'Strong leaders do not just "read" opportunities; they make them – by moulding public opinion, bringing new blood with new ideas and initiative into government, reaching beyond safe and traditional constituencies to build coalitions in support of change and by taking political and managerial risks that broaden the possibility of change.'
Taxation is zipping up the development agenda, but the discussion is often focussed on international aspects such as tax havens or the Robin Hood Tax. Both very important, but arguably, even more important is what happens domestically – are developing country tax systems regressive or progressive? Are they raising enough cash to fund state services? Are they efficient and free of corruption? This absolutely magisterial overview of the state of tax systems in Africa comes from Mick Moore (right), who runs the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD). It was first published by the Africa Research Institute.
Anglophone countries have led the way in reforming tax administration in Africa, considerably more so than their francophone peers. The reasons for this are numerous. Networks of international tax specialists are based mainly in English-speaking countries. Many of the modern systems that promote best practice within tax authorities were developed in anglophone countries, especially Australia. International donors, and particularly the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), have directly and indirectly promoted a lot of reform of national tax authorities. In fact, this has been one of the success stories of British aid.
A package of reforms has been pursued in anglophone Africa. The most profound change is the amalgamation of revenue collection under a single agency, often referred to as a semi-autonomous revenue authority (SARA). Previously, it was common for tax collection to be dispersed among a number of departments within the Ministry of Finance. For example, different people would be in charge of collecting income tax, VAT and excise taxes. Multiple lines of tax collectors existed, usually not co-operating with one another and each trying to strike private deals with taxpayers. This structure – and practice – still occurs in much of francophone Africa.
Happily, improving the lot of fragile states (no matter how they are defined) is an item that keeps racing up the agenda of international development. Sadly, however, when there is so much to repair to be done it is not always clear where to start. Donors bring their own priorities; experts have their own preferences. A new policy brief published by BBC Media Action, the international development arm of the BBC that focuses on improving media systems in developing countries, makes the case for fixing broken media systems in fragile states. Entitled Fragile States: the role of media and communication, the report is the work of James Deane, a well-known expert in the field. The report can be downloaded here.
I believe that the work is an important contribution to the policy debate. In what follows, I offer a quick sense of the argument.
It’s smart, well-written and provides a deeper intellectual foundation for much of the most interesting thinking going on in the aid business right now. Ben Ramalingam (right)’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos should rapidly become a standard fixture on any development reading list.
The book argues for a major overhaul of aid in recognition that the world is made up of numerous interlocking complex systems, far removed from the assumed linear world of cause → attributable effect that underpins a lot of aid programmes. That fits pretty perfectly with a lot of the stuff on governance, institutional reform etc from ODI, Matt Andrews, and Oxfam’s own work, all covered on this blog. But it adds to it in important ways.
- It deepens our understanding of complexity and systems thinking, drawing on a range of other disciplines
- Much of the current aid thinking about complexity is happening in work on governance and (to a lesser extent) advocacy. The book widens the scope to just about every corner of the aid business – management, humanitarian, health etc
- Its 25 great case studies will spark ideas in people’s heads about how they can apply the thinking in their own work
The argument is divided into three sections: a thorough critique of the current aid system; an introduction to complexity and systems thinking; and a final ‘so what’ section on the reform of aid.
Whether in the back of a 4×4 in Tanzania, or in seminar rooms in Oxfam house, I seem to spend an increasing amount of my time discussing theories of change. Oxfamers seem both intrigued and puzzled – what are they? What are they for? The answers aren’t simple and, as social scientists like to say, they are contested. But here’s what I currently think.
What is a theory of change? A way of working and thinking, and a set of questions. Aerobics for the imagination – not a form to fill in (and most definitely not logframes on steroids). Nor is it a typology or (a personal bête noire) an insanely complicated diagram that no-one coming after you can understand (see example, right). More here.
How does (or should) a good theory of change improve our work (or ‘add value’ as the marketing wannabes insist on saying)?
This guest post comes from Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, Oxfam Head of Research, (@rivefuentes)
No one expects the World Bank to be a simple organization. The intellectual and policy battles that occur inside the Bank are the stuff of wonk legends – I still remember the clashes around the poverty World Development Report in 2000/2001. This is not a criticism. One of the strengths of the World Bank is its dialectic nature – I observed that up close when I was part of the WDR on climate change a few years ago.
Kevin Watkins, the new director of the Overseas Development Institute, reminded me recently that in 1974 Hollis Chenery, then Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank, published a book titled “Redistribution with Growth: An Approach to Policy”. Kevin writes that the central idea of the book was “that the poor should capture a larger share of increments to growth than their current share. That idea has even more resonance today.”
The current battle inside the Bank seems to focus on the issue of skewed distribution of benefits of development and the problems this causes. On the one side there’s a resurgence of the argument that “growth is good for the poor” that argues there is no difference between “shared prosperity” and plain prosperity, as measured by economic growth; on the other hand, the Bank’s Chief Economist retorted that “[o]verall economic growth is important, but the poor should not have to wait until its benefits trickle down to them.”
"Whoever you are, or want to be, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you."
-- Marshall Berman (1940 - 2013) was an American philosopher and Marxist Humanist writer.
The last year or so has been a bit quiet in terms of big new books on development, but now they are piling up on my study floor (my usual filing system) – Angus Deaton, Deepak Nayyar, Ben Ramalingam, Nina Munk etc etc. I will review them as soon as I can (or arm-twist better qualified colleagues to do so).
But I thought I’d start off with a nice short one. Governance for Development in Africa: Solving Collective Action Problems, by David Booth and Diana Cammack, provides a very readable 140 page summary of the ODI’s Africa Power and Politics Programme, bits of which I have previously discussed on this blog. 140 pages is wonderful – you can read it in a morning and feel a glow of satisfaction for the rest of the day. Think there’s a lesson for me somewhere there…..
The book moves from theory to the APPP’s in-depth national fieldwork in Rwanda, Mali, Niger and Uganda and back again, coming to some uncomfortable conclusions.
The book’s underlying conceptual message is that trying to understand (and reform) African politics on the basis of ‘principal-agent’ thinking has been a disaster. Instead, it is much better to think in terms of ‘collective action problems’. The difference is that the first approach ‘assumes that there are principles that want goods to be provided but have difficulty in getting the agents to perform’.
Twaweza’s Varja Lipovsek, (Learning, Monitoring & Evaluation Manager) and Rakesh Rajani (Head), respond to this week’s
series of posts on their organization’s big rethink.
That Duncan Green dedicated three posts on Twaweza’s ‘strategic pivot’ may signal that our work and theory of change are in real trouble, but we prefer to take it as a sign that these issues are of interest to many people working on transparency, accountability and citizen-driven change. His posts follow a terrific two day evaluation meeting. Here are a few clarifications and takeaways.
Spiritual matters first. We very much believe that Twaweza’s soul remains intact: we want to contribute towards change in complex systems in East Africa, by promoting and enabling citizens to be active agents and shape their lives. Our experience over the past four years has made us question much of how we ‘do’ citizen agency, but we are not quite throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
For example, in our original approach we didn’t want to be prescriptive about citizen action; we wanted to expand choices and leave it up to people to decide, what we called an ‘open architecture’ approach to social change. Sounds good; problem is that it doesn’t work so well in practice and the evidence of successful change suggests a need for less openness and more focus. New evidence about the bandwidth that poor people have to make good decisions provides useful insights on what one can realistically expect people to do.
This is the last in a series of three posts on Twaweza, a fascinating NGO doing some pioneering work on accountability in East Africa, whose big navel gaze I attended last week. Post one covered Twaweza’s theory of change and initial evaluation results; yesterday I got onto the critique of its thinking and action to date. Today I’m digging deeper into some of the underlying issues.
Given its rethink, Twaweza is now contemplating a shift in direction – while keeping its focus on citizen agency, focus in on education (rather than try and cover education, health and water); reduce the number of partners; do more things on its own (eg research or education programming); expand successful areas such as policy and advocacy; do more experiments to uncover what works and help the organization ‘fail faster’ and so move on to new stuff.
Plenty of good ideas in there, but it also seems to me to mark an intellectual retreat from the initial commitment to finding new ways to achieve change in complex systems. I think there’s a strong case for digging deeper into complexity, rather than retreating from it. One suggestion that moves in the right direction is to set up a ‘positive deviance lab’, dedicated to detecting and then understanding examples of success in citizens’ action across East Africa.