Some Thoughts on Shanta's Anniversary Blog
I have extracted what I find to be the key points in Shanta’s blog post “It’s not the How; It’s the Why” and have commented on them:
1. “Bad policies or institutions exist and persist because politically powerful people benefit from them.”
Bad policies or institutions are bad for those who are excluded from their benefits in the short-run, but they also harm the supposed beneficiaries in the long run. Further careful analysis can corroborate this, and show the long-term harm caused by bad policies to virtually everyone in a particular country.
Some Thoughts on Shanta's Anniversary Blog
Hardly a week goes by without my hearing the statement, “It’s not the What; it’s the How.” On the reform of energy subsidies in the Middle East and North Africa, for instance, the discussion is focused not on whether subsidies should be reformed (everyone agrees they should be), but on how the reform should be carried out. Similar points are made about business regulations, education, agriculture, or health. I confess to having written similar things myself. And there is no shortage of such proposals on this blog.
Reforms are needed because there is a policy or institutional arrangement in place that has become counterproductive. But before suggesting how to reform it, we should ask why that policy exists at all, why it has persisted for so long, and why it hasn’t been reformed until now. For these policies didn’t come about by accident. Nor have they remained because somebody forgot to change them. And they are unlikely to be reformed just because a policymaker happens to read a book, article or blog post entitled “How to reform…”
In 2005, I had the great fortune of being in Indonesia just as its major teacher reform effort was beginning to take off. Indonesia’s parliament had passed a comprehensive law on teachers, along with its ambitious agenda. Its signature program of certification intended to dramatically improve both teacher welfare and quality. Certified teachers would receive a doubling of salary, and certification was to require that teachers hold a four-year degree and demonstrate possession of competencies necessary to provide good quality education.
The key ingredients for major change seemed in place. Good legislation, and an effort led by a dynamic champion who headed a newly established directorate in the Education Ministry, with the specific mandate of improving the quality of teachers and of educational staff.
Ha, what would life be without contradictions? In every human grouping there are taboo subjects, matters deemed better left alone, words deemed better left unsaid, issues considered better suited to the deep freezers of life. The unspoken injunction is: Don’t go there; don’t touch it. Yet, there are those who think that a group functions better if a way can be found to air taboo subjects. There are also those who believe that true courage is a willingness to discuss the undiscussable, a readiness to take on all issues, no matter how sensitive the subject.
In the sense in which I first encountered the idea, an undiscussable arises as follows. There is often a difference between the values we claim and the values that our actual conduct affirms. You do it, I do it, we all do it. But it is easier to see it in others.
The announcement comes at a time when growth is slow, unemployment is high and the economy is still suffering from already ballooning subsidies -amounting to 9 percent of GDP- that have kept Egypt’s fiscal deficit at an exceptionally high 13.7 percent of GDP. At least seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa Region —including all those in transition after the Arab Spring (such as Egypt)--are trapped in a low-growth-poor-policy loop.
Shanta Devarajan, World Bank Chief Economist for the Middle East and North Africa region, discusses the latest issue of the Quarterly Economic Brief.
King James had it right early on. “All Treasurers, if they do good service to their masters, must be generally hated”, he remarked after he couldn’t protect his own treasurer Lionel Cranfield from being thrown into the Tower of London in chains. Cranfield had made too many powerful enemies by opposing an expensive war the treasury couldn’t afford. His many successors through the ages can probably relate without too much difficulty.
Business reforms can spur economic dynamism in the East African Community
East Africa is famous for its breathtaking landscapes and its unique concentration of wild animals. Could it also become as famous for its dynamic economic development?
In 2009 I came to Tanzania to work on tax harmonization in the East African Community (EAC). The Common Market Protocol was about to be signed and one of the biggest goals was to tap into the economic potential of the region by facilitating (cross-border) trade and improving the business climate. A year later, the five Partner States of the East African Community ratified the Common Market Protocol in order to realize “accelerated economic growth and development through the attainment of the free movement of goods, persons, labor, the rights of establishment and residence and the free movement of services and capital”. The overarching goal of the East African Community is to achieve sustainable economic growth in order to increase employment and reduce poverty.
Right to Information (RTI) laws can be a useful instrument for improving transparency – if the political will for implementation is sustained, and if the broader governance environment provides the enabling conditions for the exercise of the law. A research project that studied the implementation of RTI laws in a number of countries showed that implementation has been very uneven across countries. In some countries, RTI laws had been leveraged effectively for extracting information in a number of important areas, ranging from public expenditures, to performance and procurement, and exposing instances of corruption. In other countries, the existence of an RTI law had little impact in any of these areas, and oversight and capacity building mechanisms had either not been set up, or not functioned effectively.
The findings of the study are not surprising. The implementation gap between de jure and de facto reforms in countries faced with capacity constraints and political economy challenges is well-known. Yet, international agencies have pushed policy reforms without adequate attention to the constraints and challenges of implementation. The pressure to win support and legitimacy with international aid agencies has been an important driver of the adoption of RTI laws. The right has also been recognized in international human rights conventions, and more recently has gained increasing international attention (for instance, the existence of a law is one of the considerations for membership in the Open Government Partnership). Further, pressure from domestic constituencies has also propelled political actors to champion the law. But, once passed, capacity limitations, the erosion of political will, and active resistance have been important impediments to realizing the potential of RTI.
India has been a beacon to the world on how a thriving and vibrant democracy can transform itself into an economic powerhouse. The metamorphosis that took place in the Indian economy after the reforms of the early 1990s is nothing short of spectacular. The Indian economy was transformed into a dynamo of innovation and diversification. This fundamental transformation unlocked two decades of explosive growth in which poverty rates fell by nearly 20 percent, exports as a share of GDP increased nearly five-fold, and standards of living increased by a factor of almost four. This trajectory received but a glancing blow from the 2008 global financial crisis—this resilience was a testimonial to the benefits of the economic reforms of the previous 15 years.
Challenges to India’s Growth
But now, India’s economy once again faces formidable challenges and the fear is that it is considerably less well placed to deal with these challenges than at any time over the past two decades. The global economy is facing a new phase of the crisis characterized by an extreme bout of uncertainty, risk aversion and volatility, this time originating in the Euro Area. Some skeptics have recently questioned: Will India weather this storm as well as it did in 2008-09 and will the story of “Incredible India” remain credible?