A “meta” problem facing not only impact evaluation work but all development policy dialogue is perverse behavior in the public sector to not pursue evidence-based, technically sound policies. Politics and governance come between statistically significant research results and real impact in the world. We confront these problems in a policy research report that has been described as having transformational implications for the business of international development assistance. And we derive implications for a research agenda that involves atypical impact evaluations that would complement work on how to fix the pipes with work on how to fix the institutions that would fix the pipes.
Perhaps, as recent events have shown, no greater challenge confronts statesmen and women than this one: when should leaders yield to public opinion and when should they resist it or lead it?
In many democratic societies there is a presumption in favor of yielding to public opinion on the great public issues of the day. Proponents of direct democracy, for instance, argue essentially that leaders should always yield to public opinion. The assumption here, of course, is that you can always trust “the people”. In any case, it is argued, not to trust the people is to favor rule by unaccountable elites, the same people who almost always look after their own interests…and nothing else.
There are at least two problems with always trusting “the people”. The first is the problem of expertise or civic competence. Many public issues are complex and many sided, and you need to be able to wade through boatloads of often contradictory expert opinion. Your average citizen in a democracy, even while reasonably educated, is not likely to be terribly well-informed generally let alone be able to decide complex issues. Deliberative Polls try to solve the problem of expertise by (a) selecting a representative sample of the people (b) exposing them to a full range of expert opinions on the key public issue they will vote on (c) allow them to discuss the issue at length before (d) asking them to vote on the issue. These polls often produce fascinating opinion shifts.
The form of rule known as liberal constitutional democracy – the high achievement of the Enlightenment – is under attack almost everywhere these days by people claiming to represent that most fearsome of things: the voice of the people. This claim is made in a self-justificatory, there-is-no-arguing-with-that manner. All that opponents have to do is bow to the force, the power, and the majesty of, you guessed it, the voice of the people.
This is no ideological divide here. Populists on the right are making the claim as they push for the unchallenged sway of the genuine interests but also the grievances and prejudices of a portion of “the people” which they claim is “all the people”. Spot the slick rhetorical move. Populists on the left make the same claim as they agitate for the genuine interests but also the grievances and prejudices of another (but sometimes overlapping) portion of “the people” which they too claim is “all the people”. The same slick rhetorical move. What is left unsaid is a blunt claim: “The people I represent are the only ones that matter in this political community, and what they want takes priority over all else.”
There is a second rhetorical move that these populist leaders make, especially if, as often happens, they have acquired charismatic authority. It is the elegant dance from the “we” to the “I”. When these populist movements erupt the leaders say “we” a lot, but after a while they become the embodiment (or so they claim) of the “will of the people” and to oppose them is, they suggest, to oppose “the people”. The leaders of nationalist movements make this move easily. Once the “we” becomes the “I” these leaders become truly powerful and dangerous. If you oppose them they can unleash a mob on you, even if the mob is only online. And if they win power, to oppose them is treason. Mere criticism of the leader can land you in jail, and this is happening in some contexts as we speak.
I heard econ rock star Thomas Piketty speak for the first time last week – hugely enjoyable. The occasion was the annual conference of the LSE’s new International Inequalities Institute, with Piketty headlining. He was brilliant: original and funny, riffing off traditional France v Britain tensions, and reeling off memorable one liners: ‘meritocracy is a myth invented by winners’; ‘It’s difficult to be an honest country in today’s world. Britain used to be an honest country.’
He started with a mea culpa for the lack of attention in his best selling Capital in the 21stCentury to inequality in developing countries. The good news is that he is now putting that right, with research under way on inequality in South Africa, Brazil, the Middle East, India and China. He gave us a preview on the first three.
His overall conclusion? "Official measures vastly underestimate inequality". The most common reason for this is that inequality stats are drawn from household surveys, but samples of households typically miss the few megarich ones, and so underestimate the money at the top. He prefers to use tax and income data, which he has now got access to from governments because of his newfound fame. Even that data doesn’t tell the whole story, as it misses tax evasion, for example, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Over at the Center for Global Development, Charles Kenny wants comments on the draft of his book on Aid and Corruption (deadline end of May). Let’s hope this becomes standard practice – it worked brilliantly for me on How Change Happens – more varied voices can chip in good new ideas, spot mistakes or contradictions, and it all helps get a buzz going ahead of publication.
But let me take it one step further. As a contribution to the corruption summit, hosted by David Cameron on 12 May 2016, I thought I would summarize/review the book. Charles gave the green light, provided I stress the ‘preliminary, drafty, subject-to-revisiony nature of the text’. Done.
The summit is about a lot more than aid – for example the rich countries putting their houses in order on tax havens. Which is just as well, because the book poses some real challenges to the whole ‘anti-corruption’ narrative on aid. What’s more, it is erudite, engagingly written and upbeat – as you’d expect given Charles’ optimistic previous takes like Getting Better. He’s got a great eye for telling research and ‘man bites dog’ surprise findings. Example: ‘Taking a cross section of countries and comparing current income (2010) to corruption perceptions in 2002 and income in 2002, results suggests more corrupt countries in 2002 have higher incomes in 2010.’
His core argument is pretty striking – when it comes to aid and corruption, corruption does indeed matter, but the cure is often worse than the disease: ‘an important and justified focus on corruption as a barrier to development progress has led to policy and institutional change in donor agencies that is damaging the potential for aid to deliver development.’ Ouch.
New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.It is widely acknowledged that a basic precondition for inclusive, democratic societies to function is a well-established and protected freedom of the press. A free press is one where political reporting is strong and independent, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and media are not subject to burdensome legal or economic pressures. Under these conditions, free debate, challenges to authority, and new ideas are all possible.
Nevertheless, “there has been a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels,” in recent months according to the 2016 World Press Freedom Index. The World Press Freedom Index is an annual ranking and report on global media freedom around the world, produced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). RSF attributes much of the global decline to antagonistic politics, new security laws, increased government surveillance, and physical attacks on journalists that all stifle the spirit of investigation and send chilling messages to journalists and media outlets.
This map shows the countries where media are free to report the news and where the media is strictly controlled.
"The core of the revolt against global integration, though, is not ignorance. It is a sense, not wholly unwarranted, that it is a project carried out by elites for elites with little consideration for the interests of ordinary people — who see the globalisation agenda as being set by big companies playing off one country against another."
-Lawrence Summers, an American economist who currently serves as President Emeritus and Charles W. Eliot University Professor of Harvard University. He worked as Chief Economist at the World Bank from 1991 to 1993 before being appointed as Undersecretary for International Affairs of the United States Department of the Treasury. In 1999, he became Secretary of the Treasury, a position he held until 2001. Summers later joined the Obama administration, serving as Director of the White House United States National Economic Council for President Barack Obama from January 2009 until November 2010. In mid-2013, his name was floated as a potential successor to Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, though after receiving pushback, Obama nominated Federal Reserve Vice-Chairwoman Janet Yellen for the position.
Duncan Green’s blog hosted a post by LSE’s Jean-Paul Faguet titled: Is Decentralisation good for Development? Faguet has edited a book by the same name that you can find here. This is a subject very close to my heart, and I believe in decentralisation as a value, just as I believe in democracy. It is often a work in progress, but it is a project worth persisting with, an ideal worth pursuing. Faguet’s research (at least, my interpretation of his work) therefore, really speaks to me. In this post, he makes several interesting and compelling points. For instance:
On the advantage of competitive politics generated by decentralised systems:
Imagine you live in a centralized country, a hurricane is coming, and the government is inept. To whom can you turn? No one – you’re sunk. In a decentralized country, ineptitude in regional government implies nothing about the ability of local government. And even if both regional and local governments are inept, central government is independently constituted, probably run by a different party, and may be able to help. Indeed, the very fact of multiple government levels in a democracy generates a competitive dynamic in which candidates and parties use the far greater number of platforms to outdo each other by showing competence, and project themselves hierarchically upwards. In a centralized system, by contrast, there is only really one – very big – prize, and not much of a training ground on which to prepare.
Ooh good, another ‘lessons of history’ research piece. Check out the excellent new WaterAid report: Achieving total sanitation and hygiene coverage within a generation – lessons from East Asia.
The paper summarizes the findings of four country case studies: Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand, all of which produced ‘rapid and remarkable results in delivering total sanitation coverage in their formative stages as nation states’. I can certainly vouch for Singapore – I spent 3 years there as a child in the late 60s. Whenever the rains came, the main roads flooded, turning the city into an insanitary swamp. Not any longer.
The paper concludes: ‘Although their initial conditions were very different from those currently found in ‘fragile’ and ‘least-developed’ countries in Africa and South Asia, some useful conclusions can be used to inform discussions on development of strategic approaches to delivering sanitation for all: