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Governance for Development in Africa: Solving Collective Action Problems: Review of an Important New Book

Duncan Green's picture

The last year or so has been a bit quiet in terms of big new books on development, but now they are piling up on my study floor (my usual filing system) – Angus Deaton, Deepak Nayyar, Ben Ramalingam, Nina Munk etc etc. I will review them as soon as I can (or arm-twist better qualified colleagues to do so).

But I thought I’d start off with a nice short one. Governance for Development in Africa: Solving Collective Action Problems, by David Booth and Diana Cammack, provides a very readable 140 page summary of the ODI’s Africa Power and Politics Programme, bits of which I have previously discussed on this blog. 140 pages is wonderful – you can read it in a morning and feel a glow of satisfaction for the rest of the day. Think there’s a lesson for me somewhere there…..

The book moves from theory to the APPP’s in-depth national fieldwork in Rwanda, Mali, Niger and Uganda and back again, coming to some uncomfortable conclusions.

The book’s underlying conceptual message is that trying to understand (and reform) African politics on the basis of ‘principal-agent’ thinking has been a disaster. Instead, it is much better to think in terms of ‘collective action problems’. The difference is that the first approach ‘assumes that there are principles that want goods to be provided but have difficulty in getting the agents to perform’.

The second approach is ‘more sceptical about the motives that drive action. Many groups and individuals may want the benefits in the form of public or collective goods but will not work to obtain them.’ The art is to find ways to bring all parties together, build trust, and find locally relevant solutions, often built on ‘hybrids’ that mix local traditions with ‘modern’ best practice.

‘If there is a genuinely universal truth about governance for transformation, it is that pre-existing institutions need to be treated as a potential resource for reforms….. ‘The ‘grain’ of popular demand in contemporary Africa is not a desire for ‘traditional’ institutions, but rather for modern state structures that have been adapted to, or infused with, contemporary cultural preferences.’

In comparing what works and what doesn’t (in the quality of maternal health care, but other areas of essential services too), Booth and Cammack identify three explanatory features:

  • Whether or not the de facto policy regime, including organizational mandates and resource flows, in the sector is internally coherent
  • The extent to which the national political leadership motivates and disciplines the multiple actors responsible for the quality of provision
  • The degree to which there is an enabling environment that promotes or at least permits problem-solving at sub-national levels of the delivery system

And they identify plenty of examples where these features are not present: in terms of policy (in)coherence, abolishing user fees in health and education, but not increasing budgets to meet the ensuring boom in usage; using aid money to buy a load of ambulances, without any provision to put petrol in them.

On political discipline, the authors applaud Rwanda’s well-organized health and education services and wider incentive systems for public servants. On the scope for local problem solving, there are plenty of examples of national officials blocking local solutions because they are ‘not policy’ (any comparison with Oxfam sign-off procedures is purely coincidental). Interestingly it finds that when it comes to local flexibility, Rwanda’s government is much more relaxed than the other country case studies. It’s not all central control in Kigali.

There are lots of other plusses in the book – handy chronologies of the shifting fads on politics and governance; merciless debunking of a whole magazine of magic bullets (citizen scorecards, publishing budget details for schools etc).

But the authors, and the APPP generally, really struggle on the ‘so whats’. The finding on hybrid solutions is significant and useful, but on the national scale, their conclusion is that some kinds of authoritarian regimes can ‘do a Rwanda’, like Ethiopia, ‘when, and perhaps only when, they experience a sharp shock and/or a sustained threat to their existence.’ But, apart from acting promptly in the wake of the next genocide or famine, what does that mean for those wishing to support Africa’s path to good governance? It’s not that clear and to be honest, I found Matt Andrews’ proposals, which cover similar ground, more useful.

The other real struggle is over aid. The authors’ analysis is overwhelmingly condemnatory – the ‘biggest problem’ in policy coherence is wave after wave of externally imposed half-finished reforms, which have made a terrible mess of African governments (and they weren’t that hot to begin with). Reminds me a bit of UK education ministers’ endless tinkering……

But, unsurprisingly perhaps from authors rather dependent on DFID’s shilling, they pull their punches and fail to reach the logical conclusion that less aid is what is required. Instead, they want aid donors to become knowledge-based thinktanks, or to outsource more work as ‘arm’s length aid’.

My other problem with the book is its jarring tone, especially its rather lazy dismissal of both democracy and citizen action. Here’s a sample:

‘Full blown capitalism creates the social structures and organizational capabilities that lead to democratic governance, not the other way around…. Real democracy is not an available option for most of Africa.’

‘Elite level action issues are the most fundamental development issue for most African countries….. the masses are not significant players on their own behalf’ – the role of citizens thus seems to be reduced to that of political pawns or grateful consumers.

Similarly, they are scornful of aid initiatives ‘based on the associational model’.

Not surprisingly, I disagree with a lot of this. They equate supporting citizenship with bunging loads of money at civil society organizations (‘turning them into NGOs’), which I would agree is probably self-defeating, but suggests they are a bit out of touch both with how to support citizen action, and its huge potential. They fail to see the potential role of civil society in identifying and amplifying the problems around which collective problem solving needs to take place. And they downplay the intrinsic value of rights, including democratic rights.

But if you can get past the tone, which is worse in the earlier sections of the book, the conclusion is excellent, and fits exactly with many of the arguments on this blog.

‘External actors have a duty to contribute to the creation of an enabling environment for local problem-solving. But this is challenging. It requires the intervening agent to have the flexibility, learning capacity and intellectual modesty to play a facilitation role…. Several of these qualities are in short supply in the development business.’ (ouch!)

And here (putting their call for ‘intellectual modesty’ to one side) is the final paragraph:

‘We would give priority to two practical steps. One is a robust commitment from the international NGO community to Duncan Green’s ‘convening and brokering’ as opposed to ‘delivering stuff’. The other is greater use of arm’s length assistance- funding of organizations that can do a better job of facilitating governance for development along the lines outlined here.’

Well obviously, I’m going to agree with that, right?

This post first appeared on From Poverty to Power

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