To what extent do politicians really keep bureaucrats focused on delivering public services? Politicians may distort the technical processes of the executive for political gain.
In our theatres of war, brought to us live on primetime television and on social media, we are presented with a rampant muscular ‘Right’ taking on an anti-national ‘Left’. But if you look closely, you will realise that the political and social conflicts that are being tagged as “Right vs Left” have almost nothing to do with the labels being used for them.
For instance, muscular nationalism today seems to belong to the ‘Right’, while all forms of dissent that makes the government see red denotes the ‘Left’, although this is not really the case if you consider Cold War-era communist regimes and their remnants. When it comes to society and culture, conservatives are ‘Right’ while progressives are the ‘Left. On matters relating to the economy though, free-marketers and innovators are on the ‘Right’, while those favouring state intervention are on the ‘Left’.
Essentially then, what we are witnessing around us is a pure play for power – power that extends into the lives of people. Researchers have studied ‘power’ extensively: Steven Lukes in his seminal work, Power: A Radical View, introduced us to a three-dimensional view of power: a continuum in ways one can exercise power, ranging from coercion to agenda-control to manipulation. Others, such as Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller, have termed the different forms Visible Power, Hidden Power and Invisible Power.
It has been building up for months… as events and data points have mounted. Now, in the global circles that I move in both physically and intellectually what people are experiencing can be summed up in one phrase and one phrase only: utter bewilderment. People are asking: What is happening to the world? Universities, schools, workplaces are organizing counselling and venting sessions. Families, particularly extended families, are being sundered by divisions over preferences in public affairs. The feeling persists that global affairs might have taken a dark turn, perhaps irretrievably. People look at the future with dread. They look at the global calendar of significant mass decisions and ask plaintively: Where is the next shock going to come from? Others, in utter despair, have given up all hope. They forecast a series of dominoes falling…and crashing.
In other words, we now have multitudes in the overmastering claws of angst. Existentialist philosophers describe angst as an unavoidable and ever present disquiet or dread or anxiety about life, the individual life. For, each human being on earth knows that tragedy is potentially just around every corner. There is so much about our lives that we cannot control and we know only too well that life can suddenly go awry. However, in this essay I use angst in a connected but slightly broader sense, as in the top definition of the word that Google offers: “a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.”
The question is: why are so many people angst-ridden? I would argue that we have to look beyond particular events since the condition has been created by a series of political developments and decisions around the world.
I saw some effective academic-NGO cooperation last week, and even better, it involved some of my LSE students.
The occasion was the launch of Beyond Integrity: Exploring the role of business in preserving civil society space, commissioned and published by the Charities Aid Foundation and written by Silky Agrawal, Brooks Reed and Riya Saxena, three of last year’s LSE Masters students. They researched and wrote the report as part of a student consultancy project, and CAF were so impressed that they decided to publish it. Result.
First the content: the authors went looking for cases where businesses had got involved in defending civil society from attacks by government, and identified four really interesting cases (see table). They interviewed a number of the players in each case.
They found some ‘key learnings’ (bit depressing to see them already adopting the barbarisms of aidspeak!):
- Firms in consumer-facing industries are responsive to large-scale social movements that raise awareness regarding human rights abuses;
- Privately owned companies with strong ethics and values tied into the core business model, led by engaged leaders, are likely to respond to civil society;
- At times, privately held dialogues between key stakeholders and host governments can be more effective at initiating positive action than a public challenge, as the respect and dignity of each stakeholder is maintained;
- Leveraging formal and informal cross-sectoral networks is instrumental in convincing corporations to act on behalf of civil society.
Suddenly, the tumultuous on-rush of clarity. As the technocrats and leaders who run the global economic system reflect on widespread angry reactions to globalization and rapid social change, a new language is permeating the discussion of economic issues. Top economic policy leaders are now saying that ‘inclusive growth” is crucial. They are saying globalization must “work for everyone”. We are hearing exhortations about paying attention to public opinion (that famously unruly and inconvenient beast!). According to Larry Summers, a notable commentator on these matters, (in a Financial Times piece titled: “Voters sour on traditional economic policy”):
People have lost confidence in both the competence of economic leaders and in their commitment to serve the wider public rather than the global elite.
A number of traditional economic leaders in the public and private sector seemed to be making their way through the traditional grief cycle – starting with denial, moving to rage, then to bargaining and ultimately to acceptance of the new realities.
Will anything change though? There is reason to be skeptical. For, at bottom, the issue is that the global technocracy insists on economic policy being the exclusive preserve of experts. So, once the experts do the numbers and they declare a trade agreement beneficial that should be the end of the matter. Or, once the experts decide that what appears to be a high level of immigration to the ordinary citizen is actually economically helpful they tell leaders to ignore public opinion and go for it. The point, naturally, is not that expert input into policymaking is not crucial. Of course it is. The point is: it is just an input. Wise leaders must add other considerations.
On 24th July 2016, Judith Tendler, former Professor at the Department of Urban studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, passed away. She was 77. A Ph.D holder from Columbia University, Judith Tendler spent several years at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) before a long career as a Professor in MIT. A significant share of Prof. Tendler’s work focused on the Americas, but she also studied South Asia and parts of Africa over her long career.
Prof Tendler’s book: ‘Good Government in the Tropics’ (1997) is one of the most influential books in the field of international development — an essential reading for students of governance and public policy studies. In the book, Prof Tendler and her research associates studied four cases of successful government in Ceara, a relatively poor state in north-eastern Brazil. In each of the cases, the government at different levels played an effective role, facilitating and brokering relationships, and submitting itself to mechanisms which could be used to hold themselves accountable. Those were rare, but rich, examples of ‘good government’.
These cases highlighting the achievements of ‘good governments’ challenged the dominant pessimistic thinking about governance in the so-called ‘third world’. Prof Tendler argued that much of the advice from international development agencies to developing countries was based on an analysis of poor performance of the public sector and governments. This resulted in a tendency to ‘import’ good practices from the successful developed countries, as well as a resistance to looking deeply into poor countries to identify variations in performance. In many ways Prof Tendler consistently challenged the pre-suppositions that development agencies and policy advisors nurtured and which, as a result, shaped the advice they dispensed into narrow straitjackets often unfit for the context in which they were to be applied.
I write about this now because I have just read an essay by Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development that restates the view with some sophistication. Please see: “Middle –Class Heroes: The Best Guarantee of Good Governance.” The essay is worth reading in full. I am going to focus only on her core case. Key quote:
Political communication consultants (in their modern incarnation, an American invention) have become global celebrities. Political leaders in particular listen to the major ones with rapt attention, and their books and diaries tumble unto bookshelves with regularity. An example is Dispatches from the War Room: in the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders by Stanley B. Greenberg. In the memoir, Greenberg, one of the most notable pollsters and campaign consultants of his generation, chronicles the campaigns he ran with Bill Clinton of the United States, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Tony Blair of Great Britain, Ehud Barak of Israel, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia, and many more. What is more, major documentaries and movies are being made about what these political communication consultants do. The most recent is Our Brand is Crisis (2015), starring Sandra Bullock and Bob Thornton.
Not only are these consultants getting to work all over the world and earn container- loads of cash, their methods are spreading. And the methods are also influencing what other campaigns do, including efforts by social movements and civil society organizations worldwide. The challenge is more or less the same: how do you get citizens to make a move (vote, protest against injustices, support a good cause/reform efforts etc.)?
A swelling chorus of the development community has been advocating for more flexible and adaptive programming that can respond to the twists and turns of political reform processes. They argue that in order to achieve better aid outcomes, we need to do development differently. As part of this agenda, ODI and The Asia Foundation, with the assistance of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, tracked and analysed three programmes in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Mongolia. These programmes explicitly sought to work politically in practice, using a relatively small amount of money, a relatively short timeframe, and a focus on tangible changes. We followed attempts to achieve environmental compliance and increase exports in the leather sector in Bangladesh, and to improve solid waste management in Cambodia and Mongolia; issues identified for their potential to make important contributions (economic, health, environmental, etc.) to the wellbeing of citizens. Two of our case studies were released this month, telling the story of how the reforms unfolded and shifted strategy to better leverage the incentives of influential stakeholders, as well as the mechanics of how the Foundation supported adaptive ways of working.
How adaptation worked in practice
In each case, the programme teams (led by staff in the Foundation’s local office, and supported by a variety of contracted partners and a wider uncontracted reform network reaching both inside and outside of government) made significant changes to strategy during the implementation phase that helped to address difficult, multidimensional problems. In Cambodia, the team faced a complex and often opaque challenge in which waste collection is characterized by a single company with a long-term confidential contract that is difficult to monitor, a fee structure that does not encourage improved household waste collection, garbage collectors whose conditions do not incentivize performance, and communities that are difficult to access and do not always understand the importance of sanitary waste disposal. With a small Foundation team and limited funding, the approach relied on working with individuals selected as much for personal connections, disposition, and political know-how in working politically and flexibly, as for technical knowledge. The team began by cultivating relations between City Hall and the single contractor providing solid waste management services, then moved to work with the sole provider to improve their delivery, and finally, resolved to end the single contractor model in favour of competition.