Judith Tendler, and learning from ‘good government’

On 24th July 2016, Judith Tendler, former Professor at the Department of Urban studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, passed away. She was 77. A Ph.D from Columbia University, Judith Tendler spent several years at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), before a long career as a Professor in MIT. A significant share of Prof. Tendler’s work focused on the Americas, but she also studied South Asia and parts of Africa over her long career.

Prof Tendler’s book: ‘Good Government in the Tropics’ (1997) is one of the most influential books in the field of international development — an essential reading for students of governance and public policy studies. In the book, Prof Tendler and her research associates studied four cases of successful government in Ceara, a relatively poor state in north-eastern Brazil. In each of the cases, the government at different levels played an effective role, facilitating and brokering relationships, and submitting itself to mechanisms which could be used to hold themselves accountable. Those were rare, but rich, examples of ‘good government’.

These cases highlighting the achievements of ‘good governments’ challenged the dominant pessimistic thinking about governance in the so-called ‘third world’. Prof Tendler argued that much of the advice from international development agencies to developing countries was based on an analysis of poor performance of the public sector and governments. This resulted in a tendency to ‘import’ good practices from the successful developed countries, as well as a resistance to looking deeply into poor countries to identify variations in performance. In many ways. Prof Tendler consistently challenged the pre-suppositions that development agencies and policy advisors nurtured and which, as a result, shaped the advice they dispensed into narrow straitjackets often unfit for the context in which they were to be applied.

One of the interesting, if surprising, conclusions of Prof Tendler’s research for the book is that local governments (or non-government organisations, for that matter) were not inherently any better at service delivery. In the 1990s, the push for decentralised governance was very strong, and several countries, including India, made significant progress in decentralising power to tiers of government closer to its citizens. At the same time, policymakers and advocates were locked in debates over whether decentralisation led to positive outcomes. In this context, a call to look beyond established models of decentralisation and look for variations in implementation in different contexts was highly valuable.

The researchers found that service delivery improved in Ceara not because the central government got out of the way and allowed the local governments and civic action a free hand, but because it involved itself in a self-interested fashion, monitoring delivery by local governments, and playing an active role in civic education. This was quite unlike the conventional thinking around decentralisation at the time, and we are better off for it. In the book, Prof Tendler does not argue that her cases represented the norm. Instead, her point was simply that the politics of implementation merit far more attention than it had so far received. More and more now, researchers studying public policy are expected to focus on ‘implementation’ — looking beyond ‘what works’ to the ‘why’ and ‘how’. The learning agenda that is fast gaining currency too has been enriched by this focus on implementation, as it takes organisations into reflecting deeper on how to make change happen.

The questions Prof Tendler posed about an uncritical belief in the merits of decentralisation, the ability of civil society as an agent to hold the government accountable, or the fatalism that prevails regarding the commitment of public sector employees, are highly relevant today in India. It has been clear for some time now that the model of decentralised governance in India will look different in each state, and rightly so. A single framework for analysis therefore, will not work. Similarly, hybrid forms of civic action continue to thrive, as there is increasing pressure to work with government, and yet retain its independence. Finally, implementation capacity of the state remains a challenge, as the state attempts to restore credibility. The experiments with technology-enabled solutions and motivational messages directed at the bureaucracy are efforts in that direction.

As we analyse public sector reforms, the work of Prof Tendler will remain a great source of insight: there is no silver bullet, other than incremental improvement, and evidence-based iteration.

‘Achhe din’ giving BJP a miss?

The excuses are running thin; The photoshop has lost novelty; The joke is on us; When will ‘Achhe din’ come? – my latest livemint column


I watched the video clip of Union minister Nitin Gadkari’s disarmingly candid chat in mid-September, where he talks about the origins of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) slogan—‘achhe din aayenge’ (good days will come). He said that Narendra Modi had once told him that at a non-resident Indian (NRI) event in Delhi, the people had asked then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when would it be achhe din for them? Singh had apparently said: In the future,achhe din would surely come. Gadkari went on to add (chucking all the time), that since Indians are inherently aspirational, there is no such thing as an ultimate achhe din. He also said that wherever he goes, the people (and the media) ask him about the promised achhe din, and that the now-famous slogan has become something like a millstone around the neck.

As expected, this provided much mirth to all critics of the government, and probably some discomfort to the government’s supporters. I am not sure though if anyone enjoyed this more than Gadkari, who was clearly having a good laugh not only at the expense of his party for hyping that slogan, but also us (the people), for constantly demanding to know when achhe din would be delivered.

Commentators pointed out that it will not be easy for the BJP to escape from the wide-ranging promises it had made during electioneering. Gadkari obviously realizes the scale of promises made by his party. His remark, which referred to the unquenchable desire for acquiring more, is spot on. The problem then, is of having stoked unrealistic expectations, and used every trick in the book, and off it, to run down the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

On this count, Modi, then as the prime challenger, led the charge. Promising the moon on every conceivable issue, he and his campaign managers successfully created an aura of invincibility, built upon the so-called Gujarat model of governance. The bubble has now well and truly burst. The list of promises not kept have mounted. A host of individuals have made a mockery of Modi’s promises to the nation—from lawmakers in the BJP who have put paid to all hopes of ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ (development for all), to people like Vijay Mallya, who represent the rot of crony capitalism. The economy, propped up by cheap oil, is also not quite humming the tune the BJP would like it to. Recent projections suggest that the rupee will fall further against the US dollar, and our gross domestic product estimates are still being met with widespread scepticism.

One can quibble about the intensity of opposition the government has faced and how it compares with previous governments, but it is undeniable that any political party that campaigns using such outlandish promises must face the music when its failings surface. Even after assuming office as prime minister, Modi went from stage to stage—at home and abroad—proudly declaring that Indians who were once ashamed of their country are now roaring with pride. That some of these statements were made within weeks of the BJP coming to power should have been a telling statement of the hubris that this government came with. But it is more important to use these occasions to disseminate a more important message to the people at large—that no government (and certainly no man) will come to rescue us with a magic wand. The goods and services tax, Aadhaar and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act clearly show that policy continuity is a fact of life in governing India.

But it is perhaps the rhetoric on national security that must be weighing most heavily around the government’s neck. Modi and associates, who seemingly possessed a perfect soundbyte-sized solution to every national security and foreign policy issue, have been forced to reflect a bit deeply for a change. The controlled ‘surgical strike’, followed by uncontrolled jingoism, suggests dangerous possibilities. For a government struggling to deliver on several other fronts, will it be able to escape the temptation for more expansive adventurism along the border? After all, war would be the perfect spectator sport for a populace fed up of India’s tepid anti-terrorism strategy. This is the constituency that cares little about growth and development, but is intensely conscious of India’s ‘atma-samman’ (self respect). Humouring it is likely to be a key priority, but the consequences could be disastrous.

For the restless India of today, this is a good time to look back at its recent past. What was it that made it kosher for an electorate to overlook the limits of reality, and cheer in chorus for a messiah? I have consistently argued in these columns that we recognise that governance is more than delivering rousing speeches; that no one man is going to transform India; and that we must not restrict our political choices so much that we settle for leaders with narrow communal and authoritarian tendencies.

So let this be a moment that tempers the triumphalism of 2014, and of the sobering realisation that an election campaign, mounted on an epic scale, pulled off one of the greatest cons in recent times. We should be thankful that sensible leaders such as Gadkari are owning up to the electoral jumlas. That will come in handy when the BJP looks within for alternative mascots to redeem its beleaguered self.

Your ‘field’ is different from mine

When I was working in Orissa, India, I was based in Mohuda, a village 10 km from a small town, Berhampur. The head office of the NGO I was working with was located in Mohuda. For any one visiting from even the state capital, Bhubaneswar, let alone New Delhi or from outside India, Mohuda was ‘field’ enough. But for those of us living in Mohuda, our field was a few hundred meters outside the campus – in the village where we had worked with the community to build toilets and houses; women who were part of the village savings groups, and the little biomass-based power plant we had installed. There was of course more of the ‘field’ further away – spread all over the state where we worked, requiring uncomfortable overnight bus journeys…

Naturally, I secretly smirked at everyone who arrived in Mohuda and proclaimed to have stepped foot on the ‘field’. I am also sure my colleagues in project offices in various parts of the state smirked every time I arrived at their offices and announced my presence in the ‘field’. So in sum, I think this game does even out from time to time. Your ‘field’ is different from mine.

In development, the ‘field’ is where the action is. Everything done from far is to support the implementation machine(s) in the ‘field’. The ‘field’ need not refer to a place that is scrappy and tough, although it could, if appropriate. How many of us really do ‘field work’? Does living in a developing country qualify as ‘field work’? Is working out of a satellite office of one’s own organisation that’s outside of the headquarters ‘field work’? Does working/visiting a partner’s office in a developing country constitute ‘field work’? Within a developing country, is visiting a project office outside of the headquarter ‘field work’? Or is it only ‘field work’ when you go meet the ultimate beneficiaries of your work – the community? How about when you go down to a different country to work with government officials?

What I find strange is the tendency to either complain or romanticise the food/culture/ transport/clothes/homes in a manner that establishes one’s outsider-ness. Many of these narratives (tweets, photographs, blogs…umm…instagram?) are evidently for the ‘non-field’ audience who can then either sympathise or appreciate our experience in the ‘field’. These stories that seek to shout out – “look at me, I am in the ‘field'” seem a bit flawed, at some level – not just because they smack of ‘developmentourism’, but also because of the not-so-subtle attempt to claim the moral high ground. Even if you are learning a lot, and all you want to do is to tell people that you are…could we find better ways to do so? I make no claims to having never done this myself.

450+ words later, I also think to ask: does this matter? Let me know!

India @ 70: time to stop being complacent about our democracy

For the seventieth time since independence, India celebrated its incredible democracy on 15th August 2016. There are several theories for why India is such an implausible democracy, and our ability to be an exception in a troubled neighbourhood evokes great nationalistic fervour. However, this celebration of our democracy sometimes distracts us from taking a hard look at the state of our democracy..

I want to contrast this with the focus on the economy. As this year coincided with 25 years of India’s liberalization project, there has been much written about how the economy needed to be unshackled from the tyranny of the licence raj, and about how much more remains to be done in our quest for economic growth. When the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation was in Parliament recently, reams were written about how it was a seminal piece of reform, and how this should herald a series of institutional reforms to unlock the economic potential of the country. This restlessness that one sees when it comes to the state of the economy isn’t quite visible when it comes to discussing the state of our democracy. In fact, it is fair to say that while we have strong lobbies pushing for economic reforms, we have become largely complacent about the state of our democracy. Recent actions by the government (across political parties) have exposed huge gaps that need to be addressed urgently.

Let me start with electoral reform. Two reports of the Law Commission—on Electoral Disqualifications (2014) and Electoral Reforms (2015)—lie largely ignored by political parties across the country. The latter report, especially, made strong recommendations for curbing the flow of black money into electoral financing, as well as taking action against the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ used as electoral propaganda. It is indeed a little ironical, then, that the last significant move by the government in the area of election financing was the amendment brought to retrospectively alter the definition of what counts as a ‘foreign entity’—a move that benefits the top political parties in the country that had been in potential violation of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) until then. Meanwhile, official advertisements for “friendly” media has been a tremendous growth industry in recent times.

Another area of concern has been the state’s ham-handed response to dissent. From organisations such as Amnesty International to student bodies such as in JNU and private individuals airing their views on freedom of expression in India—they have been met by a state response that sought to not only crush dissent through hooliganism by affiliates and spurious legal action, but also saw fit to make light of such incidents at public forums.

The next area of concern I would like to highlight is our federal structure. While the GST was lauded by all economics commentators, the implications for federalism were left unclear. Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s insistence on ‘pooled sovereignty’ will not convince critics who see a systematic erosion of the power of state governments to govern according to their priorities. Centrally-sponsored schemes, which were openly criticized by Narendra Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat for their straitjacketed nature, have not seen any significant reform either. Instead, there has been plenty of rhetoric about ‘Team India’ and ‘cooperative federalism’. This leaves plenty to be desired even if you take into account the committees and task-forces run by NITI Aayog. And even the rhetoric does not seem to apply when it comes to non-BJP ruled states. Kashmir is a special case, but it blatantly exposes the limitations of a central government driven by nationalistic rhetoric and paternalistic benevolence.

A final area of concern is the neglect of the democratic decentralisation process. The reforms of the early 1990s now appear toothless; both urban and rural local governments are hamstrung by poor resources and poor leadership, and an institutional framework that has not been reformed to keep up with the mounting responsibilities entrusted to local bodies. Governments have also taken a series of steps that erode local-level democracy. For instance, states such as Rajasthan and Haryana have hurt local governance by introducing questionable eligibility criteria for contesting elections; Nitish Kumar’s Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 empowers the District Collector to impose fines on a village/town (presumably with no involvement of the panchayat); in Maharashtra (and elsewhere), the forest department has violated the rights of tribal communities to manage their forests.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it points to the rapidly worsening state of our democracy at all levels—right from the centre of power in Delhi, down to our villages. Seven decades after independence, the state of our democracy should concern us all, and erase any sense of complacency that might exist regarding how great a nation we are. But we need to be careful: the incredible democratic project that India represents will not be corrected by chauvinistic nationalism. It is as important to guard against those agitating against the current state of our democracy, and in favour of reversing the progress we have made. True reform requires a partnership between a liberal state and a constantly watchful civil society. Is the current government up to this task?

Women and power in post-conflict countries

From a WaPo column by Aili Mari Tripp:

Rwanda is the most-quoted example, but the phenomenon of women holding a significant proportion of official positions (in legislatures or in the bureaucracy) extends to several other African countries – notably those emerging from conflict.

Across Africa, countries emerging from major conflict were quicker to advance women’s rights and elect women to political office than countries that had remained less conflicted. What is more, post-conflict nations went further in changing their laws and constitutions, offering women more strong legal protections in the areas of land rights, family law, violence and political equality…

How does this happen?

…In Africa, for instance, women were among those most engaged in behind-the-scenes peacemaking, pressuring militia to lay down their arms, demonstrating for peaceful elections and negotiating the release of kidnapped civilians. Further, women gain credibility after these conflicts, since they have been political outsiders, uninvolved with leading the militias and paramilitaries and not responsible for the violence – making a vote for a woman seen as a break with the disastrously violent status quo.

The emergence of women to positions of power is a break away from the established norms. Tripp finds that a long spell of brutal conflict readies a society for radical changes.

And I was wondering about Somalia…

…women made more advances after major civil wars or wars of national liberation than after interstate or proxy wars, or after low-level conflict, local rebellions or coups d’état. For instance, consider the ongoing conflict in Somalia. There is not enough stability for leaders to worry about legislative reform – and so we should not expect much legal change with respect to women’s status during conflict.

Here is Tripp’s book – “Women and power in post-conflict Africa”

Can Modi distance himself from cows?

In India, Narendra Modi owns the strongest ‘dog whistle’ there is. His supporters know when he means something, when he doesn’t mean what he is saying, how he means it, and what the implication for them is. In recent speeches, if Modi has made it clear that he is very ‘gussa’ about cow vigilantes, he also made it amply clear that his anger was only limited to those cow vigilantes that attacked Dalits – a constituency crucial to his party’s prospects (and in some ways, his own reputation) in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. In response then, expect a brief respite from attacks, possibly conditional on a pardon from sympathetic state governments for the excesses already committed. They have already been ‘assured’ that the extent of a state government’s action would be to prepare a dossier.

Another view is that Modi is conscious that the negative publicity stemming from atrocities on Dalits affects the publicity he is (rightly) seeking for reforms such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and other initiatives aimed at establishing India as a favourable destination for investments. Add to that, Modi’s desire and efforts to build a favourable personal reputation, and you should have a Prime Minister who is deeply concerned that the ongoing lawlessness in the name of the cow.

I am of the belief that Modi’s concerns are firmly with the former, not the latter. He is too shrewd a politician to fall for the charms of the ‘west’. He knows his electorate is back home, and what is needed is a mix of favourable domestic economic conditions, and a host of emotive issues on which he can polarise the electorate. Do not be misled by his stage shows in New York or London – those are aimed at the domestic audience, who take western and NRI approval as a sign of success. The fact that NRIs work the social media platforms tirelessly and raise money for Modi (as well as for Trump) is a bonus, but that’s clearly not the raison d’etre.

As a vehicle to go beyond domestic economic issues, cow vigilantism has usually worked – and Modi himself has used his dog whistle to great effect not just as when he was a Chief Minister, but even after he was sworn in Prime Minister of this country. So has a well-measured policy on Muslims – alternately ignoring them (under the garb of ‘India first’, ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas’, etc) and demonising them (for terrorism, population growth, etc). In fact, this tactic worked so well in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that Modi and his party returned an absolute majority for the first time in three decades.

It is probably safe to conclude then that Modi cannot distance himself from cows. Having grown up as a swayamsewak himself, his very instincts are to use divisive topics such as ‘cow slaughter’ to stoke communal tensions. This isn’t about ‘opportunism’; this is about the core nature of the RSS and its followers. Distancing himself from ‘cows’ would thus mean distancing himself from the RSS, and that is a risk even Narendra Modi would not take.

Can logframes be improved for adaptive management?

Posting in full, a comment I posted on a thoughtful blog by Pete, reflecting on what he calls

a nagging feeling that the way development organisations continue to use the log-frame to manage project performance is holding us back from really thinking differently and politically about development

My response:

Thanks for blogging about this, Pete. I agree wholeheartedly: it’s definitely time to overhaul how programmes are reviewed.

Revamping the logframe is one step. A possible option: In a standard logframe, each output has multiple indicators that get scored on the basis of whether the targets have been achieved or not, and the output then gets scored on the basis of the number of indicators that are met. How about, if we change the way this works and have indicators represent multiple pathways towards achieving an output? This would one, establish from the very beginning that not all of these pathways would work. This would also prompt programmes to reflect on the Theory of Change (and underlying assumptions) and integrate them with the logframe. If we did this, targets/milestones for some of the indicators would be met, while some others would not. But that would be written into the design of the programme assessment framework. Outputs would be scored on the basis of overall progress, and not tied to individual scores against each indicator.

The other step we need to take is to revamp how logframes are used for assessment: Scoring (as discussed above) is one aspect. The other aspect is capacity of those doing the scoring. Obviously, rigid and linear scoring is easier to undertake, as well as easier to defend using a rule-book. But if being ‘flexible and adaptive’ is a genuine priority, reviewers will need to stick their necks out to make judgments that go beyond just numbers. This should not only be “allowed”, but should be considered “essential”. A system of peer-reviews could be used to negate biases (in either direction).