Posts Tagged ‘dysfunctional institutions’

The joy and terror of total dysfunctionality

You have to marvel at the chutzpah of some government officials around here. Each day they commute into work only to spend most of their day seemingly reading the newspaper or out to lunch. Not such a bad gig if you can get it, even if the pay isn’t great! You can always top it up by demanding ‘express service fees’ to stamp the forms you’re supposed to stamp any way.

Except that presumably there must be a terrible nagging fear that, like a criminal trying to cover up his misdeeds, you will be eventually found out. Pity, then, the staff of the Ugandan National Seed Certification Service whom a World Bank evaluation adjudged to have a few shortcomings:

“The reality is that NSCS staff know that if the institution was granted autonomy, they would all be sacked.”

Ouch! But they need not worry too much, for, from my experience, should the donors ever prevail in persuading the Ugandan government to accept the prescription that the NSCS should be transformed into an independent body, the donors would feel morally obliged to support the newly autonomous parastatal by giving it a whole load a of (paid for) work even though they know its staff have not the necessary wherewithal.

Hat tip: to the marvellous new (and not the least bit boring!) Campaign for Boring Development. I just wish he would post a little less often, as I struggle to keep up.

Big man culture and the art of non-delegation

Big man culture is often used specifically to refer to the preponderance of men with strong dictatorial tendencies ruling many African countries*. However, like any proper cultural trait, its manifestation is not restricted to a single walk of life but is broadly preponderant, especially in many developing country government institutions.

Morten Jerven’s travails conducting his research into the failings of GDP calculation in African statistics departments (remarked upon in my previous post) struck a definite chord with me in that respect. Critics of his research have alleged that he did not seek the views of the statisticians themselves, including – critically from their perspective – the views of the department directors. Professor Jerven’s response will be familiar to too many people around here:

I had an invitation and introduction to all the offices I visited. … I wrote letters, emails and phoned all statistical offices in Sub-Saharan Africa repeatedly in order to verify information, request access and set up interviews. As anyone who has tried something similar can attest, the response rate is extremely low. For all the places I did go to I had a response, a contact and an invitation.

Upon arrival at all these places I went through the dissemination office to clarify my purpose and research. At all those offices I also requested an interview with Directors and senior management and in every case these requests were ignored.

Yes openness about one’s data and methods are hardly common amongst government staff around here, but we knew that already. What Professor Jerven alludes to, but does not elaborate, is how the institutional architecture in such organisations itself is set up to frustrate the inquirer.

In particular, the concentration of official power and responsibility in a single big man or woman at the top. This tends to be reflected in all official correspondence and notices, which are always issued in the name of the head honcho. Inquirers are instructed to address all correspondence to the same. Often the whole institution will have only a single official email address, with staff having to use personal addresses at the likes of Gmail or Yahoo just in order to work effectively. (Sending emails to the official address is often as about as useful as trying to signal to them in semaphore.)

Some of these problems can be mitigated where the Executive Director is a genuinely committed and energetic leader, but still it hardly makes for great dynamism. Where he or she is more concerned simply with protecting their own interests or personal fiefdom it can lead to almost complete paralysis. It can be so frustrating to have go right to the top to get the smallest thing addressed wherever it does not very clearly fall within an underling’s typically narrow job description.

All of this is tied up to a degree with the shallowness of the talent pool in the labour force (though where rent seeking is common, talent often fails to rise to the top any way), and sometimes one can feel a certain sympathy for senior officials. But too often I also just want to scream: “Lighten up a little!” (Pomposity in execution of their duties is regrettably common.) “Give a few of your many reins to some of your junior staff. If you never show any trust in them then you’ll never find out if you can trust them.”

Sadly, but unsurprisingly in what has coalesced into a social norm, is that such management structures and approaches are also often found in businesses and NGOs, although less rigidly in the best performers. Of course such social constructs are not immutable, and in time one would expect the big man culture to wane (just as it is slowly in the political sphere), but for the time being the art of non-delegation will continue to frustrate the Professor Jervens of this world, as well as those big men and women who wonder why they can get so little done.

* The term is a literal translation from various Bantu languages, hence the African association, although I think the practice itself is not particularly African.

Decentralisation Blues

The World Bank’s Shanta Devarajan reckons that there needs to be real political demand for capacity building to truly transform dysfunctional developing country institutions, and avoid the trap of isomorphic mimicry. He is surely correct in this assertion, but I fear the rose-tinted spectacles return when he advocates the benefits of decentralisation:

“One reason [for doubting local authorities capacity to manage financial resources] may be that no one has given local authorities the chance to deal with funds.  There may have been no demand for financial management at the local level because the central government has told you what to spend.  If you give them the chance to make the decisions, then they might actually build the capacity or hire that capacity because it’s something they can decide for themselves.

Moreover, if the local governments are accountable to the local population, they will have to build capacity really fast. They can no longer put the blame on central government if things don’t work well.”

To be fair to Devarajan he does qualify his enthusiasm with the requirement that local governments should be accountable to the local population. The trouble is that in the decentralisation that I have witnessed in least developed countries I have never seen much sign of that condition coming true, and certainly not any evidence of it leading to substantially increased capacity. Instead, where local official venality and low capacity are the rule rather than the exception, as is the case around here, such pushes as there are to improve service delivery come from above, although even here there’s a lot more political rhetoric than practical action. Decentralisation thus leads to temporary petty fiefdoms that can go largely unmolested so long as performance is not notably worse than elsewhere in the country (and sometimes even when it is).

This rose-tinted view of decentralisation is not restricted to ill-informed denizens of the embassy district and big donor agencies. I think we field operatives can sometimes be equally guilty in assuming that just because community leaders are that much closer to their constituents they will therefore be that much more responsive to their needs, or that bad leaders will get voted out of office. For even at the community level base party politics and local rivalries so often trump technocratic concerns of executive competence.

I would suggest that demand for good services is predicated on at least some idea of what they should look like and sense that they are properly due. By this I mean not just that a community should want the service, and be prepared to air their grievance to anyone who cares to come by and ask (very common around here), but that their sense of justice should be inflamed at the breach to the perceived social contract, and, as an aggrieved party, they are prepared to act seriously to obtain redress. Consuming many government services, e.g. sending one’s children to the local school, might be a largely passive undertaking, but service quality depends upon a community’s aptitude to pursue their due proactively, and in turn for the rest of society not to regard such direct action as disproportionate.

Some would translate all of that as the need for a large middle class, and trot out that old canard about democracy not being workable without one. I am prepared to be a bit more optimistic than that, but I think we should be cautious about expecting demand for service provision to drive improvements in local capacity. There will always be counter-examples, usually championed by exceptional local leaders, but countrywide I wouldn’t pin your hopes on anything other than slow progress, with plenty of steps back interspersed with the forward ones. Social change is slow and messy.

Hat Tip: Lee Crawfurd

Is development work a route to compassionate conservatism?

Excluding the missionary types most conservation and development workers I’ve met are about as far, politically speaking, as you can get from the neoconservative agenda of Bush junior. However, they all do start out with a substantial minimum quotient of compassion that differentiates them from the average denizen of Wall Street. What I think few of them expect is the degree of conservatism many will take on as a result of a field career in development.*

This came up in a conversation not so long ago with a good friend of mine here. We were discussing the various Occupy <insert-capitalist-symbol-of-choice> protests. My friend’s point was that while she sympathised with friends and acquaintances back home who supported – and may even have actively participated in – the protests, this sympathy was tempered by the fact that the 99% in America are way better than the 99% in this particular part of Africa.

However, it was not just this sense of perspective that lessened her sense of agitation, but also the experience of living and working in a country where the day to day management of government responsibilities is so often completely dysfunctional. In contrast you rapidly come to respect those businesses which can reliably deliver a consistent service at a competitive price; mobile phone companies being the best example. (This experience is may well be different in countries like Ethiopia which reportedly are getting their acts together quite impressively.)

Thus it is, in many developmental discussions across various sectors, that often we seek the involvement of the private sector and other non-governmental actors in preference to the government-centric approach which many officials take as a default. Even the public-private sector partnership beloved of developed country economists leaves us shuddering: how can such a thing work with a government notorious for not paying its bills on time? Similarly, Norman Tebbit’s injunction for young people to “get on their bike” and find some work is a message that many a time we wish we could deliver in its starkest terms to apparently apathetic aid-dependent communities.

I doubt this will translate into many additional votes for right wing parties all of a sudden – development workers (except for the missionaries) are definitely socially liberal – but it is an interesting case, perhaps, of the collision that many of us experience as we grow older between the high ideals of youth and pragmatism in a world consumed by self interest.

* The exception would presumably be all those development economists who dominate the development blogosphere, or at least those sections of it that I follow.

Why I’m a Millennium Villages sceptic

Last week Jeffrey Sachs set out a robust defence of his brainchild, the Millennium Villages Project, although, as Tom Murphy pointed out, it was somewhat low on detail. I’ve never knowingly been near a Millennium Village, but my own experience causes me to doubt the lasting legacy of the MVP, at least in countries with similar problems to where I work.

First the good news, Sachs took on some of this detractors by saying that the MVP was as much about developing systems to improve service delivery (and hence attainment of the Millennium Development Goals) rather than just,  per se, achieving the MDGs in the targeted villages. I’m a big fan of systems approaches, so this gets the thumbs up from me. Systems are definitely more easily replicable and scaled up than individual projects that focus simply on the needs of its target area.

Now for the bad news, systems are not automatically and by definition scalable. A system that works well at one level may not work well a wider scales due to unanticipated problems and bottlenecks. Ben Ramalingam recently blogged on exactly some of the new challenges that occur as one scales up. This doesn’t mean that the original system was designed badly, but simply that good systems management takes an iterative approach, making tweaks and improvements as we go along (what I term the KISI approach).

But that is not the biggest problem that I see. Even the best designed systems need to interact with things outside their control, in particular people; indeed I suspect that the MVP has people playing integral roles at every step in the way (i.e. that mostly what we’re talking about here is systems for organising human work). A system’s output is constrained by the quality of these interactions. In short, as any good businessman knows, you need competent and motivated staff to deliver a high quality of service. And that is where so much service delivery in developing countries falls down, with last mile service delivery particularly badly managed. Unfortunately short-term, local solutions to this are not scalable.

The problems are legion, and not all a result of poor education amongst the workforce. I know some excellent and (when you consider what they are up against) surprisingly motivated local civil servants. But the overall system drags everyone down. Sure you can tinker at the margins with systems to improve paper flow (mostly in local government around here, we’re talking about paper flow), but the elephant in the room is an unmotivated and unsackable workforce.

Of course this problem will apply at the MVP sites, but there you also have a massive aid effort with lots of expat technical advisers and a high level of political interest. I’ve noticed around here, normally sloth-like civil servants who won’t even sit in a meeting without a generous per diem rush around like lauded socialist workers striving manly (or womanly) in the name of their country when a bigwig is due to visit, working into the night and through weekends, all without any per diems.

Thus I fear all the achievements of the MVP will wash up against the great brick wall that is a change resistant bureaucracy. Once the high level of funding, all the expat TAs, and the high level political interest have withdrawn we’ll be back to business as usual, and the MVP will be neither sustainable in the selected pilot villages nor scalable. Maybe this will not apply everywhere, but I would wager a decent sum that it will happen here. The community contributions which Sachs highlights may also be much harder to be elicit when it’s just government staff doing the asking.

The MVP has a laudable goal, and even as an experiment, the idea of resolving various systemic problems in service delivery is a worthy one that definitely deserves some experimentation; marginal changes can lead to marginal improvements, and, as a by product, perhaps a marginal improvement in government staff morale. But if Sachs wants to take a systems approach to achieving the MDGs maybe he should have looked at HR management reform in developing country civil services. It’s a Herculean task to be sure, that, around here at least, the World Bank has been striving at vainly for some time. But until you resolve that problem I fear these sorts of big push attempts to transform service delivery and hence quality of life in developing countries will always be at least one more big push away from succeeding.

The Converse of Accountability

A few years ago a donor asked us (informally) whether we would be prepared to partner up with another local NGO that they were also considering supporting in order to reduce their transaction costs. (An illusory goal – in effect they were asking to pass their transaction costs on to us.) We wanted the donor’s money, so we said yes we’d be prepared to partner in that way, but due to political concerns and doubts about our proposed partner’s capacity, we said that we would not be held accountable for what the supposed partner did or did not do, or how they spent their money. The donor quickly realised the sense of what we were saying and dropped the idea.

Accountability is one of the major pillars of good governance, and a regular buzzword in development-speak. With responsibility comes accountability. But, as the above example shows, with accountability also needs to come responsibility. We rightly object to being held accountable for something we cannot control.

And yet in efforts to improve local governance in developing countries I fear this is exactly what we may be in danger of doing. Around here at least, service delivery over the last mile is often poor to abysmal, so pushing local officials into being accountable for the performance of their departments seems like a good idea. But department heads have remarkably little control over their juniors. They have minimal say over who is hired, and even corrupt officials are very rarely fired, just transferred to another province, to become somebody else’s problem. Patronage is also a problem; disciplining some local bigwig’s distant relative is always going to be a dicey proposition. So officials lapse into the inevitable semi-comatose apathy.

Civil society advocates for accountability should take note. So should donors. My suggested rule of thumb: never give money to someone who lacks professional authority over his/her own staff. Unfortunately that would rule out a lot of government to government aid.

Has economic reform stalled?

Last month I rambled on about the personally enriching experience of being toughened up by dealing with all the various challenges of living and running an organisation in a developing country. Good for personal development, bad for economic development, I reckoned.

Then aid thinker Ranil pops up with his observation that the life seems to have gone out of the development / aid debate recently, or at least that bit that is conducted in the blogosphere. (Probably the least relevant bit, but we bloggers can continue to day-dream upon our self-importance.) So here’s half an idea to stir things up a bit.

That is, around here, and in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa from what I gather, the economic reform agenda seems to have rather stalled. The structural adjustment programmes of the 1990s were certainly harsh, but they did precede a remarkable era of economic growth compared to what had come before. (Note I am careful here not to ascribe cause and effect; I don’t have the economic expertise, and presumably some elements, e.g. the commodities boom, would have happened any way.)

However, since then things seem to have rather stalled with government retrenching in the opposite sense of the word, i.e. hunkering down in their current ways with minimal reform at the margins. White elephant projects seem to be back in fashion (Wade’s statue of the African Renaissance, Mutharika’s inland port at Nsanje), though maybe they never went away? Meanwhile essential economic investments such as in power generation fail to materialise as the Mr 10%s of this world demand their cut. Government debt appears to be on the increase again (e.g. this).

Thus while businesses in a few boom sectors such as mining and telecommunications have mushroomed spectacularly, growth has been very uneven (maybe this is inevitable in early economic expansion?), and companies in other sectors continue to struggle with a business environment that is challenging to say the least. Government leaders appear to have little in the way of vision (other than jam for you all tomorrow while I eat jam today) and even less of a sensible road map as to how to get there. At a more technocratic level the emphasis appears to remain on form over substance.

I have never lived through structural adjustment myself (and it looks like I’ll be on another continent while the UK goes through its forthcoming mini adjustment), but the stories I hear are scary. No doubt that, with the benefit of hindsight, if we had to do it all again we might do at least a few things differently to try and ease the pain, although even there I suspect that the IMF might reasonably point out that it is up to host country governments to make decisions about how to distribute the pain and provide the right cushions; the IMF’s role is just to set the limit on their overdraft.

Can African governments micro-reform their way to economic transformation? Or is there no gain without pain? (Not that the two are mutually exclusive; micro-reform can still cause pain.) My guess is that memories of the upheavals of structural adjustment are still too raw for anyone to attempt something similar so soon again, even if it were a good idea. Might this, however, be condemning poorly governed countries in Africa to another 20 years of gradual stagnation before once again we have the courage to wield the knife?

I have the macro-economic skills of a sea anemone, so all of the above are just my observations. I await informed comments from those who actually have half a clue …


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