Thriving societies or downward spirals? Some lessons from earlier times

co-operation 1Hope, Keynes taught us, is the elixir of a thriving society. In these times, when hope is in short supply, we urgently need to know more: How is hope evoked? Why is it sustained for a while, and then unexpectedly lost? How can hope be renewed?  These questions were explored brilliantly by the great twentieth century development economist and scholar of Latin American development, Albert Hirschman.  Here are three of his crucial insights.

First, Hirschman conceived of development as an unbalanced process, with leads and lags. Tolerance for imbalances, he argued:

“… is like a credit that falls due at a certain date. It is extended in the expectation that eventually the disparities will narrow again. But if the expectation 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”.

Second, Hirschman conceived as the development process as involving two complementary tasks:

“The first of the two tasks is the unbalancing function, the entrepreneurial function, the accumulation function.  Increasing social and income inequalities are an important part of this picture…..In time, pressures will arise to correct some of these imbalances,  to improve the welfare and position of groups that have been neglected or squeezed, and at redistribution of wealth and income in general. This is the ‘equlibrating’ distributive, or reform function….”.

In an orderly universe, policymakers would alternate between the two functions, giving emphasis to the response which best fits the moment. But that is not how growth, Hirschman-style works in practice. Hence his third crucial insight:

The appearance of the reform function on the stage at the right time and with the right strength is not in any reliable fashion co-ordinated with the entrepreneurial function and its performance. In fact while the performance of both functions (in some proper sequence) may be ‘objectively’ essential for the growth process, their protagonists are more often than not determined adversaries….. When reformers enter the stage they may well be full of invective against the entrepreneurial groups, who will return the compliment….”.

As Hirschman underscores, a renewal of hope comes when societies embrace an encompassing, inclusive vision which transcends the invective between growth and reform champions that characterizes so much of contemporary discourse.


For a more in-depth exploration of the above, here is a link to the paper I presented  in October 2018, at the Second Conference on Hirschman’s Legacy: A Bias for Hope. (The paper includes an application of the above ideas to the case of South Africa.)

Keynes: “new hopes and fears, without warning, take charge of human conduct”

keynesTo understand what drives economy and society today, we need to look beyond those “pretty, polite techniques which try to deal with the present by abstracting from the fact that we know very little about the future”. In doing so, we can learn from the efforts of some giants of an earlier era.  John Maynard Keynes, magnum opus,  The General Theory,  was his effort to understand the drivers of the Great Depression. It is a difficult book, and rarely read today.

Keynes subsequently published a distillation of his core ideas in an (also rarely read) 1937 article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. As he put it early in that article, “I am more attached to the comparatively simple fundamental ideas which underlie my theory than to the particular forms in which I have embodied them….”  I first read the QJE piece almost a half-century ago. It remains  one of the greatest academic articles I have ever read; it speaks directly to our times. Here are some highlights:

“We have as a rule only the vaguest idea of any but the most direct consequences of our acts. Of all human activities which are affected by this remoter pre-occupation it happens that one of the most important is economic in character, namely, Wealth. The whole object of the accumulation of Wealth is to produce results, or potential results, at a [distant] date. Thus the fact that our knowledge of the future is fluctuating vague and uncertain, renders Wealth a peculiarly unsuitable subject for the methods of the classical economic theory.

“By ‘uncertain’ knowledge, I do not mean merely to distinguish what is known for certain from what is only probable. The sense in which I am using the term is that….we simply do not know. Nevertheless, the necessity of action and for decision compels us as practical men to do our best to overlook this awkward fact….”

“[Given the above, our] theory of the future, being based on so flimsy a foundation, is subject to sudden and violent changes. The practice of calmness and immobility, of certainty and security, suddenly breaks down. New fears and hopes will, without warning, take charge of human conduct…..”

“I accuse the classical economic theory of being one of these pretty, polite techniques which tries to deal with the present by abstracting from the fact that we know very little about the future.”

“It is not surprising that the volume of [private] investment should fluctuate widely from time to time. For it depends on judgments about the future which do not rest on an adequate or secure foundation..”

“Given the psychology of the public, the level of output and employment as a whole depends on the amount of investment. I put it in this way, not because this is the only factor on which aggregate output depends, but because it is usual in a complex system to regard as the causa causans that factor which is most prone to sudden and wide fluctuation….. Of the several factors which [influence] aggregate output, it is those which determine the rate of investment which are most unreliable, since it is they which are influenced by our views of the future about which we know so little.”

Rekindling hope – the missing elixir to fix South Africa’s economy

hope imageThe world over, political and economic agendas that fail to offer hope to the “middle” of society have turned out to be recipes for downward spirals of ethno-populism. More than other middle-income countries, South Africa’s citizens remain either affluent or poor, with little in-between.  As of 2015, only a quarter of the country’s citizens enjoyed a level of living that could be described as stably “middle class” or better. Half of the population remained chronically poor, dependent on safety nets for survival. And the quarter in-between – who, in a thriving society, would be carriers of hope from the middle to the bottom of society – struggle, mostly in vain, to stay out of reach of destitution.

My recent piece, syndicated in The Conversation as per this link,  explored how this can be turned around. See below for the pre-publication version, which includes somewhat more detail on the three suggested ‘guideposts’ for turnaround.


South Africa’s election season is underway,  but the discourse is stuck in a time warp. We need to look beyond the familiar nostrums that have held sway for much of South Africa’s first two decades of democracy.

In his February, 2019 State of the Nation speech, President Ramaphosa followed the classic fix-the-business-environment formula for job creation,  setting a target to move South Africa’s performance up from 82nd to the top 50 in the World Bank’s ease of Doing Business ratings within the next three years. The rhetoric from the opposition Democratic Alliance is similar.  The populist Economic Freedom Front’s vision for jobs seems to be to emulate Venezuela.

Indeed, South Africa urgently needs to get its economy moving again. But as two great twentieth century economists John Maynard Keynes and Albert Hirschman teach us,  economic momentum is not created by focusing on the myriad pinpricks about which business continually complains.  Rather, the way to reinvigorate the economy is to rekindle hope across society.

As Keynes explained, in his magisterial analysis of  the drivers of private investment (written in the depths of the 1930s great depression):

“Our knowledge of the future is fluctuating vague and uncertain.  Being based on so flimsy a foundation, [private investment] is subject to sudden and violent changes. New fears and hopes will, without warning, take charge of human conduct…..”


“Most of our decisions to do something positive can only be taken as the result of animal spirits—a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction…rather than mathematical expectations”

The great scholar of twentieth century Latin American development,  Albert Hirschman, built on Keynes’ insights  in a way which speaks directly to South Africa’s challenges.   He conceived of the development process as a cycle:

“Two principal tasks or functions  must be accomplished. The first is the unbalancing, entrepreneurial function…… Increasing social and income inequalities are an important part of this picture…..In time, pressures will arise to correct some of these imbalances…..This is the ‘equlibrating’ distributive, or reform function….”.

South Africa’s GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) strategy, adopted in 1996,  marked the start of an entrepreneurial  phase.  Growth reached  an average rate of over five percent per annum between 2004 and 2008, better than for any period since the 1960s.  Even so, as a recent study documented,  as of 2015  only a quarter of the country’s citizens enjoyed a level of living that could be described as stably ‘middle class’ or better.

Half of the population remained chronically poor,  dependent on safety nets for survival. And the quarter in-between (who, in a thriving society, would be carriers of hope from the middle to the bottom of society) struggle, mostly in vain, to stay out of reach of destitution. More than other middle-income countries, South Africa’s  citizens remain either affluent or poor, with little in-between. Against that backdrop, it hardly is surprising that  by the early 2010s South Africa saw the emergence of a vituperative political discourse characterized by assaults on “white monopoly capital” on the one hand and a preoccupation with institutional decay and state capture on the other.

Hirschman witnessed a parallel erosion of optimism in Latin America:  a military coup in Brazil in 1967; a massacre of students on the streets of Mexico City in 1971; the bloody assault on Chile’s presidential palace in 1973, which resulted in the death of elected president Salvador Allende and the coming to power of General Augusto Pinochet.   In a  1973 article, musing on this reversal, he  suggested that 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. But if the expectation…. 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… Rulers are not necessarily given any advance notice about [the tunnel effect’s]  decay and exhaustion…”.

The Hirschman development cycle points to the way out of the downward spiral – embrace the ‘reform function’ as the way to revitalize hope. This is more easily said than done:

While the performance of the entrepreneurial and reform functions (in some proper sequence) may be ‘objectively’ essential for the growth process, their protagonists are more often than not determined adversaries….. When reformers enter the stage they may well be full of invective against the entrepreneurial groups, who will return the compliment….”.

What might a turnaround look like in South Africa’s current conjuncture? Here are three guideposts.

  • Don’t confuse a re-embrace of the ‘entrepreneurial function’ with reform.

In early 2018,  with the recall by the ANC of President Jacob Zuma and the accession to the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa seemingly reversed course. Notwithstanding continuing infighting within the ANC, the country has witnessed an ongoing removal from positions of authority within government of many who had been deeply complicit in state capture and associated institutional decay.  But institutional turnaround is not enough.

The world over, political and economic agendas which fail to offer hope to the ‘middle’ of society have turned out to be recipes for downward spirals of ethno-populism. Thus:

  • Give priority to responding pro-actively to the concerns of the quarter or so of the population stranded in South Africa’s twilight zone between middle class stability and abject poverty.

Hirschman’s cycle underscores that  renewal comes  from a revitalization of hope among those who were stranded at the threshold of the earlier, unbalanced process – lured, but then disappointed, by unrealized promises.  This segment of society is both crucial politically in its own right – and can be a transmission belt of hope among the poorest half of South Africa’s population that upward mobility is possible. Thus:

  • Do what it takes to strengthen ladders of upward mobility.

To citizens stranded in the disappointed middle,  election season sounds like just another replay of empty promises.  Jobs? Better institutions?  They’ve heard it all before.  A genuine, visible – and, crucially, well-financed —  commitment from across society to invest in ladders of opportunity and inclusion would offer a tangible basis for hope, especially for young people.

As I’ve explored here  and here, the weaknesses in South Africa’s ladders of opportunity are different – and the challenges more readily addressable –  than those  usually emphasized in South Africa’s blame-centric political culture.  Visible gains in the affordability and efficacy of ladders of opportunity and inclusion have the potential to  unlock the most crucial ingredient of all –  a renewed sense of agency among South Africa’s citizens, of hope that, working together, we indeed have it in our power to build a future with a real prospect of a better life for all.


‘Becoming furious’ – The Hirschman cycle of growth, inequality and reform

Hirschman cycle

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. This piece  explores what we can learn for today  from  the way in which Latin America’s surging optimism of the 1950s curdled by the 1970s into authoritarianism, conflict and despair. It does so by drawing on the insights of  the great scholar and interpreter of Latin American development,  Albert Hirschman. (A longer version, complete with detailed references and footnotes, available via this link, was presented at a recent conference on Hirschman’s legacy.)

The ‘cycle’ of development change laid out above is built around three of Hirschman’s core  ideas:

  • That growth is an ‘unbalanced’ process, characterized by leads and lags – staying on track calls for ongoing shifts in policy priorities.
  • That movements from one phase of the cycle to another can come unexpectedly, catching policymakers and other elites by surprise. And
  • That post-crisis renewal of a cycle of inclusive growth is likely to come (if it does), not from a pre-occupation with narrowly pro-growth policies but from a revitalization of hope among those who had been left behind by the earlier, unbalanced process.

Hirschman’s vision of growth as an ‘unbalanced’ process was laid out in his landmark 1957 book, The Strategy of Economic Development, at a time of Latin American optimism. Explicitly drawing the contrast with a planned (‘balanced’) approach to growth, Hirschman viewed the principal task for policymakers as  identification and support for catalytic entry points which could both kickstart momentum, and have strong ‘linkages’ – thereby pulling forward other parts of the economy and society. Here’s how, in a 1980 article in a book on the turn to authoritarianism in Latin America,  he framed the challenge:

“Two principal tasks or functions  must be accomplished in the course of the growth process The first of the two tasks is the unbalancing function, the entrepreneurial function, the accumulation function…… Increasing social and income inequalities are an important part of this picture.”

By 1980, though,   Hirschman’s focus was no longer principally on ‘unbalancing’. On the contrary:

In time, pressures will arise to correct some of these imbalances,  to improve the welfare and position of groups that have been neglected or squeezed, and at redistribution of wealth and income in general. This is the ‘equlibrating’ distributive, or reform function….”.

This brings us to Hirschman’s second core idea –  the ending of a growth phase can take elites by surprise.  In a 1974 article, musing on why “society’s tolerance for disparities [may initially] be substantial”, he drew the analogy with being stuck in intermittently moving traffic:

“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 […may not gain…]…. I feel much better off than before because of the expectation that I shall soon be on the move….. As long as [this phase] 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. But if the expectation…. 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… Rulers are not necessarily given any advance notice about [the tunnel effect’s]  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’ ”.

The parallels to our times are obvious. Since the 1950s, repeated waves of accelerating globalization and technological change have brought massive worldwide gains in human wellbeing (see here and here). But now, unexpectedly, we find ourselves in a time of reaction – with backlashes in country after country from those  who perceive themselves as losers, or made vulnerable, by accelerating change. The rise of ethno-nationalism in the United States and Europe comprise obvious examples. A parallel process is evident across a range of middle-income countries, as well. This is in part because new waves of change threaten beneficiaries of earlier waves –  and, in part because, as per the ‘tunnel effect’ (and as illustrated by countries as varied as Brazil, the Philippines and South Africa)  only a small proportion of society turned out to benefit from the new opportunities for  upward mobility (with the process all-too-often short-circuited by corruption, state capture and power asymmetries which favored the more-established elites).

This brings us to the third set of ‘Hirschmanian’ ideas –  how countries which seemingly have been engulfed by reaction can renew their growth cycles. Hirschman’s insights are  especially counter-intuitive vis-a-vis the neoliberal discourse of the past four decades – a discourse pre-occupied with market-oriented, private-sector-led visions of development, propelled forward by improvements in the business environment (as measured by one or another variant of Doing Business indicator).  Hirschman suggests that once a crucial threshold has been crossed, development and growth are not renewed by doubling-down on the entrepreneurial function, but by an embrace of reform.

In an orderly universe, policymakers would alternate between the two functions, giving emphasis to the response which best fits the moment. But that is not how growth, Hirschman-style works in practice. Rather:

The appearance of the reform function on the stage at the right time and with the right strength is not in any reliable fashion co-ordinated with the entrepreneurial function and its performance. In fact while the performance of both functions (in some proper sequence) may be ‘objectively’ essential for the growth process, their protagonists are more often than not determined adversaries….. When reformers enter the stage they may well be full of invective against the entrepreneurial groups, who will return the compliment….”.

Yet, paradoxically, as the Hirschman cycle suggests, renewed growth comes from successfully carrying out the  redistributive, reform function.

The suggestion that the seemingly dark times of Latin America in the 1970s carried within themselves seeds of renewal was typical of Hirschman. Indeed,  in its 2012 remembrance,  the New York Times described Albert Hirschman as “the optimistic economist”. Hirschman himself described the “fundamental bent” of his writing as being “to set the stage for conceptions of change to which the inventiveness of history and a ‘passion for the possible’ are admitted as vital actors” – a sensibility which was informed, as he put it, by “a bias for hope”.

But there is another way to interpret Hirschman, also rooted in an historical parallel, this time the 1930s. In the fall of 1932 he entered the University of Berlin as a first year student. By early 1933 Hitler and the Nazi Party had come to power,  and Hirschman, of Jewish background and with  left-wing political sympathies,  had gone into exile. In the early 1940s, he helped smuggle many of Europe’s leading artists and intellectuals across the Pyrenees into Portugal, from where they could make their way to the United States.  Hirschman’s optimism was the willed optimism of a search for silver linings –  an optimism which knows that, in times of light, the potential for darkness looms – but also that, during times of darkness, seeds of renewal can germinate.

So, too, in our times. A renewal of hope is possible – but there are no guarantees. Deepening darkness also looms as a possibility.

Improving learning – how do governance systems matter?

EPSON scanner imageNew measurements confirm that governance systems matter for learning outcomes. But knowing, in a statistically robust way that systems matter is one thing. Understanding how they matter, and what are implications for action, is another.

A useful blog by Marla Spivack  of the Center for Global Development and the global  RISE (Research on Improving Systems of Education) programme reviews the new econometric measures – which were used by Gabrielle Wills, Debra Shepherd and Janeli Kotze to assess the impact of governance systems on learning outcomes  in  chapter 6 of the recent book, The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A tale of two South African provinces (Oxford U Press, 2018).  A broader goal of the 2018 book (with which I was centrally involved) was to anchor specific empirical findings within a comprehensive,  multilevel (national, provincial and school) analysis of how politics, institutions and governance interact.

The multi-level research points to three ways to move from general recognition of the role of governance towards better education sector practice. First (and of particular relevance to the work of many economists and educationalists in the sector):

  • Move beyond a narrowly technocratic pre-occupation with education ‘production functions’ – with exploring in a narrowly economistic way  how specific inputs influence learning outcomes.  

Here’s how Spivack describes the limitations of the ‘production function’ approach: “There are numerous component parts of an education system that can either promote or impinge on student outcomes…. RISE calls these the ‘proximate determinants’ of education outcomes. Vast academic and policy literatures exist examining the proximate determinants of learning…. Questions like ‘what is the effect of teacher training on learning?’ what is the effect of missing textbooks on learning?’ and ‘what is the effect of a new pedagogical approach on learning?’ all follow this formula…… Their effects on children’s outcomes differ across contexts. RISE is interested in understanding the features of systems that mediates these varied effects”. To put it differently, it is not so much the ‘independent’ magnitude of the effects on learning of  proximate determinants, but how they interact with governance systems that is key for understanding their effects on learning outcomes.

This leads to a second proposition:

  • Governance influences learning outcomes via three distinct channels: the technical efficiency with which inputs are deployed; whether inputs are used for their intended purpose; and the evocation of agency – the commitment and motivation of those involved in the education endeavor.

Having embraced governance as crucial, those with a technocratic bias may be inclined to fall into the technocratic trap of focusing only on the first and second channels –  with an implied presumption that better top-down, process-compliant  hierarchical systems are sufficient to improve educational outcomes. But,  as per the above, governance functions are multi-dimensional – and include the ‘agency’ channel (on which more below).  As the book explored in depth (see HERE), different locales vary in the strengths and weaknesses of each of these governance dimensions. These divergent patterns  explain why,  as Spivack’s blog summarizes, “the Western Cape effect is not always positive – the WC’s education system is stronger than Botswana, Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, and weaker than Mauritius and Nairobi and the Central Region of Kenya”.

Indeed, as chapter 10 of the 2018 book explored (and as I summarized HERE), a crucial difference between the Western Cape and Kenya appears to be in the evocation of agency – the commitment of parents, teachers, communities, public officials to do what it takes to improve learning outcomes. Within South Africa itself, school-level case studies of governance dynamics and learning outcomes in both the Western and Eastern Cape provinces (chapters 8 and 9 of the book)  further revealed, at a micro-level, the powerful role played by agency on the part of school leaders, teachers, parents and communities in accounting for variations in school-level learning outcomes.  To those with a technocratic bent, ‘agency’ might seem to be an especially ‘soft’ causal driver – but don’t underestimate its power. (Its evocation is, for example, central to the power of the PDIA – problem-driven iterative adaptation – approach to change, of which RISE’s Lant Pritchett, plus Matt Andrews and Michael Woolcock are leading champions.)

My final proposition concerns an additional hazard of using comparative research findings  for policy prescription. The extended comparison between the Western and Eastern Cape provinces in chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the book reveals stark differences between the performance of the Western and Eastern Cape bureaucracies. Given this contrast,  a seemingly straightforward implication is to focus on “fixing the bureaucracy” as a way to improve learning outcomes.  This would be a mistaken use of the research findings:

  • Context matters – politically and institutionally-driven incentives and constraints shape what governance entry points for improving learning outcomes are feasible in specific settings.

A central feature of the 2018 book was a systematic juxtaposition of  hierarchical and horizontal approaches to education sector governance. The intent was less to explore whether one is ‘better’ than the other, but to enrich the menu of options for improving learning outcomes.  As chapter 7 of the book detailed (and as I summarized HERE) variations in the performance of the Western and Eastern Cape education bureaucracies are rooted in profound differences in the socio-economic, political and institutional context of the two provinces. Given these structural constraints it would be misguided to focus narrowly on “fixing the bureaucracy” as a way to improve learning outcomes in the Eastern Cape province. A broader range of options (including an investment in strengthening learning-oriented parental and community participation) might usefully also be considered as part of the ‘governance improvement’ mix.

So (speaking as much to myself  and my current enthusiasm for the ‘evocation of agency’ as to others reading this piece), let’s avoid the lure of easy answers. As per RISE’s mission, taking governance seriously  is an important step forward in efforts to improve learning outcomes. But there is much to be learned about how governance matters – with bold, persistent, learning-oriented experimentation at least as important as a further round of studies.

What are the limitations of working with the grain?

direction_signsWhen does a call to ‘work with the grain’  violate foundational ethical commitments? Governance reversals globally have given new urgency to this question; it has recently been posed  both in Oxfam’s blog and in the London School of Economics Public Authority  blog series. The new year seems like a good time to share my views, in the form of five guideposts.

When I wrote Working with the Grain (WWG) in the early  2010s,  my intent was to provide a road map for pragmatism. At the time, it was plausible to think that, haltingly and unevenly, the arc of the moral universe was bending towards justice.   But five years later there’s no avoiding the rise of polarization, ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism.  In such a time, a call to engage pragmatically with power might seem hollow – or worse. What, then, is to be done?

  • Guidepost #1: Distinguish between critical junctures and the (generally long) intervals between them.

This guidepost follows directly from the logic of  ‘political settlements’. As per Mushtaq Khan, a political settlement prevails where  “the distribution of benefits supported  by its institutions is consistent with the distribution of power in society – and the economic and political outcome of these institutions is sustainable over time.  Approaches to engagement at critical junctures are thus qualitatively different from those in a time of stability.  In writing WWG, my  principal focus was on the latter. Hence:

  • Guidepost #2: During periods of stability, anchor reform efforts within an understanding of the political and institutional incentives and constraints which prevail in a particular context.

WWG aimed to identify a variety of distinct contexts, each comprising a distinctive platform for development, with   distinctive incentives for the participants, distinctive constraints and risks, and distinctive frontier challenges.  Directing attention to  these  incentives and constraints was intended to  provide a platform for identifying specific ‘good fit’ policy actions which are both worthwhile and feasible, given country-specific institutional realities.

Working along these lines  is very different from ‘going with the flow’ —  it is a call to work creatively within  the broader prevailing policy, institutional and political realities. Thus:

  • Guidepost #3: A ‘with the grain’ approach need not be timidly incremental – its aim is to encourage  reflection as to the merits of a spectrum of context-specific entry points for achieving specific policy, sectoral and institutional goals.

As illustrated by the figure below (taken from WWG), in working to address some specific reform challenge there is a  spectrum of options. At one end are narrowly incremental options, aligned with the existing space for reform; at the other end is the option of engaging with stakeholders to expand the space for reform.  At every level of decision-making, reformers (in government, civil society, or the donor community) must clarify how to position their engagement along this spectrum. While during periods of political stability,  room for maneuver generally is likely to be limited vis-à-vis reforms of a country’s core governance arrangements, at more micro-levels the scope to be pro-active in working to ease constraints potentially is larger along both trajectories.



Adapt design to align                              Expand reform space                                                          with existing reform space                                                      __________________________________________

But how to proceed when the broader political and institutional environment is itself in question?  In a 2017 review of Duncan Green’s important book, How Change Happens, I distinguished between the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of reform. The  ‘how’ task  was,  as Duncan put it, to learn to “dance with the system”. But pre-occupation with the ‘how’, with pragmatic responses to very specific problems, ceded to ideologues of both the right and the left  the terrain of  broader discourse as to public purpose. In consequence:

“we lost sight of the dynamics of power – specifically of the power of political parties to mobilize on the basis of ideas and incentives which we easily dismissed as reactionary. In so doing, we ceded the terrain of contestation over the largest political prize of all — control over state institutions – to actors and ideas which  we presumed had been consigned to the dustbin of history. ….And then, one bleak morning after another, we awoke to discover that the terrain had shifted radically, that control over state institutions was shifting, and that our hard-won incremental gains risked being washed away by tidal waves of reaction…..Today’s times require heightened attention to the vision towards which change efforts are directed; we need a new balance between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’”. Hence:

  • Guidepost #4: Context –  time as well as place —   shapes whether or not a ‘with the grain’ approach is a useful way forward.

In some times and places, reform might focus most effectively on modest incremental changes; in others, there might be scope for expanding the range of stakeholders engaged in specific reform efforts; in yet others, fundamental questions as to the way forward may be on the agenda.  This is what (as of 2019)  I mean by ‘working with the grain’. No one size fits all.

This brings me to the ‘what’ of reform.  At critical junctures, when foundational political and institutional challenges are in play, there are obvious limitations to with-the-grain incrementalism.  But even at these junctures,  the spirit of WWG  has a distinctive implication (one to which I remain strongly committed) – it redirects  attention away from polarized debates about fanciful ends towards pragmatic exploration of what Albert Hirschman termed ‘a passion for the possible’. This is especially relevant for efforts to transform governance.

Over the long-run,  good governance may indeed be a destination to which, as countries develop, their  governance systems converge. But the  ability to describe the characteristics of effective states – of well-functioning public sectors, of a robust rule-of-law —  does not  conjure them into existence out of thin air. Best practices approaches   assume that all policies and institutions are potentially move-able, and can be aligned to fit some pre-specified blueprint. But they cannot. The empirical evidence (which I laid out here and  here) signals unequivocally the failure  over the past quarter-century of efforts to leapfrog by re-engineering.  Indeed, as I explored in depth in a review of Bill Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts,  scholars underscore that historically the  process of strengthening the rule of law played out over many centuries; it was long, messy and circuitous, fraught with violence, and variable in its outcome. Hence:

  • Guidepost #5: Avoid fanciful counterfactuals of what is possible -the evolution of ‘foundational’ institutions from personalized to impersonal is a slow, cumulative process. 

It is easy (and seductive) to preach Manichean visions of perfection and evil; if one has no real interest in governing effectively then there is no reason to exercise restraint. But, as history teaches us,  the consequences can be  the opposite of  the initial good intentions.  (This last caution applies with particular force to outsiders to a particular country context seeking to support improvements in governance, who do not have to live with the consequences of their efforts.  They could usefully work harder to embrace the precautionary principle of ‘first, do no harm’.)

In bringing the pragmatic spirit of WWG to the challenge of the ‘what’, the task is to communicate two superficially contradictory ideas at the same time: that embracing a vision of inclusion and stewardship in a thriving society offers a pathway to a fulfilling life – and that the quest to realize that vision will be challenging, fraught with obstacles. As I put it in an earlier piece:

Vision, process and strategy can become a mutually reinforcing pathway of democratic development. An inclusive vision brings the promise of dignity to center stage;  an inclusive process is one that systematically affirms that dignity; and an inclusive strategy  offers ample opportunity for the practice of ‘active citizenship’ for engagement among equals. In its essence, what democracy offers – and authoritarian alternatives do not – is an invitation to citizens to work to shape their own lives and to participate peacefully in the shaping of their societies, according to their distinctive visions of freedom and justice.  This journey is a challenging one – with much democratic ‘messiness’, and corresponding disappointment along the way. But no matter how challenging the journey, once the invitation to engage has been embraced, the personal dignity it offers cannot be taken away. This invitation, not empty guarantees of success,  is at the core of the democratic vision — its inspiration, its source of sustainability.”

All for learning – addressing South Africa’s education crisis

brianlevyEduPart3-1600x991“Madness”, Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “is doing the same thing again and again, and expecting a different result”. This is a not-unreasonable description of the discourse of how to improve South Africa’s education system (and systems in many other countries, too). Study after study gets conducted; many show, in one carefully controlled setting or another, how  this-or-that intervention demonstrably improves learning outcomes. Then comes the inevitable corollary proposal: “Fix the bureaucracy – and have it scale up the ‘this-or-that’ intervention – and the learning crisis will be over”.

Change doesn’t happen that way. As the 2018 World Development Report Learning to Realize Education’s Promise highlights brilliantly, the above approach confuses the proximate and underlying causes of poor learning outcomes. Of course the proximate causes matter – but they can only be addressed if the underlying governance conditions are at least ‘good enough’. As I explore in a three-part policy-oriented series written for South Africa’s Daily Maverick, ‘fixing the bureaucracy’ is not a prescription for addressing governance weakness; it, too, confuses, proximate and underlying cause. What is called for is a more far-reaching effort to evoke agency across a broad range of stakeholders – both at school-level, and more broadly. Here are links to each of the three articles in the series:  #1: What’s a good bureaucracy worth: the case of the Western Cape;  #2: Schools can work – even when bureaucracies don’t;  #3: It takes active citizenry to get good schools. 

For all of the neglect in South Africa of participatory approaches  along the lines of those highlighted in the articles, such approaches have deep roots in South Africa’s liberation struggle, and are echoed in 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.”

Addressing  the challenges of South Africa’s education system  requires more than a technocratic and managerial fix. What is called for is  a  re-framing of the reigning idea of how development happens – engaging with perceptions of interests, and reigning ideas,  in a way which brings to centre stage the opportunity and responsibility of citizens to take on an active role. [This is true not only for the education sector but more broadly, as I explore HERE and HERE, for a ‘new deal’ for South Africa, capable of moving beyond the current political political distemper towards a renewal of hope.]  A top-down vision of ‘education for all’ is insufficient. What now is called for is  ‘all for education’.

Anti-corruption – reaping the whirlwind, navigating the terrain

tornado_with_lightningCrusades can over-reach – and anti-corruption crusades are no exception. The news offers an ongoing flow of whiplash-inducing examples. Here are two:  the news of the near-landslide plurality (just short of an absolute majority) of votes won in  Brazil’s presidential election by  right-wing, anti-constitutional populist Jair Bolsonaro (with his campaign fueled, in part, by backlash in the wake of the country’s massive ‘car wash’ corruption scandal); and the news from South Africa of the resignation of the country’s  widely respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, who stood up bravely against former president Jacob Zuma when it really mattered (refusing, for example, to sign onto a likely ruinous nuclear power deal negotiated by Zuma with his friend Vladimir Putin) – but who it turned out had also cosied up some with the notorious Gupta family.

How can we navigate this fraught terrain?

For the past half-dozen years, subsequent to leaving the World Bank, (where I had spent some years as head of its GAC – an unlovely acronym for “governance and anti-corruption” – secretariat), I have been writing about the dilemmas posed by the fight against corruption. Here, distilled from these writings, are seven guideposts which I have found helpful:

1: Ask ‘why’ – and work to separate the necessary from the venal.  A 2015 piece,  “puzzling over anti-corruption”, explored the distinctions between personalized, discretionary behaviors which are part of the institutional logic of stability, and those which are a manifestation of greed run rampant.   In thinking this through,  I have been influenced by the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Douglass North.  In the piece linked above, I lay out the logic. I’ll surface the issue here with an anecdote:

A few years ago, I began asking colleagues within the development community how one might tell the difference between those political and bureaucratic leaders who were doing what was necessary to achieve developmental goals in settings where formal institutions were weak – and those who had crossed over to the ‘dark side’ of impunity and predation. It took many months before I finally came across a colleague who (based on his many years of experience in an African country which had experienced both types of leadership) provided a compelling answer.  “It’s easy”, he said. “In the former case, the informal rules of the game are clear, and the leaders play by them. In the latter, the rules are not clear – and, whatever, they might be, they do not apply to the leaders themselves”.

2: Call things by their true name. Not all acts of corruption are equal; there is a continuum.  At the far end of that continuum lie predatory kleptocracy and institutional breakdown. I explored this continuum in a piece published in The Conversation in mid-2017, as South Africa’s descent into state capture seemed to accelerate. As I put it in that piece:  “the tension between rule-boundedness and patronage is a game of inches, one which plays out incrementally over the medium term. But at the far end of the continuum lie predatory kleptocracy and institutional breakdown. If the forces currently struggling to protect South Africa’s imperfect, but functional institutions were to lose to predatory kleptocracy, then watch out below.”

(As another uncomfortably contemporary, and perhaps controversial example, I find unavoidable the question of where the United States currently finds itself in the continuum between disagreements over policies, law-breaking corruption, and state capture.)

3: Wield a scalpel, not an axe. There’s no shortage of corruption in Indonesia – yet, paradoxically (as I summarized in this piece), the country’s anti-corruption agency, the KPK, has a remarkable track-record of taking on powerful players.  A key source of its strength is its focus. It functions as a ‘tripwire’ against impunity. The number of cases it takes on each year are few, and carefully chosen. It discomfits the powerful. It enjoys widespread support across the country – indeed civil society support has been key to its resilience.

4: Evoke individual ethics. As I put it in the 2015 ‘puzzling’ piece:  “always and everywhere, behaving ethically is surely crucial to meet the most important test of all — the ‘look oneself in the mirror every morning’ test. The question for activists is not whether we should model ethical behavior — an obvious “yes” —  but what are the pros and cons of an anti-corruption ‘framing’”

5: Avoid sanctimonious ‘maximalism’ . This, as I explored in a piece on aid agencies and anti-corruption linked here, is the trap in which many aid agencies found themselves. For organizations such as the World Bank to have ‘zero tolerance’ against corruption by their staff is necessary. To turn this into a crusade against all corruption everywhere is to take on the impossible – and in the process to debase the meaning of words.

6: Lead with results and hope, rather than anger.  This, it seems to me is vital, if societies are to thrive rather than (as in our current moment of political distemper) descend into bitterness and recrimination. Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development makes a similar point in his evocatively-titled recent book, Results not receipts: counting the right things in aid and corruption.  As I argued a few years ago in a piece which appeared  in Foreign Policy: “Political and economic elites are rarely willing to give up their special privileges in settings where they enjoy enormous power. Practitioners could more usefully focus on achieving concrete results via ‘islands of effectiveness’  rather than on across-the-board overhauls – building coalitions with stakeholders, focusing on outcomes.” (See this link for  more on the analytical underpinnings of an ‘islands of effectiveness’ approach.)

7: Beware of crocodile tears. Over the years, I have become wary of the ulterior motives of crusaders whose crusades end up delegitimizing the public domain. Are those crusades genuine efforts to improve how things work, or is delegitimizing the public domain the point – crocodile, rather than real tears as they expose how things go wrong? (In this, as per here and here, I have been sensitized by the US political discourse of recent years.)

What’s a good education bureaucracy worth? The case of the Western Cape

What’s a good education bureaucracy worth? One common explanation for the poor performance of South Africa’s schools is that ‘it’s the bureaucracy’s fault’. Indeed, South Africa’s public bureaucracies get lots of things wrong. But as UCT research explored in depth, a narrow preoccupation with bureaucratic effectiveness may be directing attention away from some especially promising responses to the country’s current challenges – in education, and more broadly.  (This piece, the first of a three-part series,  originally appeared in South Africa’s online platform,  the Daily Maverick, on October 2nd, 2018.)

Take the example of the Western Cape Education Department (WCED), a major focus of the research. As education bureaucracies go, the WCED is strong. Evidence of its strength comes from a surprising source – the office of the Presidency, during the Jacob Zuma era. In 2012, the Presidency’s Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation undertook management performance assessment tests of public organisations and departments at both national and provincial-level. Of the nine provincial education departments, the WCED received far and away the highest rating; Gauteng, was second highest. The Eastern Cape (a focus of an earlier piece in the Daily Maverick and of Part II of this series) rated lowest.

The roots of the WCED’s organisational capabilities run deep. Unlike many provinces which were required to integrate dysfunctional and underfunded education systems from apartheid-era bantustans, the principal challenge in the Western Cape was to incorporate the better-funded and not-appallingly run bureaucracy which managed “coloured” schools under the authority of the “coloured” House of Representatives.

In the first 15 years of democracy, the WCED was diligent in implementing a variety of performance management initiatives – a Development Appraisal System, Whole School Evaluations, an Integrated Quality Management System – championed by the national-level department of education. And when the Democratic Alliance won electoral control of the province in 2009, it added a variety of initiatives of its own.

Indeed, the WCED does many things well. These include: managing financial resources; providing decent school infrastructure; assuring timely availability of textbooks and other inputs; assigning personnel to where they are needed; and monitoring performance. The centrepiece of its ‘war room’, a unit located in the head office of the department, is a sophisticated online platform, which includes:

  • an individual learner tracking system, which tracked the progress and performance of individual learners throughout their time within the WCED;

  • online School Improvement Plans for each of the 1,500 schools in the system. The SIPs incorporate in an integrated, streamlined fashion the results of the individual learner tracking exercises; the results of whole school evaluations; the results of assessments introduced by the WCED in the early 2000s; and academic performance plans for each school;

  • school-level budget and staffing planning and execution tools— monitoring for each school across the system whether and how budgets are being spent, and including tools for ordering and tracking supplies most notably textbooks; and

  • school improvement monitoring, undertaken quarterly, with a specific focus on under-performing schools.

Sadly, though, as the results of two sets of standardised tests reveal, when it comes to fostering learning, a well-oiled machine is not enough. The Western Cape was indeed the highest scorer among South Africa’s provinces in a 2007 assessment of Grade 6 mathematics capabilities conducted by the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ). However, its SACMEQ score was below both Mauritius and Kenya’s Central Region. This under-performance persisted even after taking into account a variety of other factors (including socio-economic circumstances, and teacher skills and experience). Strikingly, the Kenyan system achieved its superior results (for reasons I explored here) with only one-fourth the level of resources per learner.

In the global standardised Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessments, as of 2003 the Western Cape (with an average score of 414) was, again, the best performer among South Africa’s provinces (the overall South African average was 285 points). However, over the subsequent twelve years the Western Cape score declined modestly – even as the overall South African average rose to 368 points. A key reason for the Western Cape’s decline was, to be sure, an influx of learners from the much poorer Eastern Cape region of the country. But Gauteng also had to absorb a major influx, and its score rose throughout the period, to reach 408 points in 2015.

The finding that having a decent bureaucracy is not enough to fix schooling may come as a surprise to South Africans, but it turns out to be a common pattern worldwide.

The World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise suggests that one reason why so many countries become trapped in endless cycles of bureaucratic reforms which lead nowhere is a failure to distinguish between the “coherence” of reforms and whether or not they are aligned towards learning. “Process compliance” becomes an end in itself, rather than a means of supporting learning. The result, as Harvard University’s Lant Pritchett puts it, is a pattern of:

“… bureaucratic management in which the accountability of teachers and principals is basically for enrolments and the operation of ‘schooling’…. While there might be some vague reference to children actually acquiring needed competencies…. process compliance is, in and of itself and with no reference to outcomes, completely adequate for discharging accountability.”

What are the missing ingredients? As a variety of classic analyses of “street-level bureaucracies” (see hereherehere and here) have explored in depth, giving more authority to the service provision front-line potentially might improve performance through three governance-related channels:

  • A motivational channel — school-level flexibility provides an opportunity for internal leaders to motivate teams effectively, and nurture an environment of continuing learning.

  • An informational channel — creating scope to draw on local-level information, of a kind which is not observable by bureaucratic hierarchies, as to what happens inside schools.

  • An accountability channel – enabling local stakeholders to hold everyone in the school accountable for making their best effort.

To be sure, shifting responsibility to the school-level in ways which support learning can be challenging – but, as Part II of this series will explore in depth, it can make a large difference, including in low-income communities.

The experience of the WCED is thus something of a cautionary tale. Sustained efforts over many years have made for a well-functioning bureaucracy . But this turns out to be insufficient to bring sustained improvement in learning outcomes.

As Part III will lay out, rather than an endless pre-occupation with bureaucracies and with assigning blame, what can transform education is a shift away from narrowly top-down approaches towards a more inclusive, participatory vision which brings to centre stage the evocation of “agency” – of a renewed sense among multiple stakeholders at multiple levels that constructive action can make a difference. Or, as President Ramaphosa put it in his February 2018 State of the National address, what we need is a spirit of “thuma mina”, of “send me”.

Here’s a link to the original in the Daily Maverick:

Kenya – a SACMEQ outlier

kenya educ graph

Graph prepared by Luis Crouch for Chapter 2, “The transformation of South Africa’s System of Basic Education” in Brian Levy, Robert Cameron, Ursula Hoadley and Vinothan Naidoo (eds.) The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of Two South African Provinces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) – available, by agreement with OUP’s open access policy,  for free download via this link.