Archive for the ‘Governance’ Category

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.

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Party connotations

What do you think of when you read or hear the phrase “ruling party”? Would you describe the Conservatives in Britain as the “ruling party”? Or the Socialists in France? What about Congress in India? (The situation in the USA is obviously complicated by the division of powers.)

The “ruling party” is one of those disarming phrases that is apparently neutral but comes loaded with additional implications. And yet, in my experience use of the term is not restricted to Western ‘cultural imperialists’, but is frequently used by local political observers.

I venture a conclusion: if contemporary commentary on a country regularly involves mention of the term “ruling party” then its democracy lacks a certain vigour.

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

When the threat of war may be good for us

So Jeffrey Sachs doesn’t entirely agree with Acemoglu and Robinson in their diagnosis as to Why Nations Fail.

“The authors incorrectly assume that authoritarian elites are necessarily hostile to economic progress. In fact, dictators have sometimes acted as agents of deep economic reforms, often because international threats forced their hands.”

Sachs goes on to give a few examples, none of which post-date the fall of the Berlin Wall and Fukuyama’s End of History, unless you count the Chinese miracle, but my understanding is that that has its roots earlier. With the exception of a couple of relatively small and particularly unstable bits of West and Central Africa, I doubt that many dictators today are that fearful that economic stagnation could lead to their defenestration at the hands of their neighbours’ armed forces. Which leads me to wonder, could the collective enforcement of world peace by the UN and various regional groupings (EU, ASEAN, AU etc) have a negative impact on economic development? (It also means that both Sachs and Acemoglu and Robinson could be right.) Put alternatively, has removing the threat of invasion removed one of those critical feedback loops that Owen Barder talks about when he describes development as an outcome of a complex system? (An argument I highly commend, check out the podcast too.)

What happened to the power in empowerment?

I’ve just been listening to the latest but one Development Drums podcast, in which Andrea Cornwall and Prue Clarke discuss with Owen Barder where now for the gender movement in development. At one point Andrea Cornwall queries what happened to the power empowerment, accurately critiquing much of what goes by the name of empowerment in development as being almost entirely emasculated of any real shifts of actual power.

Professor Cornwall suggests that the bureaucratic nature of Big Aid is the culprit, that bureaucracies have trouble grappling with such issues. It is certainly in the nature of big bureaucracies to hoard power, but I would be inclined to point the finger elsewhere. Towards the end of the podcast, the discussion veers closer to my diagnosis without ever quite coming out and saying it. As for me, j’accuse the locus of international aid that puts it firmly within the diplomatic sphere.

Back when aid began as a quasi expiation of post-colonial guilt, I imagine it made sense to empower the newly independent governing states just launched. Then in the 1970s and 80s when aid focused a lot on capital inputs, new roads, tractors and power stations to go with those shiny new industrial policies the state to state model would have still been the most appropriate. But in the 21st century, when much western aid focuses instead on softer concerns like governance and participation, and service delivery in sectors such as health and education which aim to boost human capacity, such a model seems utterly out-dated.

Alas, most bilateral aid agencies are either part of the donor country’s foreign ministry or clearly subsidiary to said ministry, whilst the multi-lateral agencies are all ultimately controlled by diplomats. Indeed, donor country governments often justify aid budgets to their electorates in terms of self-interest and improving relations with international partners, i.e. that some quid pro quo may at some point be asked for and given. The US appears only to be one of the most brazen in its demand that every donation be prominently stamped as a gift from the American people, with humanitarian philanthropy apparently a poor second in political motivations for international giving amongst most donor governments. When the act of giving – those high profile pledges of funds – gains far more attention than any actual outcomes of giving, is it any wonder that aid agencies struggle to deliver meaningful development?

Coming back to the challenge of empowerment, the problem, as I see it, is that as soon as you define aid as a government to government transfer, your capacity to achieve any significant transfers of power are almost negligible. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas, and the prestige of a presidential jet, alas, nearly always appears to be higher priority than the provision of clean drinking water to a developing country’s people.

I suppose there is an argument which says that all the official government aid is a bribe to provide cover to the funding given directly to civil society groups which otherwise are liable to get painted as nefarious agents of foreign powers or other euphemisms of the dictatorati. Working as I do in community conservation, I try to remember – as I lament all the money wasted through largely ineffectual official bilateral and multilateral projects in this sector – that without such colossal greasing of the wheels it is extremely unlikely our small NGO would have ever even got off the ground. But, if that is the case, it would be nice to see rather more honesty about the processes and what they are expected to achieve. Channel money for empowerment and governance initiatives primarily through NGOs and other civil society groups, accept that official state aid will be primarily be spent on salaries and physical assets, and seek to work with that flow rather than against it. Whatever you do, please do not ever pretend that sending some senior officials on the next foreign junket (aka international workshop on governance best practice) is even remotely empowering for anyone who actually needs empowering.

You never know, we might just succeed in empowering the empowerment movement …

Great African Leaders

220px-Nelson_Mandela-2008_(edit) Kofi_Annan_red

The two most respected statesmen in the world alive today? (Photos from Wikipedia.)

Tom Murphy recently posted some stats suggesting that many African leaders are impressively popular at home. (Or impressively worried about internal security agents to give less than 100% honest answers to opinion pollsters.) Meanwhile, over in the Guardian, Elsie Kanza was lauding African leadership and, importantly, African ownership of new agricultural development initiatives (though see here for a possible disconnect involving one of her cited examples). Such African boosterism may be justified amongst the prevailing negativity about the quality of leadership provided by many of the continent’s politicians. (As my parentheses imply, not always unjustified negativity; I’m more of a call-a-spade-a-spade kind a guy.)

But, whilst perusing the latest report on the Syrian crisis, it struck me as nonetheless a considerable feather in Africa’s cap that it is an African to whom the world has turned to try to mediate a solution to the brewing civil war. (Significantly in this case, a crisis outside Africa.)

Finally are there two more respected statesmen in the world today than Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan? Talk of an African renaissance (or even an African century) must be balanced with the thought that few African leaders alive today are conspicuously following their example. Nonetheless 100 years ago, Europe was preparing to launch itself into a catastrophic, wealth-destroying war. Sometimes the bar is not all that high, and a visionary leader at the right time, bequeathed with favourable economic conditions, can catalyse great change.

Trust (part 3)

Over the past two days I have blogged about the contrasting trust relationships we NGOs have with communities and donors, how important they are, and yet how frequently they fall short. Both, however, are wonders of mutual respect and cooperation compared to the relationship we have with government.

I think it is hard for anyone in my position to be openly and completely honest about their relationship with government. To be sure there are positive elements; there are genuinely good people in government – well-meaning and able – and we do reach out to each other. Some government policies, moreover, can be truly enlightened to the benefit of ordinary citizens, although regrettably implementation often falls somewhat short of ideal.

Sometimes government objections are reasonably founded, or based upon miscomprehensions which are readily appreciated and not unreasonably derived. However, it can be hard to spot those amongst the general tide of basic intransigence; the default attitude that they should impede your proposals unless given a reason not to, rather than the other way around. New ideas and new approaches are greeted with suspicion: this is not the way things are done around here!

Deciphering exactly what is meant when bureaucratic obstructions are raised can be difficult, and there is no doubt that subtle cultural and linguistic barriers can play a significant part; we need to remain watchful of when we may be the ones erring. However, if you are experienced (not just generally, but with the specific culture in which you are working) and working closely with local partners, then these problems should be minimised. Thereafter you are in a world of political shadow-boxing and doublespeak, in which few things are exactly what they mean, and your real task is to decipher the real issues, and what perverse incentives may lie behind the words chosen. Then you need to respond in kind, with a tip of the hat to the justification originally supplied by the official(s), but also addressing what you hope is the underlying cause. Liberal application of per diems can often work wonders!

But finally, many obstructions are raised because your project threatens a little off-the-books sinecure or maybe bigger vested interests. A few per diems will not solve this problem. So instead we have to resort to the same nonsense; allies are sought, reassurances are given, half promises made, attention is distracted with a big workshop which conveniently glosses over the proposed transfer of power from bureaucrats to ordinary people.

Little of this will be news to anyone who has spent much time in the aid industry, and it regrettably fits all kinds of derogatory stereotypes of life in the “third world”. But where is the trust in this relationship? Donors expect us to work in partnership with government, though, contradictorily, they also fund civil society groups to add dissenting voices to otherwise untrammelled government propaganda dressed up as participatory consultation exercises. I hate it when we find ourselves having to resort to sleight of hand and political trickery. Mostly we only use it on the littlest of things, for it is no way to handle strategically important issues; these need to be properly thrashed out.

The aid industry is founded upon noble ideals, but its practice can be anything but. Is the local MP the people’s popular representative or a venal kleptocrat? What do you do when the answer is both? We want the government to coordinate but may deliberately fail to give them all the information they need. We want the government to enforce its laws but get frustrated when they do so in perverse ways. Self-righteously proclaiming oneself the saviour of poor people and riding roughshod over officious objections in their name is no solution, but then neither is following the path of negligible impact which many government officials would prefer you take.

Having the trust of local government is a vital badge for most NGOs engaged in development work, and we wear it proudly. But sometimes I wonder if it stands for anything more than a few inane platitudes from the guest of honour at our last workshop. I cling to the belief that it does, and the good, comparatively trusting relationships we have with the genuinely concerned and committed government officials is the basis for something nobler. I just wish that belief were not swamped in a thicket of dissimulation, from which the precious virtue of trust seems to have been all but extinguished.

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