With more jobs and competitiveness in mind, many economies worldwide have simplified their business start-up rules and regulations over recent years. Since the first Doing Business report was launched 15 years ago in 2003, a total of 626 national reforms that reduced the time and the costs of starting a business were recorded globally.
A recent paper from J-PAL (Education Technology: An Evidence-Based Review) finds that rigorous evidence about what works, and what doesn’t, in this area is decidedly mixed. While what works seems to be a result of many factors (what, where, when, by whom, for whom, why, how), what doesn’t work is pretty clear: simply buying lots of equipment and connecting lots of schools.
Many in the ‘edtech community’ feel that policymakers simply don’t understand that buying lots of equipment won’t actually change much (aside from its impact on the national treasury), and that if they did understand this, they’d do things differently.
In my experience, the reason that many places end up just buying lots of equipment, dumping it into schools and hoping for magic to happen (a widely acknowledged and long-standing ‘worst practice’ when it comes to technology use in education) isn’t necessarily that the people making related decisions are dumb or uninformed or corrupt (although of course those scenarios shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand in some places).
The summer is a time for relaxed chats in my Brixton office. This week it was with a seasoned NGO campaigner who’s been on a break and wondering about re-entry into the UK/global development and environment campaign scene at the research-y end. Where are the gaps and potential niches that a bright, reflective, experienced campaigner-turned-researcher could help to fill? Here’s a few that came up, inevitably influenced by How Change Happens and attendant reading.
Implementation Gaps: A lot of successful campaigning targets the gap between policy and practice – what the government or the law has said vs. what is happening in reality. It may not have the intellectual appeal of starting with a clean sheet and saying ‘if I ruled the world, I would do X’, but the chances of getting somewhere are much higher. So how about a guide to IGap campaigning – how to identify them, work out which ones are the most promising, case studies of success, questions to ask etc?
Positive Deviance: I’m getting increasingly obsessed with this as a huge potential addition to the development repertoire. Instead of jumping in and opening a project or campaign, start by looking for the positive outliers that already exist on any given issue. Go and study them, and then use social learning to spread the message. The outsider acts as a facilitator, not a ‘doer/intervenor’. But all the positive deviance examples I’ve seen refer to programming – tackling on-the-ground problems like child malnutrition in Vietnam. What would a PD-based campaign look like? Go out and identify existing positive outliers on tax evasion, respect for human rights, or smallholders in value chains, then build a campaign to scale them up?
Two decades ago, when I was working on utility sector reform we knew the answer. Here (using the example of electricity) is what it was: unbundle generation, transmission and distribution; introduce an independent regulator; rebalance prices; privatize. Two decades later, we have learned the stark limits of orchestrating reforms on the basis of ‘best practice’ blueprints such as these.
What would a more ‘with the grain’ approach to electricity sector reform look like? To explore this, I asked my Johns Hopkins SAIS and University of Cape Town students to review how a variety of country efforts unfolded in practice – focusing specifically on efforts to introduce private sector participation into electricity generation. Some striking patterns emerged. Here I contrast South Africa’s experience with those of Kenya, Peru and Lebanon. The former illustrates powerfully the hazards of ‘best practice’ reforms; the latter point to the promise of more incremental, cumulative, with the grain approaches.
In 1997, an official South African report signaled that in 2008 the lights would go out if there was no new investment in electricity generation; the report proposed that the country embark on a far-reaching effort to implement the ‘best practices’ template for electricity sector reform, constraining the dominant parastatal, ESKOM, and turning to the private sector for new investment in electricity generation. In 1998, the government adopted the report’s recommendations. In her richly-researched Masters dissertation (available on the link that follows), Nchimunya Hamukoma detailed what happened next.
Contestation over the agenda among competing factions within the ruling African National Congress and its allies interacted with a hugely-ambitious reform design — one for which almost none of the requisite political, institutional, economic and organizational capabilities were in place. The result was that after six futile years of trying, the effort at restructuring and private participation was abandoned, and ESKOM was given a green light to invest in new capacity. But the six lost years – the result of futilely pursuing an unachievable ‘best practice’ chimera – had an inevitable consequence. In 2008, as predicted, the lights went out.
Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In November 2015, the featured blog post is "If using ‘Theories of Change’ cannot transform the way you operate, why bother? " by Suvojit Chattopadhyay .
When I started work in international development in London in the late 1990s, a more experienced colleague gave me the following insight. At some point, she said, I would either catch the bug and stay in the field or I would not and leave it to go and do something else. And it is usually some agenda within the broad field that would get you hooked, she added. She was right. I caught the bug and stayed in the field, and the agenda that excited my passion was and remains governance: efforts to improve governance systems in developing countries in order to do real and permanent good. The reason was obvious. I had moved to London from Lagos, Nigeria, having participated actively in the public affairs of the country; and I had left thoroughly convinced that unless governance improved in Nigeria there was no way that the abundance in the country would lead to improved welfare for the vast majority of its citizens. That remains my conviction.
In those days working on governance issues was exciting; for, it was like joining an army on the march, one that appeared ready to sweep everything before it. There was definite intellectual energy in the field. Practitioners had poise and confidence. Initiatives were being dreamt up by different donor agencies. Funds were pouring into the field. And we began to see a new breed of development professional: the so-called ‘governance advisers’. But behind it all, I suppose, was a powerful zeitgeist: the Berlin Wall was down, communism was on the ropes, and liberal constitutional democracy appeared to have triumphed with resounding finality.
But now, in late 2015, it all feels very different globally. In the words of the B.B. King classic: ‘The thrill is gone’.
So-called ‘emerging markets’ might as well be styles of frocks and blouses in the world of haute couture; they are in and out of fashion with similar unpredictability. One moment a market is all the rage; the next moment it is in the pits of despond. It is an all too familiar if sorry tale. You know that an emerging market is in fashion via the global business press, especially when reporters, pundits, analysts as well as paid boosters and carnival barkers, all produce pieces on the market displaying breathless admiration: What a wonderful place to be this is! What astonishing prospects!
If the emerging market is particularly blessed it will feature in one of the fancy acronyms of the day: BRICS, MINTS, the Breakout Nations, etc. Investment bankers are proving fecund when it comes to dreaming up these meaningless acronyms (if they did not have such real-world consequences!). For once an emerging market is deemed ‘hot’, money flows into it. Investors and hustlers pile in. People who express doubt, urge caution or circumspection are drowned out by the frenzy of adoration and boosterism.
Eventually, inconvenient facts that are too significant to ignore begin to emerge regarding the much-fancied emerging market.
Just three months after the deadly Ebola Virus touched down in Nigeria, the country was pronounced “Ebola free” by the World Health Organization. In a country with a mobile population of more than 173 million, mixed progress in public health outcomes and challenges in government coordination and delivery, this is a remarkable case of delivery despite the odds, with international assistance playing an ‘arm’s length’ role and Nigerians taking the lead.
But it doesn’t always take a crisis to align the interests of politicians, institutions and the public like this. We recently attended the Overseas Development Institute’s ‘Driving change in challenging contexts’ event where participants presented several cases of how governments delivered despite the odds.