How context matters – a tale of two education bureaucracies

Employees are represented by wooden cubes. Business concept for

A common conceit among visionary politicians and ambitious technocrats  is that their actions are decisive in shaping what outcomes are, or are not, achieved – they are the heroes (or villains) of the saga. But attention must also be paid to the role of context:

  • How does political and institutional context influence the quality of public education bureaucracies?
  • What are the limits of top-down bureaucratic approaches to improving learning outcomes?
  • How can participatory approaches help improve learning outcomes – both as a complement to bureaucracy, and as a partial substitute in contexts where bureaucracy is weak?

This post explores these questions by contrasting the education bureaucracies of South Africa’s  Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces; a companion post contrasts the Western Cape and Kenya. [Both posts build on the findings of a new book, co-authored/edited with colleagues from the University of Cape Town,  The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of two South African Provinces,  published this month by Oxford University Press and available here, by agreement with OUP, for free download.]

The message of the two posts is paradoxical. Unsurprisingly,  the results confirm that having a good quality bureaucracy (which the Western Cape does) is an important asset. But, as the Eastern Cape experience underscores, context constrains the potential for strengthening bureaucracies. Further, it turns out that the ‘evocation of agency’ – of commitment of a wide variety of stakeholders to engage in ways which support learning –  can at least partially offset (and even, as the discussion of Kenya will show,  over-ride) bureaucratic weakness. Narrow pre-occupations with ‘fixing’ bureaucracies can distract attention from other, potentially more fruitful pathways towards improving learning outcomes.

Measured by both managerial quality and learning outcomes,the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) strongly outperforms its counterpart, the Eastern Cape Department of Education (ECDOE):

  • In 2012, South Africa’s national Presidency’s  Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation undertook Management  Performance Assessment Tests (MPATs) of public organizations and departments at both national and provincial-level. The MPATs used an assessment scale of Level 1 (lowest) to Level 4 (highest) for thirty-one key performance indicators.  Of the nine provincial education departments, the WCED received far and away the highest rating,  with 45 percent of all indicators rated at Level 4. The Eastern Cape rated lowest, with only 24 percent at Level 3 or above.
  • In a 2007 assessment of Grade 6 mathematics capabilities conducted by the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ), the Western Cape was the highest scorer among South Africa’s provinces with a median score was 566 points. The Eastern Cape’s score of 454 was the second lowest in the country. Econometric analysis of the SACMEQ results (in chapter 6 of the book) found that the performance differences remained robust even  after  a variety of  factors (including socio-economic circumstances,  teacher skills and experience, and parental participation at the school level) are controlled for.
  • South Africa participated in 2003, 2011 and 2015 in the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) global standardized assessment of 8th & 9th grade performance. In 2003 the Western Cape was  the best performer among South Africa’s provinces, scoring 410 points. (The overall South African average was 285 points.) However, over the subsequent twelve years the Western Cape score declined modestly, to 391 points in 2015 (the second best provincial score) – even as the overall South African average rose to 368 points. (The Eastern Cape’s TIMSS score rose from 250 in 2003 to 346 in 2015.)

“Success”, it sometimes is said “has many fathers, while failure is an orphan”.  By contrast, Marx’s dictum reminds us that people “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”  Indeed, the economic, social, political and institutional contexts of the two provinces are vastly different –  with large consequences for how their bureaucracies function.

The Western Cape emerges as an unusually propitious setting for bureaucratic functioning vis-à-vis  four well-known causal mechanisms which link context and bureaucratic quality.  The Eastern Cape context, by contrast,  poses a perfect storm of obstacles to the emergence developmentally-oriented bureaucratic capability.

  • Causal mechanism #1: social class influences the effectiveness of citizens’ demands on bureaucrats and politicians for decent public services – with middle class citizens generally better positioned than their low-income counterparts to exercise voice in response to poor quality services, and mismanagement and corruption more broadly.

The Western Cape is the more affluent province, with a per capita income about three times that of the Eastern Cape.  As of 2014, 70 percent of the Eastern Cape’s population was ‘chronically poor’ (with an additional 15 percent highly vulnerable to falling into poverty). In the Western Cape, by contrast, only 25 percent of the population is ‘chronically poor’ (and an additional 35 percent ‘vulnerable’. The ‘middle class’ and above accounts for 40 percent of the Western Cape population; the comparable share in the Eastern Cape is 15 percent.

  • Causal mechanism #2: citizens will be better positioned to exert demand-side pressure for decent public services in settings where elections are competitive than in those where politicians can take the support (or acquiescence) of citizens for granted, independent of how well they govern.

 Elections have been much more strongly contested in the Western Cape than in the Eastern Cape. Over the course of the first two decades of democracy, it has had seven different governing political parties and coalitions.  How a party governed while in power – whether it was perceived to use public resources well or for more narrowly personal and political purposes – mattered for its electoral prospects going forward. By contrast, in the Eastern Cape, the African National Congress has been electorally dominant. In 1994 it won 84 percent of the vote in the province; this percentage declined subsequently, but as of 2015 had not fallen below 70 percent.  As chapters 4, 5 and 7 of the book detail, the differences between the two provinces in electoral competitiveness are rooted in part in demography, and in part in history.

  • Causal mechanism #3: Whether politicians focus their efforts to win political support on patronage and clientelism or on commitments to provide quality public services depends on whether voters will find the latter credible – which in turn is influenced by inherited institutional legacies.

The Western Cape inherited a bureaucracy which could straightforwardly respond to the relatively strong effective demand of citizens for services. (See chapter 4 of the book, co-authored with Robert Cameron, for details.) During the apartheid era, alongside ‘white’ political and bureaucratic structures, the apartheid government had established a parallel ‘parliament’ and bureaucracy, the (‘coloured’) House of Representatives (HoR).   The ‘white’ civil service and the HoR bureaucracy together were responsible for the provision of services (including education services) to the large majority of the Western Cape population.  Both South Africa’s ‘white’ public service and the HoR bureaucracy were steeped in traditional public administration, albeit with an apartheid bent. In the decades since the dawn of democracy, the Western Cape has diligently implemented a variety of performance management initiatives – some homegrown, others devised at national level.

In the Eastern Cape, by contrast,  so-called ‘bantustans’ comprised the crucial institutional legacy from apartheid.  Two-thirds of the Eastern Cape’s total 2015 population of 6.9 million people reside in areas which formerly had been part of either the Transkei or Ciskei bantustans (both nominally independent, but recognised as such only by the apartheid South African government). The two bantustans had been organised along personalised, patronage lines.   As chapter 5 of the book details, these patronage patterns carried forward into the workings of the Eastern Cape province.

Weakness of the Eastern Cape bureaucracy at the outset of the democratic era meant that, even under the best of circumstances, persuading citizens that promises to provide decent services would be credible would be an uphill challenge. But the circumstances prevailing in the province were especially unpropitious.

  • Causal mechanism #4: The extent of intra-elite contestation within a governing party matters for the quality of service provision – high contestation weakens the party’s ability to govern the poliical-bureaucratic interface.

In the wake of the dissolution of the Transkei and Ciskei bantustans, a large majority of their political and bureaucratic elites (and also many ordinary citizens) joined the ANC – not out of conviction, but as members of convenience. Further, the (non-bantustan) Eastern Cape ANC was itself hardly an ideologically unified party.  The result was that the Eastern Cape ANC was less a disciplined, programmatically-oriented political organization than an overall umbrella beneath which inter-elite contestation was endemic with (as chapter 5 details) continual turnover of top provincial and bureaucratic leaders.  This continuing contestation afforded the ANC’s provincial leadership neither the authority nor the longer time horizon needed to translate electoral dominance into a commitment to better service provision.

The above  is not intended to imply that there is no scope for provincial-level leaders (both political and technocratic) to improve education bureaucracies. But it does imply that these individual efforts can be supported by (or confounded by) context:

  • In the Western Cape, the four causal mechanisms were mutually-reinforcing in a way which underpinned a high-level equilibrium of a capable bureaucracy. Political leaders could build on these strengths – or, conversely, create pressures for their corrosion – but over the short-to-medium-term their impact, for good or ill, has been on the margin.
  • In the Eastern Cape, by contrast, mutually-reinforcing causal mechanisms locked-in a low-level equilibrium. In such contexts, in the absence of far-reaching political change, technocratic tinkering to improve bureaucratic performance is unlikely to gain traction. Indeed, the province provides striking evidence for this last conclusion. In March 2011 national government intervened, and temporarily took over administration of the ECDoE. But this did not stem the crisis. Provincial politics trumped the efforts of national-level technocrats. After a few years, intervention was scaled back, having had only a limited impact.

Insofar as context sets the bounds of reform, the implications for improving learning outcomes in settings where  bureaucracy is weak  might seem bleak. But is bureaucracy destiny? Or might there be ways of achieving gains which are not dependent on prior improvements in bureaucratic capabilities? This brings us to Kenya – a focus of the next post in this series.

You can also follow me on Twitter @brianlevy387


On hope, inclusion and Hirschman’s tunnel effect

 540458614-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel-work-clothing-safety-suit-train-tunnelHope, 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.  While Hirschman was writing about the loss of hope and rise of authoritarianism that swept through Latin America from the late 1960s onward, his insights have extraordinary contemporary relevance.

In particular, his notion of a “tunnel effect” is a powerfully evocative way of  understanding how societies’ responses to inequality change over time by focusing on the interaction between economics and psychology —  how economic policy and practice interact with a society’s narratives about itself.  Here’s how he puts it:

“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….. This tolerance for inequality is like a credit that falls due at a certain date.  It is extended in the expectation that eventually the disparities will narrow again. If this does not occur, there is bound to be trouble and, perhaps, disaster.  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.”

The resonance of the above for our present moment is obvious. Superficially, its implications 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.

This search for silver linings is characteristic of Hirschman’s work.  He knew all-too-well the shock of witnessing how things can fall apart.  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. Remarkably, his response was to spend a lifetime seeking creative and hopeful ways out of history’s seeming dead-ends. His purpose, as he put it,  was 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”. 

Anger or hope, which is it to be?  How can a new sense of possibility be rekindled? In his sustained exploration of these questions, Albert Hirschman emerges as a prophet for our times. [See HERE for more detail on his thinking vis-a-vis inequality; and HERE for an application of his approach to the specific example of South Africa. ]




How politics and governance influence learning outcomes

book coverI am happy to announce the release of a new book, The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of two South African Provinces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, September 2018), co-authored/edited with colleagues from the University of Cape Town – and (by agreement with OUP)  available via this link for free download.  The book uses the approach to governance I laid out in Working with the Grain  (Oxford 2014) to better understand: (i) why  gains in access to schooling have not translated into gains in learning.  (ii) how context shapes the performance of public education bureaucracies; and (iii)  the potential and limits of participatory governance, both as a complement to bureaucracy, and as a substitute when bureaucracy is weak.  Click here for my summary take of the main findings and implications of the research.

The politics and governance of basic education – drilling into the details

four main ver2The view that ‘context matters’,  that development practice needs to move from ‘best practice’ to ‘good fit’, has become commonplace among development practitioners and scholars.  What are the practical implications of this general nostrum?

One way to address this question is to focus on a specific sector, and to explore how specific policy and institutional challenges within that sector play out across divergent locales. my new book (co-authored/edited with colleagues from the University of Cape Town),  The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of two South African Provinces,  published this month by Oxford University Press, and available here (by agreement with OUP) for free download – details the results of a multi-level, multi-disciplinary and multi-methodology analysis along these lines.  In this blog post (the first in a series), I lay out my personal take as to what are the major findings and implications of the research.

  • Finding #1: Both policymaking and implementation are shaped by political and institutional context.

At national level (as chapter 3 of the book details) political and institutional drivers account for the disconnect between South Africa’s bold aspirations to introduce performance management into the education system and the non-binding ‘isomorphic mimicry’-like system which eventually was put into place. At provincial level, chapters 4-7 detail some stark differences  between the Western and Eastern Cape educational bureaucracies in the quality of management — and the roots of these differences in the starkly divergent background political contexts of the two provinces.  Unsurprisingly,  a well-functioning bureaucracy emerges as a valuable asset: the Western Cape does well (but the Eastern Cape poorly) the core bureaucratic tasks of  managing resources,  assigning personnel to where they are most needed, monitoring and managing on the basis of performance. However:

  • Finding #2: A well-functioning bureaucracy does not provide a sufficient governance platform for achieving good educational outcomes.

A 2007  assessment of Grade 6 mathematics capabilities conducted by the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ) found that while the Western Cape was the highest scorer among South Africa’s provinces, it was outperformed by Kenya, which achieved its superior results with only one-fourth the level of resources per learner. Careful econometric analysis (in chapter 6 of the book) confirmed that these results were achieved  even after controlling for a variety of other influences (including socio-economic circumstances of learners, teacher skills and experience, and parental participation at the school level).

Case studies of four Western Cape schools (in chapter 8 of the book) reveal how,  for all of its strengths, the Western Cape Education Department has the classic bureaucratic limitation of a limited ability to ‘see’ at hyper-local levels – leaving (in the absence of support for school-level participatory approaches) the terrain vulnerable for capture by predatory local interests. Kenya’s strength, by contrast, is in the ‘softer’ side of governance   – a shared  motivation among stakeholders throughout the system  to achieve good learning outcomes. Chapter 10 of the book (and an upcoming blog post) explore how this ‘softer side’ emerged in Kenya, and how it influences learning outcomes.

  • Finding #3: horizontal governance emerges as a partial institutional substitute for hierarchical weakness.

The Eastern Cape school-level case studies in chapter 9  detail how  pro-active engagement on the part of school governing bodies and parents helped sustain and  turn around performance in at least some schools.  This finding is supported by the econometric analysis in chapter 6  which shows a strong, significant positive effect on educational outcomes of  ‘parental contribution to building construction and maintenance’ (high in the Eastern Cape relative to the Western Cape). But participation is no panacea; the school-level case studies also uncover instances of  capture by predatory interests.

  • Finding #4: A shift from ‘schooling’ to ‘learning’ requires moving beyond a narrow pre-occupation with systems and processes to a more inclusive, participatory vision which brings to center stage the evocation of ‘agency’ – a renewed sense among multiple stakeholders at multiple levels that constructive action can make a difference.

As the 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, put it many education sectors are “stuck in low-learning traps in which each acts in ways which maintain the status quo – even if society, and many of these actors, would be better off if they could shift to a higher-quality equilibrium”. The Millennium Development Goal of ‘education for all’, of getting children into schools,  was one which aligned well with a top-down, process-compliance-oriented view of public service provision. But this approach is insufficient to achieve major gains in learning outcomes.  Key to ‘unsticking’ a complex system trapped in a low-level equilibrium is a transformative idea, one capable of reframing the  visions of the full gamut of stakeholders as to how they should engage.  What is called for is a vision of pro-active engagement – a vision, one might say, not simply of ‘education for all’, but of ‘all for education’.

Follow me on Twitter at @brianlevy387 including for additional posts in this series.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A thriving, inclusive South Africa – from vision to action

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



A thriving, inclusive South Africa – from vision to action

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

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

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

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

Ladders of opportunity

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

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

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

Providing the requisite  fiscal resources

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

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

Active citizenship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The figure below (prepared by Luis Crouch, co-author of chapter 2 of the new Oxford University Press book,  The Politics and Governance of Basic Education in South Africa (available HERE for free download)  contrasts trends in enrollments in pre-primary, primary, secondary and post-secondary education for South Africa and for a set of eleven middle-income comparator countries (including Brazil, Hungary, Mexico and Malaysia). As the figure shows, as of 2013, 78 percent of the  total population cohort of 3-24 year olds in the comparator countries was enrolled in some form of education – versus only 64 percent for the comparable cohort for South Africa. The South African shortfalls are two-fold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The ECD subsidy catch-22

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