The ECD subsidy catch-22

ECD centre – subsidy benefits & access challenges (1) Click on the link for 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.


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?

The Idea of Inclusion and its Resilience

Hirschman Hope, as always, is the crucial ingredient if we are to get beyond this populist moment in a way which avoids a deepening downward spiral. And to understand hope’s ebbs and flows there’s no better place to begin than with  the great development economist Albert Hirschman. Here’s how he depicts the intellectual  malaise in which many of us find ourselves a quarter century after the exuberance of the  early 1990s:

A drastic transvaluation of values is in process in the study of economic and political development. It has been forced upon us by a series of disasters that have occurred in countries in which development seemed to be vigorously under way…… As a result one reads with increasing frequency pronouncements about the bankruptcy of development economics…[But] the intellectual enthusiasm for development reflected elements of real hopefulness that were actually present. What was not correctly perceived was the precarious and transitory nature of that early hopeful and even exuberant phase…”

Their current resonance notwithstanding, Hirschman actually wrote these words in 1973. (He died in 2012, and had stopped writing more than a decade before then.) He had been a major thinker and chronicler of Latin American development, and was writing about the loss of hope and rise of authoritarianism that swept through that continent from the late 1960s onward. More than that,  as his biographer Jeremy Adelman documents,  his ideas were profoundly shaped by his childhood and adolescence in Germany. (A youthful progressive activist, in the fall of 1932 he was an entering student at the University of Berlin; by early 1933, he had gone into exile.)

Hirschman’s writings continue to inspire my own efforts to make sense of our times, and to seek out creative ways of revitalizing a bias for hope. (More on that in forthcoming posts, and via my twitter feed, @Brianlevy387).  In this post, I provide an overview of some of Hirschman’s core ideas, focused on his classic article “The changing tolerance for income inequality in the course of economic development”.  In a related post, I highlight the ways in which some of  the ideas might usefully be applied to South Africa (here’s a link).  The material here is organized the material into seven themes:

I: Short-run tolerance, long-run hazard

“It can happen that society’s tolerance for increasing disparities [may initially] be substantial… To the extent that such tolerance comes into being, it accommodates, as it were, the increasing inequalities in an almost providential fashion. 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…… Nonrealization 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….”

II: The ‘tunnel effect’

“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. Naturally, my spirits lift considerably…. Even though I still sit still, I feel much better off than before because of the expectation that I shall soon be on the move. But suppose that expectation is disappointed…..”

“An individual’s welfare depends on his present state of contentment (or, as a proxy, income), as well as on his expected future contentment…. The tunnel effect operates because 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……”

III: Sudden reversals

“As long as the tunnel effect lasts, everybody feels better off, both those who have become richer and those who have not….”.

“Providential and tremendously helpful as the tunnel effect is in one respect (because it accommodates the inequalities almost inevitably arising in the course of development), it is also treacherous; the rulers are not necessarily given any advance notice about its decay and exhaustion…. On the contrary, they are lulled into complacency by the easy early stage when everybody seems to be enjoying the very process that will later be vehemently denounced and damned as one consisting essentially in ‘the rich becoming richer’ ”.

IV: How dissatisfaction manifests – some paradoxes

(i): the upwardly mobile

“As de Tocqueville noted, 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 traditional system of stratification is substantially eroded as a result, will the upwardly mobile become fully integrated – or ‘co-opted’.”

(ii): those left behind

“The dynamic of those left behind is the reverse…the nonmobile see only the improvement in the fortunes of the mobile and remain totally unaware of the new problems being encountered by them.

(iii): second phase

“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.”

V: What determines the extent of polarization?

“For the tunnel effect to be strong, the group that does not advance must be able to emphathise, at least for a while, with the group that does. In other words, the two groups must not be divided by barriers that are or are felt as impassable…..”

“If, in segmented societies, economic advance becomes identified with one particular ethnic or language group or with the members of one particular religion or region then those who are left out and behind are unlikely to experience the tunnel effect: they will be convinced almost from the start of the process that the advancing group is achieving an unfair exploitative advantage over them.”

“A further possibility is that the success of others is attributed not to their qualities, but to their defects. One often rationalizes his own failure to do as well as others in the following terms: ‘I would not want to get ahead by stooping to his (ruthless, unprincipled, servile etc.) conduct’ “.

VI: Growth and equity – sequential or simultaneous?

“If growth and equity in income distribution are considered the two principal economic tasks facing a country, then these two tasks can be solved sequentially if the country is well supplied with the tunnel effect. If, because of existing social, political or psychological structures, the tunnel effect is weak or nonexistent, then the two tasks will have to be solved simultaneously, a difficult enterprise and one that probably requires institutions wholly different from those appropriate to the sequential case.”

“Development disaster occurs in countries in which [a sequential] strategy is nicely abetted for a while by the tunnel effect, but where ruling groups and policy makers fail to realize that the safety valve, which the effect implies, will cease to operate after some time.”

VII: The tunnel effect in the contemporary USA

“After a revolution, and because of it, society will have acquired a high tolerance for new equalities if and when they arrive.…. The egalitarian or, rather ‘born equal’ heritage of the United States – the collective leaving behind of Europe with its feudal shackles and class conflicts – may have set the stage for the prolonged acceptance by American society of huge economic disparities.”

“Could A come to feel under certain circumstances that an advance on the part of B is likely to affect his own welfare negatively?…. this sort of prediction is likely to be made in a society whose members are convinced that they are involved in a zero-sum game because resources are available in strictly limited amounts….”

“It may well be that when B advances, this makes A unhappy not because he is envious, but because he is worried; on the basis of his existing world view, he must expect to be worse off in short order. In other words, A is unhappy not because of the presence of relative deprivation, but because of the anticipation of absolute deprivation.”

NOTE: Over the next few weeks, I plan to initiate a conversation on the above on Twitter. To participate/follow, please follow me via my twitter handle Brian Levy @Brianlevy387biogra

Who is in the saddle?

cyril rampahosaHow can one make sense of the just-completed elective conference of South Africa’s African National Conference? Certainly, it was no triumph of good over evil. Rather, the glass seems half-full (which I prefer to half-empty):

(i) In Cyril Ramapahosa, the ANC selected a leader with a track record of effectiveness, committed to constitutional democracy (score +);

(ii) its delegates were evenly split between supporters and opponents of these core values (score +/-);

(iii) up to half of its leadership team seems (to put it mildly) to not embrace these core values.(score -).

So, despite what was hoped for, the ANC’s and South Africa’s politics continues to be profoundly uncertain. I use uncertainty here in a very specific way: It’s not just that we do not know; it’s that what comes next is not, as of now, knowable, including by  the protagonists involved. Events will play out; one thing will lead to another;  only retrospectively will a path become evident. (This approach to uncertainty, by the way, comes directly from John Maynard Keynes.)

I will venture one prediction, though – that what we have is not a stable stalemate. Perhaps ‘events will be in the saddle’, with an accelerating downward spiral. Perhaps Cyril Ramaphosa and his allies will assert mastery, and a sense of renewed possibilities will take hold. This will become evident sooner rather than later.

This is a classic moment for Albert Hirschman’s ‘bias for hope’. Not naïve hope, but a recognition that when things can go either way our task is to embrace a ‘passion for the possible’, to ask how we might act (however small or large our influence) in a way which tries to nudge things in a positive direction.

Which brings me to the interpretation of the conference in the piece by Richard Poplak which I link here. As with much of his work, its turns of phrase are superb; it offers the reader the pleasure of sharing in one knowing chuckle after the other. And it has the special energizing frisson of its subtext: ‘we’re all doomed’. Perhaps in moments of uncertainty fatalism feels good. But it also contributes, in whatever small a way, to the fulfillment of its own predictions. Perhaps better to withhold applause at such displays of virtuosity and ask instead: what is to be done?

[Note: I’ve been very quiet with this blog – my recent months have been pre-occupied with trying to finish an upcoming book (to be published by Oxford University Press) on the politics and governance of basic education in South Africa. The final manuscript will be submitted in early January, and then I will become more active here again. But I couldn’t resist posting something on the recent turn of events in South Africa….].

Pardon the bad guys??

There’s no joy in proposing that  leaders who have done great harm should be pardoned for their crimes — but this question now is on the agenda in both South Africa and the USA, two countries which are especially close to my heart. In the USA, the question may feel premature.  But, as two pieces linked below signal, the question of amnesty/pardon is a burning one in contemporary South Africa (though thoughtful conversation largely remains under the surface). I write this piece in the hope that it can spur further open discussion —  one which is mindful of the huge risks of getting this wrong.

The case against pardon is  obvious. Viscerally, no one wants the perpretrators of the great social evil of conspiring to destroy  open, rule-of-law polities (even if  as a ‘by-product’ of more narrowly criminal intent)  to get away with their crimes.  The vast majority of us  surely would  prefer that they  get their just desserts. Considered structurally, none of us committed to a just society could possibly enthuse about setting a precedent that traffickers in grand corruption will subsequently receive amnesty for their crimes. The piece by Richard Poplak, linked here, captures nicely the spirit of moral outrage evoked by a trial balloon floated in South Africa a few weeks ago that Jacob Zuma not only should be pardoned, but should be paid R2 billion (about $150 million) for going quietly. [Though I should note that, on a fourth reading, Poplak’s own view as to what should be done is more ambiguous than the piece’s tone suggests……].

But is:  “the bad guys go to jail, and everyone else lives happily ever after” really the only (or even the most likely) version of what happens in the face of a commitment to proceed with prosecution following a putative transfer of power?  In a powerful piece, South Africa’s Jonny Steinberg describes what a political fight to the finish could look like. Here is a flavor (the full piece is behind a paywall). He imagines ” a new and explosive eruption at universities or service delivery protests pouring from the urban periphery into the city centres…. creating the impression of a grave threat to order requiring stern action. A state of emergency is declared….. In the febrile atmosphere that follows, three of four key figures are assassinated by unknown gunmen…..It does not take rocket science to manufacture disorder or to exercise violence from a distance.”

Steinberg is clear as to  the point of his “imaginary exercise: If there is to be a transfer of power in South Africa, those who are going to lose need to know that their defeat is bearable. They need to know that they will not go to jail or be permanently disgraced. They need to know that those who succeed them will govern with a generous hand. This may be hard to stomach. But those who have mismanaged the country have the power to destroy it. And they will if they are given the incentive to do so.”

I agree.

Both South Africa and the United States have been there before.  Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon in 1974 may have felt morally unsatisfying  but it helped provided a platform for 40+ years of social peace and progress.   South Africa’s political transition from apartheid was orders of magnitude more astonishing — and here, too, a commitment to mostly looking forward (including through the instrument of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) was crucial in enabling the country to subsequently enjoy a quarter century of (relative) social peace and democratic learning and consolidation. In both cases, of course, deep-seated challenges remain. DT’s America has shown us how far the country continues to fall short of its ideals of “equal justice under the law” for all. And South Africa is only beginning to confront the social-psychological (let alone economic) challenges of building a society in which, to borrow from  Steve Biko, all citizens are ‘not superior, only equal; not inferior, only equal’. But both countries have achieved the astonishing, historically rare feat of constructing constitutional orders in which these challenges can be confronted through open, peaceful contestation.

Once a downward spiral of disaster takes hold, everything is lost.  The overwhelming priority must surely be to  avoid that disaster —  and to do so in a way which provides as fresh as possible a new beginning. Getting there is likely to involve making difficult choices among shades of grey. We urgently need to  weigh the choices in these grey areas, avoiding too-easy polarities.


Deconstructing the donor anti-corruption discourse

There’s something strange going on when  protagonists refuse to recognize their own successes. An especially frustrating day spent taking stock of the global anti-corruption movement led Oxfam’s Duncan Green to suggest in a recent blog post,  only half tongue-in-cheek, that “one option would be to stop using the ‘C’ word altogether, because it’s such a terrible starting point”.  This, of course, is neither realistic nor desirable. But insofar as corruption (and the need to combat it) will always be with us, we need to understand better what it is about the discourse which goes beyond  a good faith effort to wrestle with an especially knotty development problem.

Part of the explanation may be a culturally deeply-rooted discomfort with moving beyond Manichean notions of good and evil, and wrestling with development’s shades of gray. Another part may be ideological – evident in the crocodile tears shed by right-of-center politicians and commentators as they conclude that government is irredeemably corrupt, and thus should be kept as small as possible. But a decade spent as part of a team working to mainstream governance and anti-corruption into the World Bank’s development efforts sensitized me to  a third part of the explanation –  namely the way in which the interactions between  discourse on anti-corruption, governance and development and  the organizational incentives and constraints of the World Bank and other development agencies have resulted in a variety of perverse consequences.

The story begins at a high-level meeting in Madrid in 1994, when the incoming president of the World Bank, Jim Wolfensohn, found himself confronted by a chant from demonstrators that “fifty years is enough”. In their view,  a half century after the signing of the Bretton Woods agreements, the world no longer had any use for the institutions it created. Over the next few years, in his inimitable, passionate way, Wolfensohn went on the counteroffensive, signaling  the World Bank’s determination to fight the ‘cancer of corruption’. But the way in which the agenda unfolded sacrificed the effort to address some deeply rooted obstacles to development on the altar of political and organizational imperatives. The result was the embrace of a type of high-mindedness which was unconstrained by difficult realities, and which locked-in  a series of impossible expectations.

The challenges of implementation, accountability and corruption – all governance issues – became increasingly central to the World Bank’s agenda. Weaknesses in implementation had emerged as a popular explanation for weaknesses in the performance of development aid. So ‘fix public management’ was given new priority in the development agenda. But then came the critique  that underlying weaknesses in public management lay weaknesses in accountability –and that underlying these lay weaknesses in the quality of checks and balances institutions. ‘Fix these too’ was the seemingly logical response.  Over the subsequent two decades (including during the tenures as World Bank president of Paul Wolfowitz and Robert Zoellick), corruption became something for which the Bank would have ‘zero tolerance’.

At first sight, ‘zero tolerance for corruption’ is unambiguously the right thing to do. But what exactly does it mean? Certainly it means a determined commitment to the highest standards of probity amongst Bank staff — something for which the organization continues, rightfully, to pride itself. It also means (again appropriately, and an area where the Bank made a major push) a commitment to act on allegations of corruption associated with Bank-funded development projects – and the creation of mechanisms through which suspicions of malfeasance in development operations could easily be reported. It can also mean the incorporation of transparent, third party mechanisms for monitoring the implementation of efforts to improve service provision – something which increasingly has become a mainstream part of practice within the Bank.

But ‘zero tolerance’ can be taken to impossible lengths. In many countries,  personalized deal-making organized around the sharing of rents is central to the logic of political order in many developing countries with weak formal institutions. Does ‘zero tolerance’ imply that the World Bank and other donors should not work in these countries – even though this is where a large proportion of the world’s poor live? Evidently, unless the intent is to end the aid endeavor almost entirely, the answer must be ‘no’.

Holders of the purse-strings of foreign aid – the United States Congress, and parliaments throughout Western Europe, Japan and elsewhere in the democratic, industrialized world – surely recognized the challenging realities. It is hardly as if their countries, where checks and balances institutions are strong, are entirely corruption free. But in the face of widespread skepticism among voters in ‘northern’ countries as to the benefits of aid, they had little appetite for explaining these complexities to their constituents.  On the contrary, in the polarized politics that increasingly prevailed within some donor countries, any effort to address complexity – indeed, any acknowledgement that results might fall short of perfection – risked  playing into the hands of opponents, who were all too ready to characterize aid as wasteful support for ‘corrupt dictators’.

In consequence, instead of an engagement with complexity, the mainstreaming of governance into the development discourse resulted, for the most part, in a ‘doubling down’ on simplistic responses. The response of the development community to governance-related criticisms of its effectiveness was to say ‘yes’:

“Yes – public management will be fixed”.

“Yes – behind shortfalls in public management are weaknesses in accountability, and behind these are failures of checks and balances institutions – good governance will take care of these”. And

“Yes – corruption is a cancer, for which there will be zero tolerance”

Yes: Insofar as there was not already a perfect world, the efforts of the World Bank and other donor organizations (working in partnership with people of goodwill everywhere) would make it so.

In the immediacy of efforts to combat crises which threatened the legitimacy of the aid endeavor, high-minded affirmations serve as a firewall. But in the long-run the consequences have become increasingly corrosive. Development unfolds in difficult environments with weak institutions; the outcomes even of the best efforts are inherently uncertain. Maximalist promises, for all of the immediate relief they provide, are inconsistent with both the substance and spirit of the task at hand.

Development work necessarily involves eyes-wide-open risk taking. However, in the culture which had taken hold within development agencies, mirroring back challenging uncertainties, and confronting fundamental dilemmas and trade-offs, had in practice all-too-often become unacceptable. Viewed from the perspective of the immediate organizational imperatives of donors, what mattered most was the short-term impact on external constituencies of the words surrounding the governance and anti-corruption agenda (‘GAC’, in its unlovely acronym). But against a backdrop of maximalist, unachievable rhetoric, failure becomes the only plausible outcome.

[The above  is a lightly edited extract from chapter 11 of my 2014  book  Working with the Grain. If you’re interested in some more recent reflections on the topic, see my 2015 blog posts “puzzling over anti-corruption” and “Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency – a remarkable island of effectiveness”. Also worth reading is Catherine Weaver’s book, The Hypocrisy Trap.]