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:  https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-10-02-whats-a-good-education-bureaucracy-worth-the-case-of-the-western-cape/

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.

Process compliance versus the evocation of agency

hugh masakelaBureaucracies make convenient scapegoats when they get things wrong. But it turns out that they also can disappoint even when they do well those things which they are well-suited to do. The difference between having a well-oiled machine and achieving a sought-for development outcome emerges especially vividly through a comparison of South Africa’s Western Cape Education Department (the WCED) and Kenya’s educational system.

[A companion post uses a comparison between the WCED and the Eastern Cape Department of Education to explore how divergent provincial-level political, economic and institutional contexts affected performance of the two bureaucracies. 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.]

Kenya generally outperformed the Western Cape.  In 2007 assessments of Grade 6 mathematics capabilities conducted by the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ). The  Western Cape’s median score was 560 points (well above the South African median of 483 points); the score for the poorer 25th percentile was 496 points. Kenya’s median score nationwide was 557 points, with a score of 509 points at the 25th percentile. For Kenya’s Nairobi district (the best direct comparator with the Western Cape), the median score was 585, and the score at the 25th percentile 535 points.

Kenya achieved these superior results notwithstanding higher levels of poverty,  average per pupil expenditures which were one fifth of South Africa’s, a cadre of teachers who were no better trained, and (when compared with the Western Cape) a relatively messy bureaucracy.  Indeed, as the graph linked here (from chapter 2 in the book) shows, once socio-economic influences on educational outcomes are taken into account, as of 2007  Kenya  stood  out  as far and away the most over-achieving of the countries participating in SACMEQ.

Governance differences help account for these divergent learning outcomes. The WCED is a classic example of a bureaucracy pre-occupied with top-down management and process compliance. Kenya, by contrast, has numerous bureaucratic shortcomings – but (at least through to 2007) these were more than offset by an approach to education sector governance which gave priority, over many decades, to the evocation of agency. kenya educ graph

The WCED undertakes efficiently and effectively many important tasks expected of public education systems, including managing  financial re sources, providing decent school infrastructure,  assuring timely availability of textbooks and other inputs,  assigning personnel to where they are needed,  and tracking performance.  (Chapter 4 of the book provides details.)  Each of these are  activities where the production process is standardized, and monitorability of processes, outputs and outcomes is straightforward – precisely the types of tasks  which,   for reasons explored here and here, bureaucracies are well-positioned to do well.  Of course, the obverse can also apply: there exists a class of activities  where production is more heterogenous and monitorability is more difficult – and thus which inherently are more challenging for public bureaucracies.

In the best of all possible worlds, a public education system would be able to do all things well. The 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise,  highlights Finland and Shanghai, China as good examples.  However, as the WDR explores in depth, these examples are rarities. Far more common are education systems which are coherent around narrow conceptions of process compliance (or incoherent, or coherent in the provision of patronage)– but which are not well-aligned with those school-based tasks  for which much more responsiveness to hyper-level context is called for.

As a  variety of classic analyses of ‘street-level bureaucracies’ (see here, here, here and here) have explored in depth,  giving more authority to the service provision front-line  potentially can improve performance through three governance-related channels:

  • A motivational channel — with school-level flexibility  providing an opportunity for internal leaders to motivate teams effectively, and nurture an environment of continuing learning on the part of staff as well as students.
  • 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 developmentally-oriented local stakeholders (including professionally committed teaching staff) to hold school staff accountable for making their best effort. (This requires that developmentally-oriented stakeholders indeed have sufficient influence to be able to ‘trump’ predatory actors seeking to capture school-level resources for private purposes – an issue I explore in an earlier book.)

The limits of narrowly top-down approaches to improving learning outcomes become evident in the school-level case studies in chapters 8 and 9 of the book.  Take, for example,  two schools in the Western Cape which initially were good performers. In both,  top-down leadership by the principal was key to success, with consistent support from the WCED helpful in buttressing these principals’ authority. However, notwithstanding a formal governance framework which assigned significant authority to school governing bodies (SGBs) in which parents were the majority,  both principals left  little scope for participation by SGBs or by the broader community; school-level decision processes were hollowed out.  In both schools, when it came time for the successful principal to retire and a successor to be chosen, the seemingly formidable strengths of the WCED’s bureaucratic hierarchy ended up being trumped by machinations involving low-level bureaucrats, senior school-level staff, and parents more interested in capturing control of resources than improving educational outcomes.  Indeed, in both schools, within a few years after the departure of the ‘successful’ principal, performance collapsed.

In stark contrast to the Western Cape experience, here is how  Dr. Ben Piper, a seasoned educational specialist, and long-term resident in Nairobi, describes school-community dynamics in rural Kenya:

 “What one sees in rural Kenya is an expectation for kids to learn and be able to have basic skills….Exam results from a test conducted nationwide at the end of elementary school  are posted in every school and over time so that trends can be seen. Head teachers are held accountable for those results to the extent of being paraded around the community if they did well,  or literally banned from school and kicked out of the community if they did badly.”

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

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

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

It is perhaps necessary to state the obvious: I am not arguing that having a well-managed education bureaucracy is a bad thing. As the comparison of the Western and Eastern Cape in the companion piece shows, learning outcomes are better when a bureaucracy functions well than when it functions badly. But the Kenyan experience points to a further dimension – the role of the  ‘evocation of agency’,  of a sense among multiple stakeholders at all levels (including teachers, parents, communities, public officials) that their actions can make a difference.

To improve learning outcomes, and  taking inspiration from Kenya,  perhaps what now is called for now is  active citizenship –   not only a narrow preoccupation with bureaucratically-driven “education for all”, but an effort to mobilize society more broadly around an expansive vision, a vision  of “all for education”.  Surprisingly, notwithstanding the country’s penchant for top-down solutions, South Africa’s National Development Plan, released in 2012,  includes this rallying cry:

 “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.”

In his  February 2018 state of the nation speech, delivered within weeks of becoming South Africa’s President, drawing on the spirit of the NDP, and of a classic song by the late, great South African jazz trumpeter, Hugh Masakela, issued a call for Thuma Mina (“send  me”).  Indeed, perhaps in many countries struggling with a loss of trust,  active citizenship can be an important antidote to the political distemper of our times – not only in education but across a wide range of arenas for public and civic action.

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?