – and when the process turns out to be slow, and doesn’t show results, they then call for patience (and more contracts), arguing that ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’.

The agenda of ‘re-organizing government’ also is great for politicians who want the appearance of action, without actually getting anything done. That’s not who South Africa’s new president is – and certainly is not what the country needs right now.

We need a series of focused actions, which can yield results in the near-term – and build positive momentum. President Ramaphosa made a great start with his high-level meetings this past weekend, focused on finalizing the mining charter within the next few months. What are 4-6 more initiatives with similar potential to have high impact in the near term, deepening a sense of optimism?

Similarly, the way to begin reforming the public bureaucracy (though this decidedly is NOT an initiative which meets the ‘high-near-term-impact’ criterion) is to ask what are the 4-6 focused, specific initiatives which can have a near-term impact? (Centralizing some procurement functions is one example.) Please lets avoid the endless morass of ‘reconfiguring and co-ordinating’!” BL;  originally appeared on FB 2/19


Learning from South Africa ‘s Emerging Arc of Political Renewal

cyril rampahosa

Jacob Zuma has now announced his resignation! In coming weeks I intend to write more about how, remarkably, South Africa has begun to break the momentum of state capture – a necessary condition for moving forward with the next generation of challenges of building a genuinely inclusive, thriving society. For now there are four aspects of South Africa’s success which I want to highlight (and use to contrast with the parallel challenges confronting the USA….. ).

The first is straightforward: the South Africa experience provides a powerful affirmation of the strengths of having in place the checks and balances which underpin constitutional democracy – including an independent judiciary; determined, high quality investigative journalism; and a robust civil society. These are, of course, also American strengths.

Second, the process demonstrates the strengths of South Africa’s political discourse — ongoing engagement across the spectrum, debate, mutual learning, and (to a striking degree) convergence around a sense of both truth and of the broader national interest. I worry deeply that none of this seems to be evident in the USA.

Third, the process has been underpinned in recent years by strong, principled leadership, committed to values forged in political struggle, and sustained courageously by officeholders in government and outside in the face of pressures to conform. (Pravin Gordhan and Nhlanhla Nene are just two of the many who have played such a role.) Such leadership has been key to enabling a process of renewal to (hopefully) take root within the ruling African National Congress. I worry deeply that, with a few honorable exceptions, very few such leaders are evident in the United States – with the gap especially stark (indeed, perhaps terrifyingly so….) among the representatives of the majority Republican Party in Congress.

Fourth is strategic patience – a sense of the ‘long game’. Certainly, there has been no shortage of expressions of outrage, and attacks on political leaders for their purported cowardice in failing to condemn the ‘latest’ outrage. But South Africa’s success has been built on a careful reading of the logic and rules of power which govern leadership selection, especially within the ruling ANC. (I note especially, without going into the details, the strategic patience of Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe.) In the end, the time for confronting predatory forces arrived – on the right terrain, and with the right preparation. The result is the potential for a renewal of hope.

In the South African case the relevant terrain was the contestation over the next generation of ANC leadership. In the USA, with the Republican Party seemingly hopelessly compromised, the relevant terrain will be the mid-term elections of 2018. Is the ground being equally well laid? Are the coalitions converging around what is true, around common values, a shared commitment to America’s ‘civil religion’ — around a center that can hold, that can decisively repudiate populist, predatory threats? Or are we witnessing a mutually reinforcing embrace of the politics of outrage? South Africa offers a potent, hopeful example of the power of patience.

South Africa and Hirschman’s ‘tunnel effect’ – possible signs of light?

540458614-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel-work-clothing-safety-suit-train-tunnelAlbert Hirschman’s ‘tunnel effect’ offers some compelling insight into the relative peace and stability which South Africa has enjoyed over the past quarter century – and also hints at where,  (in the spirit of Hirschman’s ongoing commitment to a  ‘passion for the possible’, hope might be found going forward. The tunnel effect is an especially evocative way of exploring the interaction between economics and psychology —  how development policy and practice interact with a society’s narratives about itself.

Of special salience for South Africa’s current moment are the insights in his article on “the changing tolerance for income inequality”. Though written in 1973, and part of an effort to understand Latin America’s disillusion of that time, his insights speak in a fresh and visceral way to South Africa’s contemporary reality. (You can find  a more comprehensive discussion of Hirschman’s ideas  in this related post.)  Here are three themes that seem especially relevant:

Tolerance for disparity. “It can happen that society’s tolerance for increasing disparities may initially [=post-1994…..] be substantial.  An individual’s welfare depends on his present state of contentment, as well as on his expected future contentment. Advances of others supply information about a more benign external environment; receipt of this information produces gratification; and this gratification overcomes, or at least suspends, envy.  As long as this tunnel effect lasts, everybody feels better off, both those who have become richer and those who have not. But this tolerance is like a credit that falls due at a certain date.  It is extended in the expectation that eventually the disparities will narrow again. If this does not occur, there is bound to be trouble and, perhaps, disaster.  Non-realization of the expectation that my turn will soon come will at some point result in my ‘becoming furious’ that is, in my turning into an enemy of the established order.  No particular outward event sets off this dramatic turnaround.”

Contested upward mobility: “The upwardly mobile do not necessarily turn into pillars of society all at once, but may on the contrary be disaffected and subversive for a considerable time. The principal reason for this surprising development is the phenomenon of partial and truncated mobility…. The upwardly mobile who may have risen along one of the dimensions of social status, such as wealth, find that a number of obstacles, rigidities and discriminatory practices still block their continued ascent, particularly along other dimensions, as well as their all-round acceptance by the traditional elites, and consequently they feel that in spite of all their efforts and achievements, they are not really ‘making it’. Only as social mobility continues for a long period, and the tradition system of stratification is substantially eroded as a result, will the upwardly mobile become fully integrated – or ‘co-opted’.”

Reversals. “In a second phase there may take place a symmetrical switch: the upwardly mobile become integrated, whereas  the nonmobile lose their earlier hope of joining the upward surge and turn into enemies of the existing order….It is quite unlikely however that the beginning of the second phase will coincide for the two groups….The nonmobile may experience the turnaround from hopefulness to disenchantment, while the mobile are still disaffected. This last situation clearly contains much potential for social upheaval.”

Superficially, the implications of the above might seem gloomy, but there’s also the possibility of a hopeful interpretation. The ‘tunnel effect’  framework suggests that society’s problems don’t have to be ‘solved’ to provide a platform for progress. Rather, what is needed is a credible narrative that can kindle hope.  For two decades, South Africa’s democratic ‘miracle’ and the African National Congress’s promise of ‘a better life for all’ provided the requisite platform. But the weakness of that platform’s foundations have become all too evident.  Anger or hope, which is it to be?  How can a new sense of possibility be rekindled?