Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Delivering basic services in low-accountability environments

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In the midst of the very serious resumption of violence in Democratic Republic of Congo, an interesting debate has broken out between Paul Collier and Adekeye Adebajo on the question of who should deliver basic services in post-conflict societies. Paul suggests these services be provided by non-state actors, such as NGOs and church groups. Dr. Adebajo counters that this would weaken the state even more. He goes on to observe that these NGOs, unlike the government, are not accountable to the people.

This debate reflects a classic dilemma in choosing institutional arrangements for service delivery. Services fail because of weak accountability in the service delivery chain. Specifically, governments are not sufficiently accountable to their citizens to ensure that poor citizens especially receive the quality and quantity of services they deserve. In this situation, you can either try to strengthen citizens’ ability to hold governments accountable—what Paul calls “building an effective state”—or you can go around government and have other actors, such as NGOs or church groups, deliver these services. While these other groups may not be accountable to the citizenry, they also have intrinsic motivation to deliver these services effectively. But every time we take this route, we are slowing progress towards building an effective state. Sometimes the price may be worth it, especially in post-conflict environments where we need to get social services delivered quickly, but it is always there.

François Bourguignon and I once visited a primary school in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh run by BRAC, an NGO. When François introduced himself by saying, “Hi, I’m François and I’m from France,” one of the first-graders asked, “How many BRAC schools are there in France?” This kid’s question captures the ultimate dilemma: How can we transition from a country like Bangladesh (where, because of weak accountability, NGOs deliver large portions of the social services) to France, where the state delivers everything?


Shanta Devarajan

Teaching Professor of the Practice Chair, International Development Concentration, Georgetown University

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