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The Legislator’s Dilemma: Following or Moving against the Tide of Perverse Incentives

Fletcher Tembo's picture
Listening to an expert discussion of the role of elected representatives in social accountability interventions at a recent event hosted by the Mwananchi Governance Programme and CIVICUS in Johannesburg on 16th May 2013, I was reminded of this quote by Joe Khamisi, a former Kenyan MP:

“Save, you may not see Parliament again”, one two-term Member liked to tell us.  In many cases non-performers with deep pockets are preferred than stingy doers. “As much as possible, avoid your constituents in the first three years and show up only towards the last half of your term, with plenty of money!”

In response, a Member of Parliament (MP) from one of the countries where Mwananchi works said, “You need to put premium on leadership”. In other words, we should not expect leaders to deliver the change we want if society encourages them to pursue perverse incentives to attain and remain in office, and to achieve solutions to collective action problems. 

Looking at the backgrounds of MPs in many countries in Africa, you find that some MPs have been activists in civil society, respected civil servants or faith leaders, often suggesting that things would be very different if it was them that were in office. This is a clear case of a common African saying ‘one finger forwards, four fingers backwards,’ reminding us how easy it is to criticise without examining ourselves. This is why it should not be surprising that again and again we find that when the ‘self-imagined’ leaders get into public office they are equally caught up in the quagmire of perverse incentives as their predecessors.

The situation is so self-perpetuating that if, for example, an MP simply refuses to give out money in-between or during elections, while every other MP and the candidate continues to buy votes, he or she will simply lose the seat. These perverse incentives are also mostly fed by political parties which are surrounded by the invisible businessmen and women supporting parties in the name of ‘well-wishers’ but in reality they might be determined to guarantee commercial benefits from state contracts once the supported party wins. In the fight for public office, some feed on these perverse incentives to make up for their lack of meaningful engagement inside the parliament, and to try to demonstrate that they are ‘doing something’. In these situations, going for a strong, ideological policy drive with research-based evidence as a solution, is not the straightforward answer some people such as Morrison Rwakakamba in Uganda, could wish for, because ordinary citizens can react badly to a candidate who is seen as highly educated and disconnected from local realities. The preferred candidate will be the one with a clear message and warm relationships, even if they rely on empty promises; this was the view shared by the MP presenting at our meeting in Johannesburg.

How will these perverse incentives dis-entangle themselves? We cannot simply point at civil society organisations (CSO) or the media as the answer because these too emerge from the same societies and systems of incentives.  It is not uncommon to find CSO actors that are buying off communities to facilitate participation and achieve ‘results’; and also promoting the allowance culture, i.e. paying for attendance at community meetings and workshops. It is not also uncommon to find media actors who twist stories to serve particular interest groups. As the MP pointed out at the meeting in Johannesburg, we need to help the media to come to the right side of history.

The Mwananchi programme has over the past five years been working to find ways of understanding and engaging these dynamics that have within them both ‘perverse’ and ‘positive’ incentives, in order to find which actions can result in change in ‘the rules of the game’. The focus on these dynamics has also taught us that even the actors that we thought were ‘good’ might not necessarily deliver change. An example from Sierra Leone: conventional wisdom might hold that traditional leaders would naturally want to support meaningful employment of their youths in local mines. However, we learnt that in the mix of everything going on, some of these traditional leaders are caught up in their own vested interests and entangled in perverse incentives of protecting mining laws that are harming their own youth. They seem to be hearing what the youths are saying at community meetings, but at the same time they embody a duality or even multiplicity of worlds which implicate them in different kinds of incentives. 

As a result, the Mwananchi governance programme moved away from getting too hung up on the theory of actor categories, such as the media, civil society, traditional leaders, private sector etc., as agents of change. We introduced the concept of ‘interlocutors’ instead which allows us to critically look at the collective action situations, the nature  of the perverse or facilitative incentives that exist and comprehend what kinds of change are possible in the context; and by extension which kinds of actions and actors.  A forthcoming report synthesising learning from the programme (due out in September) will argue that it is the characterisation of these context-specific interlocution processes that can then lead to finding, naming and supporting the right actors, always bearing in mind that being ‘the right actor’ today does not guarantee being the right actor tomorrow. Accountability is a relational issue.

Follow Fletcher on Twitter: @ftcitizenvoice

Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst / World Bank
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