Are we being too quick to judge Liberia’s ‘partnership schools’ pilot?

Liberia has provoked serious outrage from some quarters with its decision to enter into an agreement with private providers to run its primary schools. An official release on Liberia’s Ministry of Education website sets out the problem, saying that

42 percent of primary age children remain out of school. And most of those who are enrolled are simply not receiving the quality of education they deserve and need”.

One must commend George Kronnisanyon Werner, the Minister of Education for focusing his attention on what is really critical – not only are many children out of school, but even the ones that are part of the system are not receiving quality education. Children enrolled in Liberian schools are not learning, and when asked about the state of the education sector, are quite critical.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh is scathing in his criticism of the Liberian government’s decision. He asserted that

“Provision of public education of good quality is a core function of the State. Abandoning this to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of the right to education,”, and “it is ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free primary education to every child, but it can find huge sums of money to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf,”.

This criticism is worrying on two counts – the unyielding stance on engagement of private providers in schooling systems; and more importantly, the statement seems to limit the definition of the state’s implementation capacity to its availability of financial resources. More funds in the hands of governments (or for that matter, donors and NGOs) do not automatically translate into better outcomes.

This is particularly true of primary education. Over the last decade, governments and donors have poured in enormous sums of money into education systems, into securing higher levels of access for children in poor countries. In the process, globally, we have taken our eye off quality and learning outcomes. Year after year now, globally recognised learning surveys tell us that the vast majority of children might be in school, but they aren’t learning. This is true in Liberia’s case too. The debate over Liberia’s policy decision fits right into the global debate over the role of private providers, and to do justice to the enormous education challenge facing us, the least we should insist on, is a nuanced discussion.

In recent years, low-cost private schools have become an important feature on the policy agenda to promote education for all. These schools are not free, but they are low-cost in comparison to the standard understanding of what ‘private’ schools charge. Even so, the $5 – 7 per month that is charged can be quite a burden on the pockets of poor families. Others have countered this by pointing out that education expenditures make up a significant proportion of what families with children normally spend (ranking just behind food and health). Therefore, private schools are springing up, especially in rural and peri-urban areas of low- and middle-income countries. Parents appear to be voting with their feet and private school enrolment is increasing in absolute numbers and as a percentage of gross enrolment figures in countries such as India, Pakistan, Kenya.

Evidence suggests that private providers have a role to play. They deliver learning outcomes that are as good, or slightly better than in public schools at lower per-capita costs, according to evaluations in India and Kenya. Of course, the absolute levels of learning in both types of schools seem abysmally poor, so there is really very little to choose from there. And the costs are kept low by paying teachers lower, which is yet another hot potato. For one, teacher absenteeism and time on task in public schools is very poor in comparison to private schools. More importantly, there is little evidence to show that having higher paid, or qualified permanent civil service teachers yield results in terms of learning outcomes for children.

Other independent studies have found that management systems that are able to hold teachers to account make a huge difference, and many private providers follow models that are more accountable than public systems.  But this debate is far from over. We often complain about the lack of sufficient evidence-informed policymaking—but it is also true that policymakers do not always have the best evidence possible at a given decision-point, where best means both rigorously collected and analysed as well as relevant to the context. This is where the ‘partnership schools’ experiment will provide Liberia with an excellent opportunity – to generate evidence, and make their own decisions based on clear, transparent decision criteria. The official statement says as much: “an independent body will be commissioned to evaluate the outcomes of the pilot program.

Many critics are up in arms over the fact that Liberia is partnering with Bridge International Academies (BIA), an American firm that has investors such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). Engaging a single provider in such a large experiment is risky. But, at this point, it is not even clear that is the case. Liberia says they will run a competitive procurement process to identify partners, so one would hope that there would be multiple partners in the mix, and an opportunity to test out more than one approach. The eco-system of private providers is a large one. There are the likes of BIA, which are large multinational chains, and then, there are the single-entrepreneur schools, community/NGO schools, church-run schools, etc. One could argue that local private players are better rooted in the communities they work in and therefore, are more responsive and accountable. But these are assumptions that this pilot should help test out.

When Liberia decides to initiate a pilot of up to 120 schools (3% of the all public schools in the country), it is not abdicating its responsibility towards its children. By starting this pilot, the Liberian government is neither off the hook for improving quality of the remaining public schools in the country, nor can it give up its oversight of private schools that would function under its watch. The criticism of Liberia on the lines that it is “outsourcing its entire education system” just isn’t right. As a country in the middle of a post-conflict recovery process, Liberia needed to do something different to revive its education sector. This is a bold gamble, and promises to be an interesting public policy experiment. On this occasion, we must not be too quick to judge Liberia.


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The ‘decentralisation agenda’ must succeed

Duncan Green’s blog hosted a post by LSE’s Jean-Paul Faguet titled: Is Decentralisation good for Development. Faguet has edited a book by the same name that you can find here. This is a subject very close to my heart, and I believe in decentralisation as a value, just as I believe in democracy. It is often a work in progress, but it is a project worth persisting with, an ideal worth pursuing. Faguet’s research (at least, my interpretation of his work) therefore, really speaks to me. In this post, he makes several interesting and compelling points. For instance:

On the advantage of competitive politics generated by decentralised systems:

Imagine you live in a centralized country, a hurricane is coming, and the government is inept. To whom can you turn? No one – you’re sunk. In a decentralized country, ineptitude in regional government implies nothing about the ability of local government. And even if both regional and local governments are inept, central government is independently constituted, probably run by a different party, and may be able to help. Indeed, the very fact of multiple government levels in a democracy generates a competitive dynamic in which candidates and parties use the far greater number of platforms to outdo each other by showing competence, and project themselves hierarchically upwards.  In a centralized system, by contrast, there is only really one – very big – prize, and not much of a training ground on which to prepare.

Highlighting the importance of careful design:

The genius of a properly designed decentralization system is that it combines technical expertise from above with local time-and-place information from below, in a way that is superior to what either level of government could achieve on its own.

And finally, challenging the decentralisation-sceptic’s belief in democracy:

I have heard colleagues declare their allegiance to both democracy and the centralized state, and I just don’t get it. Citizens must be allowed to vote… but only for national government?  They must not be allowed local governments? Local services with few externalities – like local policing or primary education – whose effects are overwhelmingly concentrated on the residents of a locality… must be provided by a distant central government?

Decentralisation is an ideal, but it needs to be carefully designed. For instance, a local government without funds, functions and functionaries (the three in equal measure), is of no use to citizens. I have been fortunate that in India (and my home state Kerala in particular), decentralised governance is not an abstract idea. It is the reality. In recent years – in spite of all of my own critiques, and that of experts in the field – the central government in India has taken concrete measures that have the potential to deepen democracy, by yielding more power to federal states. Federal states on the other hand, have a mixed record in strengthening local governments, but even then, there is a promising momentum towards a truly decentralised governance system. (Yes, I am generalising, and there are several specific critiques; also important to acknowledge that the pace of reforms is uneven and several cases suggest even a reversal). But what is way forward?

In recent years, many doubts have been raised on the merits of decentralisation itself – on its ability to deliver better quality of public services, on its willingness to raise resources and on its ability to improve local accountability in general. In an old post, I had countered four popular reasons that are often quoted for the impending collapse of the local governance system in India at the lowest levels – the village councils. This is a short recap:

  1. Local governments are corrupt: You hear this all the time, and everywhere. As fund flows to local governments increased, these allegations gained in strength. There is, of course, some truth to this, but this is akin to claiming that the government should not implement any programmes because politicians and bureaucrats are corrupt. Through mechanisms such as social audits local-level corruption is easy to uncover and transparency has proven to be a powerful tool in the hands of communities.
  2. Elite capture of local governments mean that they are therefore not accountable to citizens: Local governments are often headed by elites, much in the same way as our legislators are usually the rich and powerful. The competing pressures of politics and the prospect of re-elections is a strong accountability measure that can reduce the chances of elite capture. Local government elections usually see very high turn-outs.
  3. Local governments lack the skills to draft development plans: This is an accusation thrown in a context where little is done to train elected representatives at the local levels regarding their roles and responsibilities. In many government programmes, local governments are are burdened with not only responsibilities of needs assessment and resource planning, but also monitoring implementation. In the absence of systematic training in the mechanisms of local resource appraisal, it is likely that plans will look more like wish-lists.
  4. Not all development projects can be planned at the village level: This is a classic misconception. The typical error here is that when one thinks of local governments, they only think of village-level, without considering the tiers above them that form the entire complement of local governance structures. Also, the federal states and central governments are supposed to, at their levels, take up projects that require specialised technical expertise, and cover large geographies, and multiple constituencies.

The problem with some of the critics of decentralisation is that they try to look at the work of sub-national/local governments in isolation. Either they express frustrations that these local governments have been unable to transform service delivery, or they reinforce their scepticism of local leaders by pointing to instances of corruption or inaction.

Ultimately, local governments need an enabling environment, where they work collaboratively with bureaucrats in the line departments and service utilities. Without this, and in an environment where local governments have to continually struggle for powers and legitimacy, expectations that they would get work done are highly misplaced. In many developing countries, the ‘decentralisation agenda’ is struggling. But it must succeed.


Do phone surveys work?

A question we frequently encounter – for reasons of access, cost and reliability of data.

Interesting findings therefore, in this paper studying micro-enterprises in the township of Soweto, South Africa:

We randomly assign micro-enterprises to three groups, who receive are interviewed face-to-face at monthly intervals (mimicking a standard method of collecting data from micro-enterprises), face-to-face at weekly intervals, and by mobile phone at weekly intervals. We find high frequency data collection is useful: it captures extensive volatility in a number of measures not visible in less frequent data collection. We also find is viable: on most measures and at most quantiles of the distribution, data patterns are indistinguishable in interviews conducted weekly or monthly and face-to-face or by phone.

High frequency surveys (which are easier when conducted over the phone) provide valuable data; and the authors do not find any significant difference in attrition rates between phone and face-to-face surveys. Also, variable costs are about 40% lower for phone surveys – the cost savings would likely be higher if conducted over widely dispersed rural areas instead of an urban township.

Sue Unsworth’s ‘upside down’ view

Sue Unsworth’s work provides us a wealth of knowledge on governance and institutional change, stemming largely from her ‘upside down’ view of the conventional reality of the aid world. Here is a quick peek into some of her work – particularly, insights into how donor-approaches should evolve to engage successfully with politics.

Sue’s work with David Booth – captured in this paper, Politically smart, locally led development – presents seven case studies of problem-driven approaches that provide important lessons to donors, as well as a clear message that merely using new terminology without actually changing the ‘ways of working will not yield results. The authors suggest that chasing ‘international best practices’ often lead to imagined solutions that do not address the problem at hand.

…for politically smart, locally led approaches to become the norm, a more radical shift is needed in the way donors conceive development challenges and their role in addressing them. They need to abandon oversimplified concepts of ‘ownership’ and ‘partnership’, and unrealistic assumptions about the scope for outsiders to lead transformational change

This resonates with the PDIA community (Matt Andrews and co) who advocate problem-driven entry strategies, arguing that successful efforts at building capabilities require an unwavering focus on solving a specific ‘problem’.

Another important document was An Upside Down View of Governance, published in 2010 by the Centre for the Future State at Institute of Development Studies (IDS). (Here is an useful 15-page summary). The authors are clear about what the lessons for donors are:

progressive change can happen when people start to see that they have common interests in cooperating to create collective goods. There can be productive bargaining between public and private actors that results in positive sum outcomes (improved security, peaceful resolution of conflicts, more productive private investment, better public financial management, more inclusive public services). Moreover the processes of bargaining between state and society can themselves strengthen opportunities and incentives for collective action (including action by or on behalf of poor people) as well as the capacity of the state to respond.

Upside Down relied primarily on examples of (mostly) home-grown success stories from around the developing world – building a narrative around how one should view governance in these countries – in many ways, similar to Judith Tendler’s ‘Good Government in the Tropics‘ that focused on good government practices that made key sectors work in Ceara, Brazil.

Staying on donor strategies, there was another interesting piece, co-authored with Mick Moore in openDemocracy, that proposes the following set of questions to shape donor strategies, and operating in politically-informed and responsive ways:

  • What is shaping the interests of political elites?
  • What is shaping relations between politicians and investors, and might they have common interests in supporting productive investment? 
  • What might stimulate and sustain collective action by social groups to demand better services? 
  • What informal local institutions are at work, and how are they shaping development outcomes? 
  • Where does government revenue come from, and how is that shaping its relations with citizens?

Much of this has now become close-to-mainstream thinking, especially in donors such as DFID. Case studies of politically smart, problem-driven, adaptive approaches abound – from many parts of the developing world. Obviously, a lot still remains to be done in making this altered view a part of mainstream practice.   

Many of these ideas are beginning to inform donor approaches, particularly in fragile states. But adopting them as mainstream practice would imply a big shift in how donors see their role: from being experts with responsibility for “delivering” on the millennium development goals, to being much more effective facilitators of locally driven change.

But ‘doing development differently’ is not easy. There are several obstacles – rigid project structures, business cases, impatient donor desk officer, a weary community (of “beneficiaries” and on-lookers), etc. Only the brave donor desk officer will take on the bureaucracy of her own organisation. Donors, especially bilaterals, remain under pressure to deliver quantifiable outputs, and this leads to a perpetuation of business of usual models of delivery, driven by standard assumptions of ‘participation’ and ‘ownership’.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Sue’s work has been her insistence that none of her insights are in themselves, ‘remarkable’ or particularly innovative. And it is true. ‘Politics matters’ is a truism. What really matters is what we do with this realisation, and how we integrate it into our work. Watch her, in this ODI video, speaking on how ‘thinking and working politically’ can be operationalised in day-to-day operations of donors

Sue Unsworth will truly be missed. Here’s hoping that we can make her ideas continue to prosper.

The 2016 Gates Letter is all about power

The Gates have now made an annual tradition of publishing their development manifestos – they are in the form of letters that they write early in the calendar year. These letters contain not only their personal vision, but presumably, that of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Broadly, my reaction to the letters in 2014 and 2015 were that they reflected an inordinate focus on technology-driven solutions. By those standards, I was in for a surprise this year as I read the 2016 Gates Letter.

In his section, Bill Gates outlined his dream of an “energy miracle”. This is easily one of the most important priorities for the globe. Experts are united that clean energy is the way forward. Falling oil prices might just present a serious challenge to this push, but hopefully this is a temporary glitch that will not derail investments in research and development in the search for clean energy. This search also ties in with the Gates’ traditional areas of strength, which are science and technology-driven, looking to extend the frontiers of knowledge in an effort to improve human welfare.

As critical as advances in science and technology are, Gates does well to remind us of the power that governments have and thereby, points to the importance of generating a political consensus:

“Governments have a big role to play in sparking new advances, as they have for other scientific research. U.S. government funding was behind breakthrough cancer treatments and the moon landing. If you’re reading this online, you have the government to thank for that too. Research paid for by the U.S. government helped create the Internet.”

On clean energy, I am going to just say that there is near universal consensus in its favour, ignoring what climate change deniers might hold. Of course, a surprise in the upcoming presidential election in the United States might throw a serious spanner in the works, but on this issue, I am as optimistic as Bill Gates is.

This year, it is Melinda Gates’ section on women and unpaid domestic work that makes for some great reading. This is essentially a political topic. Gates herself recognises that there are no easy technology-led fixes to this problem. Women spend more time on unpaid domestic work than men do; and partly as a result, they make up a smaller proportion of the labour force (especially organised labour force). Women are disadvantaged by a complex web of power relations that underpin this injustice, and it is great to see Melinda Gates calling them out. The letter focuses on a three-part strategy:

“Recognise, Reduce, and Redistribute: Recognize that unpaid work is still work. Reduce the amount of time and energy it takes. And Redistribute it more evenly between women and men.”

Technological advances can certainly help. As Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang says, mundane technologies like washing machines, piped water and gas have essentially transformed the way families operate. However, the societies that the Gates are primarily concerned about – ones in Africa and South Asia – remain places where women continue to face a variety of cultural and societal prejudices, and their powerlessness is manifested in abysmal health, education and property-ownership outcomes, to name just a few.

This messy politics of power is not normally an area that the Gates Foundation likes to venture into. And yet, the very nature of gender inequality has dimensions that cannot be addressed without working on power issues, alongside personal and societal behaviour. Platitudes alone, like what essentially was our Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the National Conference of Women Legislators in Delhi, will make little to no difference.

The story of Anna and Sanare, that Melinda Gates closes her letter with, highlights the importance of shifting norms of personal, familial and societal behaviour. This is essentially a hard grind towards an objective that will probably not be realised in time for 2030 – a milestone the Gates had set in their 2015 letter for the poor worldwide attaining huge improvements in health, education, nutrition and mobility. But more importantly, by highlighting the complex issue of gender justice, the 2016 Gates Letter acknowledges a reality that will largely determine the extent to which these improvements will be realised in the years to come.

The deception in branding India

In the last two years, the Indian state has energetically promoted Brand India – on domestic soil and abroad, with Make in India as its centre-piece. On one hand, India as a brand contains immense promise: our unity despite our deep diversity, our commitment to democracy despite our history and geography, the spread of our culture despite two hundred years of subjugation, and finally, our ability to consistently produce some of the finest minds in the world.

But on the other hand, these are times when it appears that the state and its accomplices would like to drag us back in time, bereft of morality or character, into a time where virility, prejudice and brazenness are the only virtues that matter. For close to two years now, a virulent, intolerant concept of the state that seeks unquestioned loyalty to the state, and seeks to exert complete control over all spheres of public and private life has gained currency. This has been complemented by a sustained effort to alter the status quo of the past seven decades. Tireless attempts are underway to mould the impatient Indian who could not tolerate dynastic politics and corruption at large, into a sagacious one.

This model citizen that the state champions does not allow this deception to affect him. He calls for equivalence in every situation; he googles furiously to gather random data to compensate for his lack of analytical ability; he does not hesitate to air unverified facts; he is quick to abuse in public, and most importantly, he is steadfast in his faith in the new establishment. As he grows to be more accepting of the nuances of governance, trained as he is in issues ranging from the vague ‘influence of global factors’ to the emotionally-charged concepts of nationalism, he insists – louder than ever – that those asking questions of the government of the day have no locus standi. So when today, students, artists, or scientists protest, they are dismissed as anti-national, politically motivated, or irrelevant; as rotten apples that are distracting the rest from the propagation of Brand India on the global stage.

These traits have been on naked public display over the last week as the government deployed some of its senior-most commanders and its battalions of online warriors to tarnish the reputation of a group of students, their university, and more broadly, an entire eco-system that fostered debate, dissent and the pursuit of knowledge. To understand why this eco-system is important, it is important to appreciate the space for intellectualism. In this instance, it is the kind of intellectualism that helps one understand the distinction between the nation and the holders of state power – that one’s patriotism is not subject to their views on those holding the reins of state power. The right to dissent includes the right to challenge the state. A state that engages in political vendetta against its opponents is one thing, to use the state machinery to repeatedly assault basic rights of its citizens is a whole different ball-game.

The Telegraph sticks it in, as usual

It is unfortunate then that the USP of the Brand India that the state seeks to promote ultimately is reduced to our ability to juggle contradictions that strike at the heart of our democracy and culture. Serious reforms remain off the table, primarily due to the inability of those in power to build a political consensus. Provocation and grandstanding are the order of the day. The state is keen to demonstrate that India is a country of mouse-charmers, when in reality, it just wants us all to be cow-worshippers. The state would like to claim we can lead the world on innovation, but at the same time, strikes down swiftly on every minor instance of dissent. All of this is done of course, without allowing the contradictions take anything away from the swagger of an emerging global superpower.

The model citizen today is being asked by its state to don a mask in the service of his nation. A mask which can help him unabashedly hide a primitive interior within a plural exterior. As the state today goes about systematically destroying the country as we know it, it is simultaneously promoting Brand India, claiming virtues that it itself seeks to destroy. This is deception. How long before we are left bare in the eyes of the world, and more importantly, in our own eyes?

The state is reclaiming power over tribal communities

Indigenous tribes constitute about 8% of India’s population–about 100 million people. Two superbly progressive pieces of legislation—the Forest Rights Act (2006) and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (1996)—established a framework for local self-governance in demarcated (or “scheduled”) areas. The FRA clarified further that these communities had the sole right to sell proceeds from forests.

This has been the subject of an ongoing tussle between Maharashtra’s Forest Department and the Union ministry of tribal affairs. A recent Business Standard report covered this episode, illustrating how the tribal affairs ministry agreed to hand over control of forest management to the state’s forest department, after having initially insisted that tribal communities had exclusive rights over trade in forest produce. This is yet another instance that highlights how the implementation of PESA and FRA have been fraught with challenges–many of them genuine and yet many others a consequence of bureaucratic and political inertia, incompetence and malice.

As a columnist in The Hindu wrote last year, the process of documenting tribal claims is not an easy one, involving democratically constituted gram sabhas (village assemblies) as per the provisions of the 73rd constitutional amendment on panchayati raj and PESA. This is compounded by the ongoing power struggle between the bureaucracy and tribal communities–one that the latter is likely to lose unless there is robust political intervention on their behalf. One of the manifestations of this has been a limited interpretation of the acts, with governments recognising only individual property and not community ownership of land. This is sometimes attributed to a lack of evidence on the ground for the stated joint ownership. But that is mostly an excuse. From physical land surveys to mobile apps that harness satellite technology, there are solutions easily available to the tribal departments if they wanted to recognise and register community land.

Not recognising common property resources that tribes collectively manage and live off is not only economic injustice, but also breaks the (in many senses, highly evolved) traditional order of tribal societies. The assault on tribal lifestyles and livelihoods has been incessant–and is not tied to the ideology of any particular political party in power. It is no secret that states with a large proportion of tribals would like to be free from central regulations that restrict them from exploiting the resource-rich catchments that lie within their territory. But the union government has also been doing its bit.

Last year, the Hindustan Times reported how the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had changed the law to throw open up to 40% of the country’s (ostensibly only degraded) forests to private sector management. First of all, ‘degraded’ forests are not as expendable as the MoEF makes them out to be. A former director of the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, argues that, “Even the most degraded natural forests have 50-100 species of trees per hectare. For their end products, industries would hardly plant one or two species.” Allowing the private sector to use these lands for monoculture could have a ruinous impact on the ecosystem. Further, as reported in the same column, those guidelines also stated that tribal communities could access forest produce in only 10-15% of the land proposed to be leased out to private players. If implemented, this would be in contravention of the FRA that (as mentioned above) recognised tribal communities as the owners and managers of their forests.

Finally, here are my thoughts on these instances of the state reclaiming its powers over tribal communities, and their lands:

  • The government has largely struggled to make local governance work in tribal areas. When funds are allocated for local bodies in tribal areas, they are often not accompanied by the requisite hand-holding and capacity building to utilise funds and execute projects. This has been the case even in states like Kerala that are considerably ahead of others when it comes to local governance. Without better infrastructure such as roads and markets, these communities will continue to struggle to make good use of their forest resources.
  • While the eventual outcome (for the moment) in Maharashtra is disheartening, it is encouraging that the ministry of tribal affairs seems to have campaigned quite hard to protect the rights of tribal communities. Irrespective of the current decision, it leaves behind a paper trail that can be used by officials and activists in future. This is yet another reminder that the ‘state’ is not a monolith, and understanding that enables us to work much better with the state.
  • As mentioned above, political support is key; and in this instance, the dice was loaded heavily against tribal communities. With that in mind, we must lament the fact that while the minister for tribal affairs is a member of the union cabinet, he, just like the minister of panchayati raj, and drinking water and sanitation (other departments that are mandated to address issues critical to social welfare), is a relative political lightweight. What are the chances they will win a political tussle with heavyweight cabinet colleagues like Nitin Gadkari and Prakash Javadekar?

Governance in tribal areas suffers from many of the same problems that panchayati raj suffers from, and then some. There is an understandable degree of natural friction between the “development” priorities of the state and the “development” priorities of tribal communities, with a third perspective of the “development” priorities of civil society that is working to improve tribal welfare. Between these competing priorities, the state remains the behemoth, with an ability to invoke its power of eminent domain – part of which it had ceded through PESA and FRA. If the state today is seen to be reclaiming those powers, one must be very vigilant and hold it to account on what it does next.


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