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Working With the Grain

Keeping the lights on– workable and unworkable approaches to electricity sector reform

Brian Levy's picture

Lethaba Power Station, South AfricaTwo decades ago, when I was working on utility sector reform we knew the answer. Here (using the example of electricity) is what it was: unbundle generation, transmission and distribution; introduce an independent regulator; rebalance prices; privatize. Two decades later, we have learned the stark limits of orchestrating reforms on the basis of ‘best practice’ blueprints such as these.

What would a more ‘with the grain’ approach to electricity sector reform look like? To explore this, I asked my Johns Hopkins SAIS and University of Cape Town students to review how a variety of country efforts unfolded in practice – focusing specifically on efforts to introduce private sector participation into electricity generation. Some striking patterns emerged.  Here I contrast South Africa’s experience with those of Kenya, Peru and Lebanon. The former illustrates powerfully the hazards of ‘best practice’ reforms; the latter point to the promise of  more incremental, cumulative, with the grain approaches.

In 1997, an official South African report signaled that in 2008 the lights would go out if there was no new investment in electricity generation; the report proposed that the country embark on a far-reaching effort to implement the ‘best practices’ template for electricity sector reform, constraining the dominant parastatal, ESKOM, and turning to the private sector for new investment in electricity generation. In 1998, the government adopted the report’s recommendations. In her richly-researched Masters dissertation (available on the link that follows), Nchimunya Hamukoma detailed what happened next.

Contestation over the agenda among competing factions within the ruling African National Congress and its allies interacted with a hugely-ambitious reform design — one for which almost none of the requisite political, institutional, economic and organizational capabilities were in place. The result was that after six futile years of trying, the effort at restructuring and private participation was abandoned, and ESKOM was given a green light to invest in new capacity. But the six lost years – the result of futilely pursuing an unachievable ‘best practice’ chimera – had an inevitable consequence. In 2008, as predicted, the lights went out.

The Great Gatsby government discourse — carelessness and its consequences

Brian Levy's picture

This is a three-part series from Brian Levy on the manner in which the media, activists and politicians talk about the role of government. This post focuses on the importance of engaged democratic debate and the rhetorical traps that can derail political discussions.

morning dressI’ve been thinking a lot in recent months about how we talk about government. So, spurred on in part by the truly appalling tone of discourse in the Republican Party’s nomination contest, I’ve decided to write a few United States-centric blog posts on the subject (though I’ll stay away entirely from chauvinistic slurs, or comments about ‘walls’ or ‘roads to serfdom’).

Somehow, in the area of governance, our usual ways of measuring (and honoring) human endeavor don’t seem to  apply. Ordinarily, working and playing in teams teaches us how to master the challenges of  co-operative, collective achievement — which can be way, way harder than striving alone. Governing is a quintessentially collective endeavor, especially in democracies.  Yet all too often  the discourse (and not only by nameless plutocrat presidential candidates…..)  is resonant  of   F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby:

“They were careless people…..  They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

In a series of complementary blog posts — on Washington’s Metro on Obamacare;, and on South Africa’s public sector — I explore some consequences of our carelessness in the way we speak about the public sector.  Here I focus on the underlying logic of the conversation. A good place to begin is with the analysis of institutions.

The great institutional economist, Douglass North, defined institutions formally as “humanly devised constraints which govern human interaction”. (‘Rules of the game’ is his classic, informal definition.) Another Nobel-prize-winning economist, Oliver Williamson, built on North’s definition. “Governance”, Williamson suggested, “is an effort to craft order, thereby to mitigate conflict and realize mutual gains”.   Crafting governance arrangements for the public sector is hard – much harder, Williamson emphasizes, than governing a private firm. Yet, somehow, seduced by high-sounding bromides, we  trivialize the challenge. We gloss over the complexities, imply that what is extraordinarily difficult should be straightforward, and end up fueling disappointment and despair. The result is the pervasive distrust of government evident across much of the industrialized world.

#4 from 2015: Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths

Brian Levy's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2015. This post was originally posted on October 22, 2015. It was also the blog post of the month for October 2015.
 

The Tyranny of Experts book coverIn his 2014 book, The Tyranny of Experts, Bill Easterly uses his rhetorical gifts to make the case for ‘free development’. In so doing, he takes his trademark blend of insight and relentlessness to a new level. But in this moment of history that has been described by democracy champion, Larry Diamond as a “democracy recession”[i], is it helpful to argue by taking no prisoners and not letting inconvenient truths get in the way?

Easterly, to be sure, communicates powerfully two big and important ideas. The first is that, as per his title, behind a seemingly technocratic approach to development are some inconvenient political realities. As he puts it:

The implicit vision in development today is that of well-intentioned autocrats advised by technical experts…. The word technocracy itself is an early twentieth century coinage that means ‘rule by experts’” (p.6)

In surfacing the implausible assumptions which underlie a world view of ‘rule by experts’, Easterly does us a service. One cannot engage effectively with today’s difficult realities on the basis of a vision of decision-making which ignores the inconvenient truths of self-seeking ambition, of contestation over ends among competing factions, and of imbalances of power which marginalize the interests of large segments of society. (Of course, as this essay will explore, many of these difficult realities arise – in different ways – in both predatory authoritarian and messily democratic settings.)

The second powerful idea is The Tyranny of Experts paean to freedom – “a system of political and economic rights in which many political and economic actors will find the right actions to promote their own development”.  (pp. 215-216). With eloquent libertarian rhetoric of a kind which Ayn Rand would no doubt have applauded, Easterly argues that:

we must not let caring about material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor”. (p.339)

Yes, but we also must not fall into a trap which parallels that of the technocratic fallacy – and let our high-minded advocacy of the rights of the poor blind us to the challenges of how to translate our rhetoric into reality. And it is here that Easterly’s Tyranny falls way, way short.

Blog Post of the Month: Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths

Brian Levy's picture

Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In October 2015, the featured blog post is "Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths" by Brian Levy.

The Tyranny of Experts book coverIn his 2014 book, The Tyranny of Experts, Bill Easterly uses his rhetorical gifts to make the case for ‘free development’. In so doing, he takes his trademark blend of insight and relentlessness to a new level. But in this moment of history that has been described by democracy champion, Larry Diamond as a “democracy recession”[i], is it helpful to argue by taking no prisoners and not letting inconvenient truths get in the way?

Easterly, to be sure, communicates powerfully two big and important ideas. The first is that, as per his title, behind a seemingly technocratic approach to development are some inconvenient political realities. As he puts it:

The implicit vision in development today is that of well-intentioned autocrats advised by technical experts…. The word technocracy itself is an early twentieth century coinage that means ‘rule by experts’” (p.6)

In surfacing the implausible assumptions which underlie a world view of ‘rule by experts’, Easterly does us a service. One cannot engage effectively with today’s difficult realities on the basis of a vision of decision-making which ignores the inconvenient truths of self-seeking ambition, of contestation over ends among competing factions, and of imbalances of power which marginalize the interests of large segments of society. (Of course, as this essay will explore, many of these difficult realities arise – in different ways – in both predatory authoritarian and messily democratic settings.)

The second powerful idea is The Tyranny of Experts paean to freedom – “a system of political and economic rights in which many political and economic actors will find the right actions to promote their own development”.  (pp. 215-216). With eloquent libertarian rhetoric of a kind which Ayn Rand would no doubt have applauded, Easterly argues that:

we must not let caring about material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor”. (p.339)

Yes, but we also must not fall into a trap which parallels that of the technocratic fallacy – and let our high-minded advocacy of the rights of the poor blind us to the challenges of how to translate our rhetoric into reality. And it is here that Easterly’s Tyranny falls way, way short.

Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths

Brian Levy's picture

The Tyranny of Experts book coverIn his 2014 book, The Tyranny of Experts, Bill Easterly uses his rhetorical gifts to make the case for ‘free development’. In so doing, he takes his trademark blend of insight and relentlessness to a new level. But in this moment of history that has been described by democracy champion, Larry Diamond as a “democracy recession”[i], is it helpful to argue by taking no prisoners and not letting inconvenient truths get in the way?

Easterly, to be sure, communicates powerfully two big and important ideas. The first is that, as per his title, behind a seemingly technocratic approach to development are some inconvenient political realities. As he puts it:

The implicit vision in development today is that of well-intentioned autocrats advised by technical experts…. The word technocracy itself is an early twentieth century coinage that means ‘rule by experts’” (p.6)

In surfacing the implausible assumptions which underlie a world view of ‘rule by experts’, Easterly does us a service. One cannot engage effectively with today’s difficult realities on the basis of a vision of decision-making which ignores the inconvenient truths of self-seeking ambition, of contestation over ends among competing factions, and of imbalances of power which marginalize the interests of large segments of society. (Of course, as this essay will explore, many of these difficult realities arise – in different ways – in both predatory authoritarian and messily democratic settings.)

The second powerful idea is The Tyranny of Experts paean to freedom – “a system of political and economic rights in which many political and economic actors will find the right actions to promote their own development”.  (pp. 215-216). With eloquent libertarian rhetoric of a kind which Ayn Rand would no doubt have applauded, Easterly argues that:

we must not let caring about material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor”. (p.339)
 

With the grain or against the grain: A media perspective on the governance question of our time

James Deane's picture

James Deane, Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action, reflects on Brian Levy's recent book, Working With the Grain, and the interaction of governance and media development goals.

Radio technician, GhanaI was prompted to write this post by Brian Levy, the rightly respected governance guru of the World Bank, now Senior Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University. Brian is the author of Working With the Grain: integrating governance and growth in development strategies, one of the most influential books on governance right now. We met at the OECD DAC Governance Network last week, which is where donors get together to share their insights into how to better support improved governance in their development strategies. I was asked to respond to a presentation Brian made on his book.

Against the Grain

My initial reaction when I first heard of Against the Grain was, I confess, a kind of resigned frustration. I thought, “Here we go again. Another academic apologia telling us how it didn’t really matter how horrible, authoritarian or power-hungry a government was. As long as they ‘got the job done’ (in terms of reducing poverty), it was fine by the donors who supported them.”

That reaction was partly prompted by the title of Brian’s book. By coincidence, I have on my shelves at home the memoir of a hero to many in the media world, Geoffrey Nyarota, the renowned editor of Zimbabwe’s Daily News, among other newspapers. The blurb for that memoir says this: “The newspapers [Nyarota] edited were often the lone voice of dissent against a government that had betrayed its people. They chronicled the decline of the country under the Mugabe regime, and how the freedom achieved in the war of liberation was replaced by wholesale government corruption and oppression”.

Nyarota entitled his book, Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Zimbabwean newsman.