About twenty years ago, while working for BRAC in Bangladesh, I was accompanying some visitors to one of BRAC’s non-formal education schools in a village about two hours out of the capital city Dhaka. To my surprise, instead of the usual sight of a classroom full of children, we found that only about 10 out of the 30 enrolled had showed up. Upon enquiry the teacher pointed out what seemed obvious to her: it was December and many children were in the fields helping harvest the rice crop or doing household chores. To be honest I didn’t think much more of the issue at the time.
Agriculture and Rural Development
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…”
انقضى أسبوع تقريبا دون أن أسمع عبارة "لا يتعلق الأمر بالكيفية بل بالسبب." ففي مجال إصلاح دعم الطاقة في الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا، على سبيل المثال، لا يتركز النقاش على ما إذا كان ينبغي إصلاح الدعم (يتفق الجميع على ضرورة ذلك) بل على كيفية إجراء الإصلاح. وتثار نقاط مماثلة بشأن تنظيم ممارسة الأعمال أو التعليم أو الزراعة أو الصحة. واعترف بأني أنا نفسي كتبت أمورا مشابهة. ولا يوجد نقص في مثل هذه المقترحات على هذه المدونة.
فالإصلاحات مطلوبة لأنه توجد سياسات أو ترتيبات مؤسسية قائمة باتت معوقة. لكن قبل أن نقترح كيفية إصلاحها ينبغي أن نسأل لماذا وُجدت هذه السياسة من الأصل، ولماذا استمرت فترة طويلة، ولماذا لم يتم إصلاحها حتى اليوم. فهذه السياسات لم تأت مصادفة. ولم تستمر لأن شخصا ما نسي تغييرها. ولن يتم إصلاحها على الأرجح لمجرد أن أحد صانعي السياسات قرأ كتابا أو مقالا أو مدونة بعنوان "كيف تصلح..."
From time to time, countries experience rapid economic growth without a significant decline in poverty. India’s GDP growth rate accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s, but poverty continued to fall at the same pace as before, about one percentage point a year. Despite 6-7 percent GDP growth, Tanzania and Zambia saw only a mild decline in the poverty rate. In the first decade of the 21st century, Egypt’s GDP grew at 5-7 percent a year, but the proportion of people living on $5 a day—and therefore vulnerable to falling into poverty—stagnated at 85 percent.
In light of this evidence, the World Bank has set as its goals the elimination of extreme poverty and promotion of shared prosperity. While the focus on poverty and distribution as targets is appropriate, the public actions required to achieve these goals are not very different from those required to achieve rapid economic growth. This is not trickle-down economics. Nor does it negate the need for redistributive transfers. Rather, it is due to the fact that economic growth is typically constrained by policies and institutions that have been captured by the non-poor (sometimes called the rich), who have greater political power. Public actions that relax these constraints, therefore, will both accelerate growth and transfer rents from the rich to the poor.
Some examples illustrate the point.
As we enter the holiday season, it is worth reflecting on one of the most pernicious slow-moving crises of our time: the continued presence of hunger in a world of plenty. Ending hunger by 2030 and protecting the right of everyone to have access to sufficient, safe, affordable and nutritious food is one of the targets proposed for the post-2015 agenda by the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, and many others are also promoting the same message. Pope Francis is the latest entrant into this debate with his announcement of a global campaign of prayer and action to end to hunger and malnutrition, “One Human Family, Food For All”. The campaign includes encouragement for local, national or global level action against food waste and the promotion of food access and security worldwide. The Pope prompts us all to ask ourselves, what will it take to end hunger?
Economist and Nobel Prize laureate James M. Buchanan remarked to the Wall Street Journal in 1996 that "Just as no physicist would claim that "water runs uphill”, no self-respecting economist would claim that increases in the minimum wage increase employment." Of course this statement remains broadly true today, but the advent of better data, improved statistical techniques and the proliferation of country studies – have made economists far more careful about pre-judging the impact of minimum wages on employment and wages. Indeed, in a now famous study of fast food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, David Card and Alan Krueger showed how the imposition of a minimum wage had no significant disemployment effects, and in some cases increased employment, arising out of a large enough increase in demand for the firms’ products.
The evidence for South Africa, some twenty years after the demise of apartheid, is equally compelling. In a two-part study, my co-authors and I find an intriguing set of contrasting economic outcomes, from the imposition of a series of sectoral minimum wage laws. In South Africa, the minimum wage setting body, known as the Employment Conditions Commission (ECC), advises the Minister of Labour on appropriate and feasible minimum wages for different sectors or sub-sectors in the economy. Currently, the economy has in place 11 such sectoral minimum wage laws in sectors ranging from Agriculture and Domestic Work, to Retail and Private Security.
Some observers caution that the reforms proposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after the Third Plenary meeting of its Central Committee may fall short of promise because of resistance from vested interests or a lack of political will. My view is that it will bring about fundamental changes in China for one simple reason - politics. First, the CCP leadership fully understands that the party has lost the trust of the people because of rising corruption and cronyism, increasingly offensive income inequality, huge question marks over food safety, and worsening pollution. Second, they realize that the current economic model cannot sustainably deliver the economic progress that citizens expect in return for their allegiance to the CCP. The CCP leaders know that fundamental changes are needed to this economic model to regain the trust of the people. Since survival demands big changes, the leadership will pull out all the stops.
Absentee teachers, negligent doctors, high transport costs, missing fertilizers, and elite-captured industrial policy all stand in the way of poor people’s escaping poverty. While the proximate reason for these obstacles may be a lack of resources or an erroneous policy, the underlying reason is politics.- In many developing countries, teachers run the political campaigns of local politicians, in return for which they are given jobs from which they can be absent. The situation can be described as an equilibrium, where the candidate gets elected and re-elected, and teachers continue to be absent. The losers are the poor children who aren’t getting an education. The equilibrium has no intrinsic force for change, especially if, as in Uttar Pradesh, India, 17 percent of the legislature are teachers.
- High transport costs in Africa are due not to poor-quality roads (vehicle operating costs are comparable to those in France) but to high prices charged by trucking companies, who enjoy monopoly power thanks to regulations that prohibit entry into the trucking industry. High transport prices and monopoly trucking profits are an equilibrium. In one country, the President’s brother owns the trucking company, so prospects for deregulation there are grim.
- Several countries subsidize fertilizer, sometimes to the tune of several percentage points of GDP, only to find that it fails to reach poor farmers. Thinking that the problem is the public distribution system, some governments have tried to use the market to allocate fertilizer, by giving farmers vouchers that they can redeem with private sellers. A scheme in Tanzania found that 60 percent of the vouchers went to households of elected officials. When subsidies are captured to this extent by political elites, their reform will be resisted—another equilibrium.