Active citizenship when bureaucracies are weak – some school-level lessons from South Africa

Bureaucracies, we have learned, are embedded in politics. How, then, to strengthen public services in messy democracies? In settings where public hierarchies are weak, can participatory governance provide an alternative entry point? Recent results from a research project I have been leading on the politics and governance of basic education in South Africa suggest an intriguing answer. (The research is part of a  broader, global initiative sponsored by the University of Manchester-based Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) programme.)

South Africa’s Eastern Cape province provides an ideal setting for exploring these questions. As the ESID approach (laid out here) underscores,  two sets of variables that have a powerful influence on  bureaucracies  are: (i)  the inherited institutional legacy, and (ii) how elites interact with one another. On both counts, as the ESID working paper,  The governance of education in the Eastern Cape, by Zukiswa Kota, Monica Hendricks,  Eric Matambo and Vinothan Naidoo details, the Eastern Cape scores badly. The province’s bureaucracy is a patchwork, built largely around two patronage-riven structures inherited from the apartheid era. Electorally, the ANC was dominant – but in practice it comprised  an overall umbrella under which inter-elite conflict was endemic.

The combination of elite fragmentation and a personalized bureaucratic legacy left the Eastern Cape’s Department of Education (ECDoE) bedevilled by  divergent and competing regional interests, organisational cultures, and patronage ties. The national government tried to intervene, and for a few years it temporarily took over administration of the ECDoE. But this did not stem the crisis. Provincial politics proved too powerful. After a few years, intervention was scaled back, having had only limited impact on the crisis.

This brings us to the question of whether, in weak governance settings,  participatory governance could be an alternative entry point. The 1996 South African Schools Act delegates authority both to provinces and to school governing bodies (SGBs) in which the majority of positions are held by parents. In principle, this governance framework creates the potential for horizontal governance to serve as at least a partial institutional substitute for weaknesses in hierarchies. To explore this possibility,  in a second ESID working paper (School governance in a fragmented political and bureaucratic environment), Lawule Shumane and I explored in depth how governance played out over time  in four  schools in the Eastern Cape’s Butterworth district. In two of the four cases, participatory school-level governance turned out to provide a useful platform for pushing back against bureaucratic dysfunction.

In the first case, the school-level institutional culture was one where all stakeholders – teachers, the SGB, the extended community – felt included.  This inclusive culture provided a powerful platform for managing the recruitment of teachers (and, when the time came for leadership succession, of the school principal) in a way that assured a continuing commitment to the educational mission of the school. One interviewee illustrated how this participatory culture operated with the example of how new staff are inducted into the school’s organisational culture:

“The principal will call newly appointed staff to a meeting and introduce them to everyone. At this meeting the principal will welcome the new staff member to the team and inform them on school culture…. he will often say ‘Mr. or Ms. so and so, at this school we are a family and if we have problems we deal with them openly. If there is unrest, we will know it is you because it has never happened before’.”

The second case is more ambiguous.  The principal who set in motion the school’s long decline was appointed in the late 1980s, and remained in the post for over two decades. In the latter-1990s she purchased and moved to a home in a coastal town 100 kilometres away. From then on, using  one pretext or another, she was, for  much of the time an absentee principal. This continued for about a decade (!!!). The school went into a downward spiral, with the number of students falling from close to 1,000 in the early 1990s, to a low of 341 in 2011.

In 2009, frustration at the principal’s continuing absence finally boiled over. A group of parents and some SGB members met, and jointly reached the view that a new principal was needed. The ECDoE district office was not supportive. In response, the parent community blockaded the school, preventing the principal from entering. The district office kept her on as a displaced teacher, reporting to the district office, until her retirement in 2010. The SGB  subsequently selected as principal an internal candidate who had shown a commitment to try and make the school work during the grim period in its history. All, including the broader community,  worked together to try and turn things around.  Between 2011 and 2015  the number of pupils in the school rose  from 347 to 547.

To be sure, these intriguing cases do not imply that horizontal governance is a panacea in the face of bureaucratic dysfunction. Two of Levy-Shumane’s case study schools seemed trapped in a low-level equilibrium of capture, centred around the principal and teaching staff in the short term, with the collusion of the school governing body  and the broader community, reproduced via a captured process of principal selection – and with low morale, absenteeism by students and teachers and crumbling infrastructure the all-too-common consequences.  More broadly,  systematic analyses show that the impact of efforts the world over to strengthen participatory governance of schools  has been mixed.

But the Eastern Cape school-level case studies offer a key insight into why evaluations yield mixed results – and what might be a way to improve the outcomes. The key differentiator among the cases  is not  ‘capacity’.  Rather, the influence of horizontal governance on performance (for good or ill) depended on the relative influence of developmental and predatory stakeholders. Parents know whether teachers show up, and whether they bring honest effort to their work.  What matters for the efficacy of participatory, school-level governance is power.

This is where active citizenship can come in. The crucial task for initiatives aimed at strengthening horizontal governance is to help empower developmental actors within SGBs, parents and the broader community – helping to build networks that link SGBs with one another as a way of  sharing learning as to ‘good practices’, and potentially providing mutual support in the face of predatory pressures.

Support for school-level governance is no panacea. Children indeed gain when teachers improve their skills, and when schools are better resourced. However, trying to get these things by changing how bureaucracies work is, at best, a slow process. Bureaucracies are embedded in politics;  far-reaching improvements depend on very specific, and very difficult-to-achieve, political conditions.  But there also is abundant evidence that  a non-hierarchical entry point for improving educational outcomes has real potential to achieve gains – not always-and-everywhere, but in some schools, some of the time. Perhaps it is time to complement ongoing efforts to strengthen hierarchy with something different.

A somewhat different version of this piece appeared on the South African online Daily Maverick news and opinion website, under the title, “To help Eastern Cape schools, add a dose of active citizenship”

 

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Reframing democratic development — vision, strategy and process

no_easy_walk_to_freedom How,  in today’s complex and uncertain times, can those of us working at the interface between governance and development sustain  what the great twentieth century development economist, Albert Hirschman, called  “a bias for hope”?

In two recent blog posts (click HERE and HERE)  I took stock of the evidence as to the extent of governance improvement between 1998 and 2013 among 65 democratic countries (the large majority of which made their initial transition to democracy subsequent to 1990). The results left me feeling even more skeptical than when I wrote Working with the Grain as to the practical relevance of maximalist “good governance” agendas. We need an alternative approach.

To tease out an alternative, it is useful to begin with the classic three-part tripod for orchestrating change – clarifying the vision, developing a strategy for moving towards the realization of that vision,  and delineating step-by-step processes for facilitating implementation. Using this lens, the classic ‘good governance’ discourse turns out to be all vision, empty of strategic content, and counterproductive vis-à-vis process.

‘Good governance’ generally directs attention to the destination, to   how a well-functioning democratic society is supposed to work — and seeks to motivate by cultivating dissatisfaction with the gap between the destination and the way things are. Yes – electoral accountability, a strong rule of law, a capable public sector, robust control of corruption, and a ‘level playing field’ business environment are all desirable.  But the institutional underpinnings for many of these are demanding – and advocates generally stop short of laying out any practical program for getting from here to there. With no proactive agenda for action, the all-too-common result is to end up fuelling  disillusion and despair, rather than cultivating hope.

There is, though, an even deeper problem with maximalist advocacy: it sells democracy short. In its essence, what democracy offers – and authoritarian alternatives do not – is an invitation to citizens to work to shape their own lives and to participate peacefully in the shaping of their societies, according to their distinctive visions of freedom and justice.  This journey is a challenging one – with much democratic ‘messiness’, and corresponding disappointment along the way. But no matter how challenging the journey, once the invitation to engage has been embraced, the personal dignity it offers cannot be taken away. This invitation, not empty guarantees of success,  is at the core of the democratic vision — its inspiration, its source of sustainability.

This brings us to process —  the second pillar of the change tripod. In the later stages of his career, Albert Hirschman turned his attention from trying to understand strategies for economic development, to trying to understand  how we thought and spoke about them. His  purpose, he asserted, was: “…. to move public discourse beyond extreme, intransigent postures of either kind, with the hope that in the process….participants engage in meaningful discussion, ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of other arguments and new information..”

 The renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, points to why the quality of discourse matters greatly.  “Peace”, he suggested  “is every step:Freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves…. here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see…. (in) every breath we take, every step we take….. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.” Insofar as democracy is an affirmation of dignity, its promise is not accessible only when some distant destination is reached. Its potential is also here and now — realizable through a process that, in and of itself, is an affirmation of that dignity.

Dignity also is central  to the third leg of the tripod for the orchestration of change –a strategy for democratic development which has the affirmation of human dignity at its heart. As an alternative to what one might call ‘Big-G’ reforms of governance systems,   Working with the Grain (Oxford, 2014) lays out a ‘small-g governance’ strategy for deepening democracy among countries which have formally embraced democratic forms, but whose practices fall far, far short of a normative ideal. A ‘small-g’ strategy focuses on a search for concrete gains vis-à-vis specific problems – and emphasizes the pursuit of these gains through active citizenship, through participation and engagement among equals.

The immediate goal of a  ‘small-g’ strategy is to nurture “islands of effectiveness” — to identify entry points for focused engagement among a variety of stakeholders with high-powered incentives to see the outcomes achieved.  Working with the Grain explores in depth a variety of potential entry points:

  • Public entrepreneurs at multiple layers of government can foster ‘islands of effectiveness’ even within a broadly dysfunctional public service —   focusing on achievement of a very specific public purpose (better schools, better infrastructure, less stifling regulation), and endeavoring to build within their domain both a team with the skills and commitment to achieve that purpose, and the network of external alliances needed to fend off opposition.
  • Civil society groups can forge a middle path of engagement —   neither locking-in to confrontational action, nor surrendering principle in search of the next donor- or government-funded contract, but rather focusing on the quality of service provision, both partnering with providers and holding them accountable for how public resources are used.
  • Northern activists can seek eyes-wide-open partnerships with globalized firms – anchored in collectively designed and transparent, mutually monitored commitments to, say, rein in bribe-giving, or to target exploitative practices vis-à-vis environmental protection, labor standards, and the extraction of natural resources.
  • Scholars and practitioners can monitor governance in ways that encourage a long view – foreswearing overheated rhetoric in the face of year-to-year changes in indicators of corruption, the rule of law, or government effectiveness, and using monitoring to provide a platform for nurturing constructive dialogue on trends, identifying lagging areas, and exploring how they might be addressed.

Gains from any individual initiative might initially seem small, but individual islands can pull a wide variety of related activities in their wake, adding up over time into far-reaching economic , social and political change – while affirming, at each step along the way, the positive promise of democratic development.

Vision, process and strategy become a mutually reinforcing pathway of democratic development. The vision brings the promise of dignity to center stage;  the process is one that systematically affirms that dignity; and the ‘small-g’ strategy  offers ample opportunity for the practice of ‘active citizenship’ for engagement among equals. Taken together, these elements perhaps indeed offer a new basis for sustaining Albert Hirschman’s ‘bias for hope’ — but in a different intonation from that usually evoked by democracy’s advocates.

The usual intonation of democracy advocacy is a drumbeat of exhortation, of a world on the march to some more perfect destination on the horizon. But, as per Albert Hirschman and Thich Nhat Hanh, hope can also come in a quieter pitch: softer voices, calming rather than raising the temperature, searching, encouraging deliberation, reflection, co-operation.  Over the past two decades, democracy advocates have been sobered by the messy complexity of what it takes to get from here to there. Perhaps going forward, it is not in the drumbeat of exhortation but in hope’s softer, quieter intonations that we will find our inspiration – and our staying power.

Duncan Green on Working with the Grain

fp2p blogDuncan Green’s review of Working with the Grain on his widely read From Poverty to Power blog (CLICK HERE TO ACCESS THE REVIEW) usefully points towards the two very different goals I aimed to achieve in the book.

One goal was to write, anchored in my lived experience, an accessible tour d’horizon of the current, cutting edge of development thinking and practice — and how it got that way. A second goal was to provide an analytically robust conceptual framework as a foundation for moving that thinking forward — bringing together  a variety of theoretical contributions which rarely are considered in an integrated way. As anyone who has labored through the work of Mushtaq Khan, Douglass North, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson knows, this involves a lot of seemingly arcane terminology – but the payoff can be high.

I have tried to use the analytical concepts to help push the analytical foundation of development practice beyond the tired polarities of Bill Easterly’s best practice, technocrat ‘tyrant experts’ and his bold ‘searchers’, plunging, gloriously free, into the unknown. Rather, as the FP2P review highlights, I use the book’s conceptual platform to identify four distinctive country-types – each characterized by distinctive incentives and constraints to development policymaking and implementation. The aim is to give content to the idea of “good fit”, by exploring in depth how both reform priorities and effective approaches to implementation vary radically and systematically across the country-types — thereby directing attention away from off-the-shelf blueprints and hopefully laying out a practical, analytically grounded set of options that can help us engage constructively with the governance ambiguities of our early 21st century world.

South Africa — where democracy and inequality collide

khayelitsha-cape-townAre governance and inclusion mutually reinforcing  or  at odds with one another? An optimistic perspective suggests that over time, participatory and accountable governance institutions will move economic policy and performance in a more inclusive direction. A  pessimistic view is that no-holds-barred contestation for limited elite privileges and increasing discontent among an excluded majority  will result in the gradual, cumulative erosion of governance institutions. Nowhere is this tension between governance and inequality starker than in South Africa; I’ll be heading back there in less than two weeks. (I spend part of each year teaching and researching, based at the University of Cape Town). While there, I  expect to post a number of blogs on how this tension is playing out. Meanwhile, as a baseline for forthcoming pieces, the links below will take you to two blog posts which I wrote from South Africa a few years ago – and which remain strikingly current.

The first post frames the tension between democracy and inequality from a broad, comparative perspective – highlighting some striking parallels between the way in which Mexico’s Party for Institutionalized Revolution (the PRI) governed the country for close to 60 years, and some emerging trends in South Africa under the African National Congress which, since 1994, has consistently enjoyed a sweeping electoral mandate. In Mexico, patronage came to dominate. In South Africa, will patronage, populism or a happy combination of inclusion and economic dynamism win the day? For further discussion CLICK HERE TO ACCESS MY POST FROM A FEW YEARS AGO ON “WHEN DEMOCRACY AND INEQUALITY COLLIDE”.  (Note: the Gini coefficient of expenditure inequality quoted in the piece, i.e. after taxes and transfers,  is incorrect; the correct number for 2010 is 0.66, not 0.59.)

The second post highlights the centrality of basic education (and skills acquisition more broadly) to reducing inequality – and points to some of the large, continuing challenges South Africa confronts in this area. (I currently am co-leading  a major research project on the politics and governance of education in South Africa and other developing countries, supported by the University of Manchester’s, DFID-funded  Effective States and Inclusive Development  programme – so more posts to follow in this area.)  CLICK HERE TO ACCESS MY POST ON “EDUCATION AS LIBERATION”. More on both topics in the next few months……but before leaving this site, do sign up to subscribe to my blog…..