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Revisiting the "country-specific solution"

Ishac Diwan's picture

The mantra of the “country-specific solution” has become fashionable post-Washington Consensus. The consensus has shifted massively against simplistic economic theory that ignores country specificities. In fact, the rebellion has gone way further, encouraging theorists to abandon the search for big solutions, and practitioners to become advocates of ownership and participation -- thus enabling the new experimentalists to feel even more righteous about their focus on the small.

So country specificity is here to stay – we now need to understand better what this fuzzy concept means for development actions. Certainly, in recent years there have been many innovative solutions, and most have taken place at the country level, driven by new technologies (information and communications technologies, for example), or social forms that foster cooperation (group lending,  for example). The list, which actually is not that long, includes the public works programs in Maharashtra, micro-finance in Bangladesh, export processing zones in Mauritius, conditional cash transfers in Mexico and Brazil, capital controls in Chile, and recent SMS -driven social accountability in Kenya or Ghana.

It is likely that technological innovation that is useful to the poor is under-produced globally, and that social innovation is more likely to be produced in open societies, where social activism is dynamic. But it is also true that when these types of innovation occurs, they tends to be imitated everywhere.  They may be invented in specific circumstances, but they have global value and are not, in this sense, country-specific.

Of course, innovations need to be properly adapted to particular circumstances – time and place – before they can be useful. Institutions, politics, culture differences mean that blue-prints of interventions cannot be copied as is. But is this what people mean by local specificity? Perhaps this would be the minimalist description.
The classic tale to support the maximalist interpretation of the idea of country-specificity is that of the opening of China’s agricultural market. But what is unique is timing -- the fact that a particular policy move was politically feasible at that time, and could create large momentum too.

I was reminded of the importance of timing when I visited a West African President last week. He was still fuming after a visit to the port, where he had harangued custom officials against corruption. I offered to help contract out customs, an idea which he really liked. Time will tell if this will work. But it may. The President needs the revenues to pay the teachers before the next elections, and he may be calculating that if he can generate more revenue from customs, he would actually gain more votes, on net, in spite of a loss of patronage. But there’s nothing country-specific or innovative about the idea of contracting out customs – it was implemented in Indonesia a quarter century ago. Again, its timing that stands out -- the same recommendation was included, and ignored, within a long list of recommendations offered in a recent assessment of trade policy options.

A more dramatic example is from my days in Ethiopia, during the famine of 2003. Instead of leaving the response to the food aid community, as in the past, we thought to pull these resources and more into an ambitious productive safety net fund -- cash for poor workers to replenish an environment degraded by poverty and try to avoid future famines. We shamelessly copied the Loess Plateau experience in China. The difficulty was to convince the food donors to play ball. Prime Minister Meles was able to do this  – I doubt that Mengistu or the Emperor, who presided over other famines, could have achieved that. So again, what mattered was timing – the specific context and circumstances -- not the intervention itself.

Development pathways are amazingly unique. When development comes, if it does, it is from a long lucky strike of small moves and not from a short sequence of large moves, because policymakers in poor country can rarely afford to make large moves. Always, there is a large combination of potential sequences, and thus a large set of possible next moves to choose from, each with its own benefits and costs.  The choice cannot be guided by best practice – it becomes an art. It is like the childrens’ game of ‘snakes and ladders’. You rise if you hit a ladder, but you fall if you hit a snake.

It is this search for time/place specific solution that I love most in my work – the possibility of finding myself miraculously at the right time, at the right place, with the right idea.  But let me also confess that I still draw these ideas from a toolbox of not so imaginative best practices. (For a complementary take on country-specific solutions, click here.)



Great blog, as is Brian Levy's on "beginning with things as they actually are". I've sent them round to my DFID governance colleagues as "must reads"! I'd be interested to hear how you - Ishac/Brian - see the relationship between the ideas in your blogs and in Shanta Devarajan's recent post on social accountability/development 3.0 ... ... and in particular to get your take on the question that Owen Barder raises about whether development agencies will be able to adapt - show the necessary humility - to implement development 3.0 It seems to me that these issues are - or certainly should be - at the top of the agenda for donors. best wishes, Alan (Currently working for DFID Policy Division, but this comment written in a personal capacity)

Submitted by ishac on
Allan – many thanks for your input and effort to link various ideas. I can indeed see clear parallels between my blog on the challenges faced by policy makers for whom development is a long and lucky sequence of small moves, Brian admonition that we should focus on things the way they are instead of measuring the distance wt some dreamland model of perfection, and Owen’s description of the development process as a long, slow, bumpy, and winding road. Shanta claims on the other hand are of a different order. The smaller claim, that social accountability can improve service delivery, is not too controversial. Owen provides great references to this expanding literature. I had an earlier blog where I argued that social accountability should be seen as a complement to internal accountability. Shanta seem to have a similar view since he claims that it helps government “monitor and enforce performance by service providers”. Some of the research cited by Own also corroborates this (in particular, Hubbard’s critique of the simplistic Uganda story). But let us not pretend that it can be a substitute. We should not expect beneficiary groups to substitute for government and directly discipline public servants. That would be a call for anarchy. Ethiopia’s PBS should be seen as a program that tries to organize both internal and external accountability mechanisms, and that starts establishing a bridge between them. The “deal” was to provide a legal and political cover for external accountability, against the hope of making internal discipline more effective and more legitimate too. I do not know where the jury stands on this – but the goal was never to get the state out of service delivery as suggested by simplistic critiques. The larger claim about fixing the “pervasive imperfection in the political system” is much more contestable. As Owen’s suggests, accountability must be good, but how to improve it is not a simple matter. In democratic systems, it is possible that better information would ultimately improve political competition. But even this is not assured – for example, in ethnically polarized countries, will better information on development results be sufficient to get voters to organize along interest groups, rather than along ethnic lines? Finally, you ask about the ability of donor organizations to adapt. The question is to what. I see willingness, but not yet a clear sense of purpose. It seems to me dangerous to blur accountabilities and ask donors to become accountable to communities. That would be a recipe for no accountability at all. Again, I have hard time taking the state out of the equation. The community can monitor, but does it have the muscle to define the agenda? Is it supposed to make trade-offs between its own interests and those of the community next door? Is it supposed to care for macro discipline and value for money? I am much more comfortable wt donors being accountable to the state in which they operate, and using community-based feedback loops to “monitor and enforce” their commitments. The community also has a role in finding the right design. But the state is needed to make choices and decisions on matters of a higher level. From a development effectiveness perspective, ownership and participation are inextricably linked. This means that there is no substitute for improvement in state accountability, not something donors are very good at affecting, as Own says, but also not something that will be fixed simply by providing more information to the citizen, as Shanta claims.

Ishac: First, thanks to you for the rich discussion, and to Owen and Allan for taking it further. I do want to clarify two points I made in "Development 3.0" which you seem to disagree with. First, by empowering beneficiaries to monitor and discipline service providers, I am not saying that beneficiary groups are substituting for government. On the contrary, they are helping the government do its job better. There are intrinsic information and incentive problems in the public sector. The central government cannot observe whether the service provider is present (the information problem). And even if they do observe it, the "contract" may not permit them to do anything about it. One possible solution (which doesn't always work) is to have the beneficiaries who are, by definition, present at the point of service provision, monitor whether or not the provider is present. But this isn't enough, because beneficiaries have known for a long time that the provider is absent; they've just not been able to do anything about it. This is where the "discipline" part comes in. If there is a way to revise the contract so that the provider faces a penalty for non-provision, then we can address the incentive problem. But these contracts are often difficult to rewrite (especially given the power of public sector unions). So one possibility is to hire additional teachers, whose contract is based on performance. If performance is being measured by beneficiaries, then these beneficiaries are "disciplining" providers. Another possibility is to give the beneficiaries vouchers that they can use to go to any school. In this case, if the teacher is absent, the children may choose another school, and the original school will lose money by not getting the voucher. By voting with their feet, the beneficiaries are disciplining the provider. Note that in all these cases, education is being financed by the government, and in all but the last case, it is also being provided by the public sector. The role of social accountability is to make government more effective. You also state that I claim that accountability "will be fixed simply by providing more information to the citizen." Having re-read the post, I'm still not sure where you got that idea. What I was claiming is that, when government is resistant to changes in internal accountability (usually for political reasons), getting information to citizens is one thing that donors can do. It still may not work (and you're right that it can sometimes backfire--there is an example on Rwanda on my blog), but it is better than throwing our hands up and withdrawing. If the government is willing to undertake internal accountability reforms, then we would not need social accountability. My experience is that there are very few such governments, especially when it comes to politically-charged reforms such as health care and education. Cheers, Shanta

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