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”

 

Washington’s Metro — The Costs of Carelessness (WWG implementation series #4)

District of Columbia Fire and Emergency workers at the site of a rush-hour collision between two Metro transit trains in northeast Washington, D.C. Monday, June 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

District of Columbia Fire and Emergency workers at the site of a rush-hour collision between two Metro transit trains in northeast Washington, D.C. Monday, June 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

For those who are so disposed, finding instances of government dysfunction can be like shooting fish in a barrel. But the resulting back-and-forth cycle of blame, defensiveness and recrimination can be a dangerous distraction from the crucial task of  getting public agencies that play a central role in our daily lives to work better. Take the example of Washington’s Metro.

Each year, as part of my teaching at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I select a ‘live’ example of the challenge of public management. This year, Washington’s Metro seemed to be a good case to choose — barely a week has gone by without one or another crisis of Metro management making it into the headlines.

The Metro case demonstrates vividly the costs of carelessness in our discourse about government. (In a complementary blog post, I drill more deeply into how this ‘Great Gatsby’ government discourse works. ) But it also points to a possible way forward — how  a combination of public entrepreneurship and  active citizenship potentially can be leveraged to foster a sustainable turnaround of performance. (For additional detail on the recent Metro experience, here is a link to an article published in the Washingtonian, a few days after I taught the case at SAIS.)

In the beginning, Metro looked like a success story. It opened its doors to passengers in 1976; its 117 miles of track, over 215 million trips per year (and up-front $9.3 billion capital investment) made it the second largest system in the United States. Washingtonians came to expect a streamlined, comfortable, reliable, and aesthetically pleasing commute. In 1987 and again in 1997, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority won ‘Outstanding Achievement’ awards from the American Public Transportation Association.

But beneath this success something else was incubating.  By 2001, the key management tasks had become routine operational ones – but Metro’s long-time (1996-2006) general manager, Richard White, was not one to sweat the details. “He was a frequent visitor on Capitol Hill…He drove to work….He was part of the regional dialogue about highways and land use and everything else….[he] didn’t spend much time mingling with the rank and file”. The system began to decay. In 2006, the Metro board terminated his contract, three years early.

Then followed an accelerating downward spiral of deteriorating performance in the management of both financial and safety systems:

  • A 2008 internal audit report raised the red flag on poor controls. Richard Sarles (general manager from 2010 to end-2014) reported that “Metro had poor financial controls when he arrived in 2010 and that he had been working to improve them”. (WP 6/7/15).
  • In 2009, two trains collided, killing nine people, and injuring 80. “What you’re finding, when you look behind the curtain, is that there’s been a lot of neglect to safety priorities coming out of accidents,” said Kitty Higgins, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board to a Washington Post team investigating the accident. “It really is disheartening.”
  • A 2014 audit by the Federal Transit Administration reported extensive safety concerns, including: understaffing in the central Metro train control center (only 34 of 54 authorized positions were filled; those in position enjoyed massive overtime payments); shortages in keeping maintenance materials in stock (so, for three months, replacement brake pads were cannibalized from out-of-service trains); and the non-repair of tunnel ventilation systems (two fans in Metros deepest tunnel location were out of operation for more than six months awaiting repair). It also found “extensive grant-related mismanagement that had gone on for several years”.
  • In January 2015, passengers were left stranded for a half-hour as their train and tunnel filled with smoke, and Metro officials were paralyzed with indecision as to what to do, resulting in one death.
  • The track defect that caused an August 2015 derailment (no one was injured this time) had been identified as an urgent problem in a safety inspection a month earlier, but with no follow-up. Metro’s chief safety officer resigned a month later.

Underlying these performance shortfalls were weaknesses in governance. Four jurisdictions (the District of Columbia; the states of Maryland and Virginia; and the Federal government) plus multiple sub-jurisdictions all have oversight responsibility for Metro, and are allocated seats on the Metro board of directors. Governance by multiple principals is messy; but it mirrors the spatial geography of Washington’s capital city. However, the consequence has been that none of the jurisdictions has taken a broad strategic view of the organization’s challenge.

Board members focused disproportionately on narrower concerns that are of interest to their constituents: where bus stops would be located; operating and closing times; caps on fee increases in the face of revenue shortfalls. Financial oversight also has been shortsighted. In response to the 2014 audit findings of shortfalls in Metro’s financial management, the FTA imposed new layers of restrictions on Metro’s access to federal funds. Punishing a system in the midst of a downward spiral for its continuing shortfalls might offer some satisfaction for ideologically-inclined politicians – but it also is an almost certain recipe for accelerating the decline.

What, then, is to be done? In the short-to-medium-term there is room for optimism that things will turn around. The attention of the Board (and the areas’ politicians) is there. A new CEO has been appointed. The immediate task, though formidable, seems clear: rebuild confidence in the operation – and renew its mandate and finances.

But how to ensure that the cycle described above – rising confidence, de facto autonomy, and then a slide into dysfunction — doesn’t repeat itself? Key, I would argue, is to look again at how we think about the boundary between the spheres of bureaucracy, of politics, and of civil society. Our standard narrative is Weberian, and extols the virtues of an ‘insulated’ bureaucracy. However, as the experience of the latter 1990s onwards underscores, a lack of insulation from pressure for performance has hardly been Metro’s problem.

The past two years have seen a rise in public focus on Metro.  Coverage by Washington’s media has been forthright, detailed. Metro’s riders, too, have increasingly been on the case. A variety of activist groups of Metro riders have been formed. In October 2015 these came together to form the Washington Metro Riders Union. Viewed through the lens of bureaucratic insulation, journalism, social media and civic activism might seem to be noise in the system. But, as Daniel Carpenter has highlighted, high-performing American public sector organizations took root

“…. not at the expense of democratic participation but in a symbiotic relationship with it….….grounded in multiple networks through which agency entrepreneurs can build program coalitions around the policies they favor….. At their strongest, these ties cut across the established lines of class, partisanship and ideology…and enable officials to ground their agency’s reputation in a broader embedment in society.…. The [contemporary] challenge of American statebuilding may be to reengage state bureaucracies with the very civic organizations and social networks in which they once flourished.”

Robert Putnam makes a similar point in his classic 2000 book, Bowling Alone. “American democracy”, he argued:

 “….evolved historically in an environment unusually rich in social capital….. A politics without face-to-face socializing and organizing….would be heard as a muddle of disembodied voices….. Just as one cannot restart a heart with one’s remote control, one cannot jump-start citizenship without direct, face-to-face participation. Citizenship is not a spectator sport.”

Encouragingly, in his first day on the job, Metro’s newly appointed General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, went on a listening tour among stakeholders – including a commitment to meet with the Riders Union. Is it really too much to hope that in America’s capital city, a city where more words are spoken in praise of democracy than almost anywhere else on earth, public discourse need not be a toxic battleground – but that instead an activated media and citizenry could become an integral part of the fabric of active, effective governance?

 

Public sector governance — what we (choose to) see shapes what we get….

storm-rainbowDiscourses on public sector governance, in South Africa and elsewhere, illustrate powerfully the insight of behavioral psychologists that ‘framing’ matters. If our framing is inconsistent with the way things actually are, we are doomed to disappointment and unhappiness. But frame in a way that responds to reality, and opportunities abound for active, worthwhile engagement.

South Africa’s daily headlines and frustrations dispirit – from electricity blackouts, to corruption in the procurement of railway engines (including allegations that the engines purchased did not match the specifications of South Africa’s railway system); to reports that neglect of maintenance could lead to the collapse of water utilities in over half the country’s utilities; and that teaching jobs can be bought (including via threats of violence to ensure that a desired position becomes vacant).

As of 2014, only 34 percent of the country’s citizens reported that they had confidence in their government, down from 66 percent in 2007. While the country is hardly alone in its lurch into pessimism (on average, as of 2014, only 40 percent of citizens in countries the club of high-income democracies, the OECD, had trust in their governments), South Africa’s decline in confidence is among the most rapid anywhere. In a complementary blog post I explore how the country’s current extraordinarily sour, conflict-prone public discourse has its roots in economic and psychological deformations inherited from the apartheid era. This post focuses narrowly on public sector governance.

Notwithstanding the evident challenges, might pessimism about the performance of South Africa’s public sector be overdone? Without wishing away the challenges, might there be alternative ways of framing that point towards creative entry points for strengthening public sector performance?

To answer these questions, it is helpful to disentangle two arguments that often are conflated:

  • that a predatory political leadership can provoke a downward spiral into disaster; and
  • that good governance is necessary for development.

The first argument is straightforward — and, as recent dark prophecies emphasize, all too plausible for South Africa. (I will return to it at the end of this post.) But the broader ‘good governance’ argument does not withstand scrutiny — either empirically or conceptually.

Consider first South Africa’s empirical track record. Aggregate indicators indeed show that government effectiveness in South Africa rates well below high-income countries, with substantial decline between 1996 and 2014. Even so, as shown in the accompanying table of  South Africa’s comparative governance relative to other middle-income countries, as of 2014 South Africa’s government effectiveness rated at the high-end for relevant comparators — on a par with Mexico and Turkey, and well above Brazil and Thailand. In a recent paper for the DFID-funded and University of Manchester led Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) research programme, Alan Hirsch, Ingrid Woolard and I documented major gains between 1994 and 2010 in the provision of public services to the poorest 40 percent of the country’s population. And, to further confound the drumbeat of daily headlines, here are some recent examples of public sector effectiveness:

  • The successful procurement from independent power providers of well over 5,000MW of renewable (wind and solar) electricity generation capacity between 2011 and 2013, an investment of over US$15 billion, with very large declines in unit prices over four rounds of competitive bidding (e.g. for solar, from from $0.35c/kilowatt hour in the first round to under 8c/kwh in round four)   – transforming South Africa from a laggard to a leader globally.
  • The leveraging of the Expanded Public Works Programme  to create over one million work opportunities in 2014 (the equivalent of about 400,000 low-income jobs) and to integrate these into ongoing programmes of support for the social sectors (in Limpopo), for rehabilitation and maintenance of rural roads (in the Eastern Cape) and for environmental rehabilitation (via, for example, the internationally renowned Working for Water, Working on Fire, and Working for Wetlands programmes).
  • Ongoing gains in the outcomes of basic education in some provinces (e.g. the Free State), and persistent examples of high-performing public schools even in provinces (such as the Eastern Cape) where the broader environment for educational performance remains weak.
  • High-quality, proactive regional economic development strategies in both of South Africa’s two leading regional economic hubs – the Western Cape and Gauteng. And
  • A four-fold increase between 2009 and 2012 in the number of people receiving anti-retroviral therapy – with over 2 million people receiving life-saving anti-retroviral medications in 2012, delivered through a supply chain that reaches effectively into the most remote parts of the country, and alongside interventions that successfully have lowered rates of HIV-prevalence.

Why, given these results, is the tone of the discourse so unrelievedly negative? Part of the reason is that most South Africans (whether of the political left or right) implicitly conceive of the public sector in top-down, hierarchical terms. Good leaders get the policies right, and then direct the bureaucracy to deliver. Viewed through this lens, all is either won or lost at the top of the hierarchy – ‘a fish rots from the head down’ in the reigning metaphor.

More broadly, the ‘good governance’ paradigm implicitly frames public performance as ‘all’ or ‘nothing’, with little scope for shades of gray. However, as recent landmark contributions by Francis Fukuyama and Douglass North underscore, this pre-occupation with good governance is inconsistent both with the evidence of how results are achieved in many developing countries, and with the historical record of all contemporary high-income countries. (Note, though, that as I explore in an accompanying blog post it can, for some, have a paradoxical ideological function — a seeming embrace of ‘good governance’ can, for those on the political right, offer a marvelous opportunity for ‘crocodile tears’, for seeming to wish that government can do better, but then sorrowfully concluding that it cannot.)

Letting go of a narrowly, top-down framing of how the public sector works opens up space for identifying potential entry points for positive action that can help build a thriving, inclusive society. Developing democracies can indeed thrive – but, as a review of the track record over the past fifteen years underscores,  almost everywhere the process looks very different from a ‘best practice’ vision of how hierarchy is supposed to work .  Rather, in these messy settings results often come via ‘islands of effectiveness’.

Islands of effectiveness emerge when stakeholders take the initiative: from public entrepreneurs within government going to the limits of their formal mandates, and sometimes beyond, in their efforts to make a difference in peoples’ lives; from multistakeholder partnerships capable of trumping predatory pressures . (Working with the Grain explores these processes in depth.) As a landmark study shows, this combination of public entrepreneurship and multistakeholder partnership was key to the gradual, cumulative transformation of the patronage-driven American bureaucracy of the 1880s into (by the early 1920s) a more performance-driven organization. It also has underpinned many of the positive outcomes along the lines of the South African examples listed above.

There is, however, a crucial caveat. Predatory politics and islands of effectiveness can coexist for a while, but not over the long term. Robust coalitions can resist everyday predators, but they cannot indefinitely withstand all-pervasive predation emanating from the top of the political order. Combatting that kind of predation is, ultimately, the task of politics – of the choices political parties make as to their leaders, and of how citizens respond to those choices. It is a task for activists – but it is not the only task. Even in the midst of a messy politics, there is scope for supporting the emergence of initiatives that can make a difference in peoples lives, and for celebrating gains where they are made. Approaches that throw out the baby with the bathwater may or may not be sufficient to get rid of the bathwater – but they will almost surely kill the baby.

 

 

 

 

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.

Transformational fantasies, cumulative possibilities

reality check ahead

Dreams die hard. I was on the road for much of last fall, talking about my new book  – which promotes (as I put it in a recent piece in foreignpolicy.com),   the virtues of modesty in our approach to democratic development. While my message is a sober one,  my aim is not to foster pessimism but rather to highlight pragmatic ways forward.

Yet, repeatedly, I come up against critics who bewail my seeming lack of ambition. “Why”, they ask, “do you sell short the possibilities of transformation? Isn’t what we need bold, decisive, ethical leadership which cuts through the messiness of present predicaments?  Where governance is weak, bold leaders can and should make it strong – rapidly and systematically!”.

By now, there is plenty of scholarship that makes the case that changes in governance cannot be willed into being – but rather that ‘good governance’ is the cumulative consequence of a long, slow incremental process. Nobel-prize-winner Douglass North and colleagues have clarified conceptually how personalized bargains between contending elites can provide platforms for both stability and (perhaps) the slow evolution of formal rules of the game. Francis Fukuyama masterfully  documents,  over two volumes,  the deep historical roots of the rule of law, and of the difficult challenges posed by democratization in settings where state capabilities remain weak.

For many, though, conceptual and historical perspectives remain unpersuasive. “We need change”, they insist. “Therefore good leaders should provide it.”

One way or another damage is being done. If what I argue in Working with the Grain is wrong, then my incrementalist approach is giving comfort to mediocrity (and, sometimes, venality) when boldness and excellence are called for. But if the critics are wrong, then it is their seemingly visionary argumentation that is doing damage – holding up the impossible as a standard,  and thereby fuelling the inevitable disillusion and despair that comes in the wake of failure.

To try and cut through these contending arguments, I have turned to some facts. Subsequent to the exuberant phase of democratization of the early 1990s, many democracies (both new and more longstanding) have made major economic, social and political gains. But what has driven these gains?  Is it continuing governance transformation, driven by sustained, bold leadership? Or is it a more messier process —  ‘muddling through’, but nonetheless on balance successful?

One way to get a better sense of these achievements and their drivers is to review cross-country evidence. I focus here on progress across two dimensions – trends in economic performance and trends in institutional quality.  The attached file of MAJOR GOVERNANCE IMPROVERS, 1998 to 2013  summarizes the observed patterns for the full set of 65 countries that are on a democratic pathway, have populations in excess of 1 million, and whose per capita incomes as of 2000 were below $10,000.  The group divides more-or-less evenly between 35  countries for which the recent period has been one of continuing (albeit often uneven) economic progress, and 30  countries that have experienced limited, if any, gains on either the institutional or economic front.

In the companion post linked here, I explore the empirical detail.  But here is the headline conclusion:

  • European Union accession countries aside, only two countries – Georgia and Liberia – experienced continuing transformational gains in governance subsequent to their initial democratizing moment.

Only two countries…(!!!) ..…Georgia and Liberia…(!!!)…. Hardly a powerful platform for transformational claims!!!

Given these realities, surely we need to set aside our transformational fantasies and base our actions and advocacy not on our dreams and desires, but on the track record of what is feasible. But this need not mean setting our sights low. Over time, the cumulative consequences that follow from the accumulation of many seemingly small victories can be profound. But focusing on incremental gains calls for a different mindset than has prevailed in the recent past – it calls for us to set aside our infatuation with instant gratification and commit to sustained effort for the long haul. Development, including in its governance dimensions, is not a sprint, but a marathon.

Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency — a remarkable island of effectiveness

indonesia KPKIn countries where corruption is pervasive even at the highest levels of political and bureaucratic leadership, is it nonetheless possible to deter impunity? The dilemma, which I explored in a recent blog post, is that in many difficult governance environments the logic of power is centered around personalized deal-making.  A culture of deal-making can all too easily degenerate into extremes of impunity, with profoundly  corrosive effects on a country’s institutions – but where such deal-making has become central to the political culture stamping out corruption hardly seems plausible.   In such settings, might it nonetheless be possible to establish a credible tripwire capable of deterring the worst abuses?

A remarkable example from Indonesia, explored in  two  papers written this past fall by graduate students of mine at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, suggests that that given the right combination of circumstances and creative activism the answer can be ‘yes’.

Indonesia certainly fits the bill of a difficult governance environment. Estimates of the amount of wealth amassed by the family of President Suharto during his 33-year reign (from 1965 to 1998) range from $15 billion to $73 billion. In  2004, Transparency International named him the most corrupt leader of the previous twenty years. Though things have improved since then, over the past decade the Worldwide Governance Indicators consistently locate Indonesia in the bottom third of countries globally in control of corruption.

But, against that backdrop, (and with thanks to Jake Thomases for making available  his paper on Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency) consider the recent track record of Indonesia’s corruption-fighting agency, the  Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK). The legislation mandating the creation of the KPK was passed in 1999. The KPK began its work in 2003, after a four-year-long gestation.. Between 2003 and 2012, only 169 cases went to trial. The intensity of its efforts has increased over time — but even in 2013 only 81 cases were investigated. While superficially this track record might seem limited, the KPK has won increasing respect for its achievements, and admiration for its boldness. A 2008  poll showed that 82% of Indonesians thought of the KPK as the most trustworthy law enforcer. (The police and attorney general received 6% and 2% of the vote.)

The KPK  indeed appears to be a tripwire against impunity. The fish caught were ‘big’ Among those it successfully prosecuted and convicted between 2008 and 2013 were: 72 members of parliament; a close family member of the sitting president; senior officials of the ruling party; the chief of one of the state-owned oil companies; the religious affairs minister; the chief justice of the constitutional court; and (perhaps most popular of all among citizen tired of being harassed on an almost daily basis) the commander of the National police traffic division. Further, contrary to the experience of anti-corruption drives in other countries, there has been no sign of any systematic targeting of political enemies while turning a blind eye to friends.

How, in an environment rife with personalized influence-peddling and deal-making has this track-record been possible? A proximate explanation lies in some of the features of the KPK’s design, and early-stage implementation. These included:

  • Very broad investigative and prosecutorial powers that allowed the KPK to circumvent and overrule police and prosecutors. These powers included the right to tap phones without a court order, to impose travel bans, to freeze bank accounts, and to access financial records.
  • Very robust and transparent mechanisms for appointing KPK leadership and staff – with staff selected from within the regular police and prosecutorial offices, and appointed only subsequent to extensive background checks. (Of 34,000 annual job applicants, only about 150 pass the background checks.)
  • A very robust screening process before a case is brought to trial – but a requirement that once the KPK officially names a person as a suspect, it is required to reach the trial stage (a fail-safe arrangement to prevent prosecutors from dropping a case in exchange for a bribe).
  • A wholly independent anti-corruption court to hear the trial — comprising five panelists, including three ad hoc appointees, drawn from eminent lawyers, legal scholars or retired judges.

As Matt Andrews emphasizes (his book, The Limits of Institutional Reform, features the KPK as an example), from the early conception of the idea of the KPK into its implementation, the reform approach was consistently inceremental. “The aim”, Andrews suggests, “was to start activity, learn from it, and build toward larger interventions.”

A deeper explanation for the KPK’s success is to be found  in a happy combination of context and development entrepreneurship. As my SAIS student Chris Crow detailed in his  paper on Indonesia’s democratic transition, the Indonesian environment in the latter 1990s  offered a classic ‘window of opportunity’ for reform. (The law establishing the KPK was promulgated in 1999.) Suharto was forced from power in May, 1998. His handpicked successor, BJ Habibie, with virtually no independent power base of his own, tried to win legitimacy by turning to reformist segments of Indonesian society. Ryaas Rasyid, a young academic who had written his dissertation on democratic reform, was perfectly positioned for this moment. He had been appointed in the last years of Suharto’s rule to lead a task force of seven  political scientists to scope out a plan for political reform. In latter 1998, in an effort to strengthen his legitimacy, Habibie turned to this group to draft a new set of electoral laws. ‘Team 7’, in turn, capitalized on their newly-won status as successful refomers to advocate successfully for far-reaching decentralization of the political system.

Skillful leveraging of reform space  has consistently been central to Indonesia’s efforts to combat corruption, with momentum coming from a powerful network of allies in civil society. Indonesia Corruption Watch (established in 1998) and other activist groups played an important role in the initial push to establish the KPK. Its 1999 enabling legislation was drafted by a respected, reform-minded law professor, Romli Atmasasmita. Whenever the organization has been threatened, its allies have risen determinedly to its defense – including an episode in 2012 when in response to the KPK’s investigation of the police chief (and to quote Jake Thomases)  “the police threatened to raid KPK headquarters and arrest the investigator. Word spread on the street. By the time 300 armed offers showed up and surrounded the building, there were already scores of people blocking the entrances with their bodies. The police gave in and retreated.”

Among democracy advocates, at a difficult time globally, Indonesia is coming to be seen as a beacon of hope. Part of this sense of hope comes from the message sent by the KPK’s successes – that powerful leaders act with impunity at their peril. To be sure, the country falls far, far short of anyone’s depiction of “good governance”. But what stands out (and the KPK exemplifies) is the sustained, determined focus of reformers both inside government and in civil society on achievable objectives, rather than on rhetorical flourishes —  on a development strategy organized around what I describe in my recent book, Working with the Grain as “islands of effectiveness”.

“Hope”, I suggested in Working with the Grain, “can come in different intonations. There is the drumbeat of exhortation, of a world on the march to some more perfect destination on the horizon. But hope can also come in a quieter pitch: searching – encouraging deliberation, reflection, co-operation.” In its steady, incremental, cumulative progress, the KPK is an example of this latter kind of hope – as an important beacon pointing towards what is possible, even in difficult governance environments.

Doing development differently — the rebirth of ‘the science of muddling through’

doing development differentlyIt is a commonplace that the pendulum of economic development scholarship and practice swings back and forth from one set of (faddish) ideas to another.  But beneath this back-and-forth cycling is another, longer cycle —  the tension between a search for grand, seemingly scientifically-grounded solutions, and an approach to problem-solving which self-consciously is more pragmatic, incremental. In recent decades, this long-cycle pendulum has swung powerfully in the direction of  scientism. There are, though, some striking signs that it may be swinging back. As a next step in crafting a way forward, a rapidly growing group of eminent scholars and practitioners have signed on to a “Doing Development Differently” manifesto.  I explore this swinging pendulum, and make the link to some of the earlier  intellectual roots of the DDD movement, in a blog post on the Oxford University Press website. You can access the full post by clicking here. (…..but before you go, though, do go to my blog home page, and sign up to receive email updates of future blog posts……..)

The Chad-Cameroon Project — a glass partly full??? (WWG Implementation series #1)

chad cameroon pipelineI increasingly find myself wondering whether those of us who have tried to achieve development gains in difficult governance environments have framed our interventions in ways which almost ensure that they are judged as failures – and leave us (and the development community more broadly) feeling dispirited. But perhaps beneath the blanket judgment of ‘failure’, if one looked closely one might find valuable partial successes – which, if we were willing to embrace as such, could offer a sense of hope and possibility.  (Surely, in a complex, difficult world partial successes are worthwhile!). Take the example of the Chad-Cameroon Pipeline Project.

[An extract of the discussion of  the Chad Cameroon pipeline project in Working with the Grain is available in the “specific themes” section of this website. Click here for easy navigation to the detailed Chad-Cameroon discussion. ]

Many of us will remember the Chad-Cameroon project  as an enormously ambitious, and enormously controversial effort to support a very large investment in oil extraction, in a very weak institutional environment – and to do so in a way which ensured that Chad would realize the fiscal benefits, and leverage them to support poverty reduction.  But, with the  World Bank pulling out prematurely in 2007, we are likely to also think of it as a grandiose, expensive, hubristic failure.

Interestingly, though, when I teach the case to my students at Johns Hopkins SAIS students, this is not their conclusion. (The average student in SAIS’s International Development program is in his or her late 20s, has spent time in the developing world, and is committed to a career in international development; fewer than half are Americans.)  I explain the design and intent of the project, and detail what had been the impact as of 2010 (what I found on this came as something as a surprise to me…..).  I then ask them whether (i) knowing what the World Bank did at the time it was right to support the project? And (ii) knowing what was the project’s consequences, they nonetheless think it was worth supporting? Strikingly, the vast majority come out in favor of the project.

I am eager to hear from others who are familiar with the project whether you agree with my students, or think that they (and I) are being blindly overoptimistic. So do please post a comment – either here or on my blog site, where you will find further detail on the project and some of its consequences. (And while you’re at the blog site, I’d be thrilled if you signed up to receive the blog on a regular basis — on one of the links at the side or the bottom of this page.

Also, for a comprehensive  elaboration of the idea that we are unwilling to embrace as worthwhile outcomes where the glass is half-full, take a look at my new book — by exploring the other pages of this website, or purchasing the book itself (including a Kindle version, available at Amazon).

Development strategies — the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ controversy…….

Development practitioners bring very different lenses to our work. Some of us are pre-occupied with ‘best practices’ approaches (‘what’ should be done); others prefer to focus on the influence of political and institutional realities (‘why’ things work out the way they do); and yet others emphasize the importance of giving priority to getting the learning process right (‘how’ to engage). Two recent posts on the World Bank’s “Future Development” blog — one by Shanta Devarajan, and the other by me — are, I hope, useful in clarifying some of the inter-relationships between these approaches. Here are links to the two posts:

“Its not the how, it’s the why” by Shanta Devarajan

And here is my post in full (best read in conjunction with Shanta’s):

“Multiple pathways — How ‘why’ matters” by Brian Levy

For convenience, I am also copying the full text of my post below:

*****

Once upon a time, development seemed straightforward. Sound technical analysis identified what to do– and the rest followed. But experience has taught us that it is harder than that. As Shanta’s recent post signals, there are three competing camps – the ‘whats’, the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’. I wonder, though, whether in clarifying the differences, we might be missing the chance to learn across these different perspectives?

Certainly, the differences are large. At one end are the old-time-religion ‘whats’, who confidently prescribe ‘best practices’ to help countries stay on the right path – and who sometimes turn to the ‘whys’ to identify  the political and institutional blockages to good policies.  At the other end, the ‘hows’  argue that every country is unique, that the crucial knowledge for shaping and implementing policy is local, and tend to be dismissive of  efforts (especially by outsiders) to analyze political and institutional obstacles.

My new book, Working with the Grain tries to steer a middle ground.  The book explores a small number of alternative development pathways that are very different from  each other – with each characterized by a distinctive set of political and institutional incentives and constraints, and thus distinctive options for policymaking and implementation.

The first, more familiar, pathway is the ‘long route’ of the accountability triangle introduced in the 2004 World Development Report, which is organized into two links – ‘voice’ which links citizens to politicians, and thence to policymakers, and a ‘compact’ that links policymakers and service providers. Politicians and policymakers have to structure the ‘compact’ relationship so that it provides incentives for providers such as schoolteachers and doctors (their ‘agents’) to deliver services. In turn, citizens (as principals) need to exercise ‘voice’ over their agents (politicians and policymakers), through the ballot box and other means. Failures of ‘voice’ emerge as the underlying political constraint to achieving development results. So, as per Shanta’s post,  the key interventions are to strengthen voice. [Note, though, that the principal-agent pathway can also work if the principal is a developmentally-oriented authoritarian leader, as was the case in, say, South Korea from the early 1960s to mid-1980s.].

In many countries, however, the platform for a nested set of principal-agent relationships to function effectively is absent. And historical experience tells us that  it takes decades for a well-functioning long route to take root.  Instead, interactions are personalized, not anchored in rules that apply to all.  The discretionary conferral and  withdrawal of favors is the glue which holds things together. Sometimes the outcome  can be wholly predatory, driven by agreements to share the spoils among insiders. But at other times,  personalized relationships can provide just enough stability for economic development to move forward, and democratic institutions to strengthen.

This brings us to the contrasting, second way of understanding a country’s political and institutional patterns – through the lens of ‘collective action’ among principals (to use Nobel-prize-winner Elinor Ostrom’s term). In  contested governance settings, these can permit “islands of effectiveness” to thrive, even where the broader governance environment is difficult. For this to happen, two conditions must be met. The first is the familiar, ubiquitous challenge of facilitating cooperation among participants to achieve joint benefits, in a way that limits the classic free rider and other moral hazard problems. The second, explored in depth in Working with the Grain, is the ability to successfully trump predation.

All collective action initiatives have multiple interested stakeholders. Some are protagonists of the collective endeavor; others are predators who seek to capture for their own private purposes what the protagonists are seeking to build. As I explored jointly with Michael Walton in a 2013 paper, the dynamics between predator and protagonistthey can play out in the many layers between top-levels of policymaking and the service provision front-line where rule-setting processes are likely to be contested, trade-offs between competing goals left unresolved, and agreements subject to weaknesses in both monitoring and sanctions.

At each of the ‘intermediate’ levels where outcomes are indeterminate, there is the risk of public sector dysfunction – but also an opportunity for the emergence of an “island of effectiveness” organized around strong partnerships among developmentally-oriented stakeholders. Examples include: schools that produce remarkable results in unlikely settings; Kenya’s tea sector; and (in an historical example of striking relevance for contemporary nascent democracies) activist officials in the United States Forest Service and other public agencies who, during that country’s Progressive era of the 1880s-1920s, went beyond their formal mandates to forge coalitions with reformist allies outside government — and, in the process, helped foster a cumulative transformation of America’s public sector.

My intent in highlighting the relevance of principal-to-principal interactions is not to argue that the principal-agent perspective is wrong. In some country and sectoral settings, a principal-agent perspective can serve us well in clarifying the development pathway, and options for policy and institutional reform. But in others, we would do better to alter our angle of vision, and consider the pathway and reform constraints and options through a principal-to-principal lens. (And, sometimes, both lenses can be helpful.)

All of which brings us back to potential synergies between the ‘whys’, the ‘hows’, and the ‘whats’. A central  goal of Working with the Grain is to explore the relative effectiveness across different settings (the ‘why’) of different approaches to fostering change (that is, of alternative whats’). The aim is not to  prescribe some mechanical  formula, but rather to provide a guide for helping a  country identify which of a broad array of alternative interventions are most relevant as points of departure for subsequent learning – that is, for the exploration of ‘how’.