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Surprise, Perhaps the Only Way to Expand Reform Space Is…

Sina Odugbemi's picture
An important, new World Bank study has fascinating news. The study is Problem-Driven Political Economy Analysis: The World Bank’s Experience (Verena Fritz, Brian Levy, and Rachel Ort, Editors). Problem-driven political economy analysis is an approach that encourages those who want to implement governance reforms to:
  • Start the diagnosis with a focus on the problem to be solved, the challenge to be confronted (not general, big picture analysis for its own sake);
  • Probe why the bad equilibrium exists/persists by investigating the roles of (a) structural factors (b) formal and informal institutions…the rules of the game and (c) stakeholder interests, networks and power; and
  • Find a feasible path to reform/change in the specific context.
The approach is part of the current ‘political turn’ in development, a growing realization that unless reform implementation embraces ‘politically smart’ methods the trend of achieving little or no real results will continue. For more on the ‘political turn’ and ‘politically smart’ methods, please see the excellent history by Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont: Development Aid Confronts Politics; The Almost Revolution. The practice has been growing in the World Bank as well …haltingly…and the new study presents eight case studies, and they all offer rich lessons. If you are interested in the role of methods such as these in achieving concrete development results, I urge you to make the acquaintance of the text.

What I am concerned to draw attention to today is a nugget from the excellent overview essay written by Verena Fritz and Brian Levy. They argue that once you have done the political economy analysis and you start thinking about policy implications, there is a spectrum of reform space. On one end of the spectrum, you ‘adapt design to align with existing reform space’ (page 15); that is, you limit your ambitions. On the other end of the spectrum, you seek to ‘expand reform space’; that is, you try to improve the possibilities of good and accountable governance in that specific sector and context.  I am interested in the latter, naturally. The question is: how do you expand reform space? The nugget is on page 17:

Turning to efforts to expand reform space, a common thread in almost all the cases is a call to use demand-side approaches to empower stakeholders who have an incentive to seek better development performance…this approach can be done through a combination of information strategies and engagements to strengthen stakeholder participation.

I urge you to read that quote a second time and absorb the point: information strategies and greater stakeholder engagement are crucial elements of how you expand reform space. The authors go on to caution against ‘easy assumptions’ about how this might work in practice. Points taken,(and the good news is that researchers are digging into these assumptions right now with growing intensity), but the main finding matters, and it matters a great deal. And it matters because it is astonishing how many technocrats who work in developing countries (both for governments and donor agencies) want to implement reforms but they still want to keep out ‘the noise’, they don’t want to engage citizens, the media, civil society, and the clamorousness of the public sphere. It is all too untidy for them, too complicated.

The question I always ask these technocrats is: in all these contexts where bad governance is the norm, how are you going to change the incentives of political leaders and senior bureaucrats if you don’t bring activated public opinion and mobilized citizens into play?

Photographs courtesy of the World Bank's Flickr Collection, available here.

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