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.

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The man and the manifesto

Some observers are upset that the principal opposition party in India’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has issued its election manifesto only on the morning of the first day of polling.

BJP’s spokespersons claimed that the party’s agenda has been the clearest among all political parties and has been articulated over and over in its prime ministerial candidateNarendra Modi’s rallies.

The most obvious reason for this delay perhaps was that Murli Manohar Joshi is the chief of BJP’s manifesto committee—the same gentleman who was eased out of his Varanasi seat to make way for Modi.

The first two names on the committee are that of Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha.

Singh stands expelled and it is not improbable that Sinha hasn’t taken very well this treatment of his old colleague. It’s conjecture, but the manifesto committee is in disarray. But I digress—the important question is, did the BJP need a manifesto for 2014, or was it better off without one?

You can argue that every political party contesting an election has to come out with its election manifesto. Whether the voter actually reads it or not, a manifesto is a declaration of intent—in economic policy, foreign policy, law and order, social welfare and other such important measures that we like to use to judge our political parties and our governments.

A promise in a manifesto is not legally enforcible, but is used by rivals and the civil society to hold political parties to account. The BJP recognises that only too well, having held out the six-year Vajpayee tenure essentially as its party’s promise of governance.

However, that of course has not been the focus of its election campaign this time around. The focus squarely has been on Modi.

The absence of a manifesto helped Modi to escape scrutiny on the details of his proposition for the top job and allowed him to contradict his party if required.

Delaying the release of an official manifesto allowed Modi a longer run, positioning himself as the man who does not play by the conventional rules of the game in Delhi, and he can declare his intention to invite foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail, build hundred smart cities, twin cities and throw in MBA-ish frameworks such as P2G2, 5T, a ‘seven point rainbow’ etc—some of which now appear in BJP’s manifesto, but with no additional details of their implementation feasibility.

Let’s take a look at where the BJP manifesto takes us.

The preface lists India’s historical achievements, going as far back as the ‘several thousand years before the Christian era’ and talks about its international outreach in the pre-colonial era (and as expected, doesn’t mention the Mughals at all).

It goes on to lament the six decades of lost opportunity (and in particular, the last decade) and posits the six-year NDA rule as the only bright spot in India’s post-Independence period.

Wonder why the electorate thought otherwise in 2004 and again in 2009, then? But that’s a question the party doesn’t attempt to answer.

What follows is a series of proposals to tackle key concerns—many of them administrative, such as increasing use of technology, moving accountability measures such as time-bound service delivery, etc.

On the other hand, on issues such as criminalisation of politics, decentralisation, social justice, skill training, sanitation and even corruption, it rolls out proposals that are modified versions of what is on paper already.

On land acquisition, tribal issues and environment, some of the primary areas of concern with the policies and operations of Modi’s Gujarat government, the document has little to say.

The manifesto, in many ways, is a reality check—implementation is the primary bottleneck in our country today—and it grounds the hyperbole surrounding Modi’s high-pitched campaign.

The BJP is fighting a dual battle: on one hand is the image-problem on its secular credentials that it has, compounded by Modi’s alleged complicity in the 2002 riots; on the other hand is the promise of development it wants to hold out to the nation, a promise that is best kept vague and rhetorical.

For the BJP ought to know better than any other party, how limited the role of the central government is in this increasingly federal polity.

On this too, the manifesto has little to add to the current discourse, except creating national and regional councils and listening to states as equal partners. Its star chief ministers, including Modi, know only too well that the model that works in the states may not easily be replicated in New Delhi.

A manifesto that rehashes old ideas and stays faithful to its Hindutva roots does not fit with the ideal middle-class darling that Modi is seeking to become.

By delaying the release of its election manifesto, the BJP has got it absolutely right.

This election is not about what the BJP can or cannot do if it comes to power. It is a referendum on Narendra Modi–his past and our future–and for that, the nation needs no manifesto.

Wanted: a systems overhaul

‘Engineers, not drivers’, is the title of a column by Ajay Shah, reflecting on the kind of leadership we need today. 

When the leadership tries to act like a driver, operating the steering wheel while leaving the machine intact, it will be ineffective (as the car does not work). Five years would go by and nothing would get better

This boils down to implementation, beyond policy pronouncements – a willingness to work with the nuts and bolts of the system, empowering grassroots’ implementers. If this means revisiting the basic structures of our bureaucracy, so be it. Rethinking terms of service should be one of the first steps.

We also need to change the conditions that has led to an all-pervasive arrogance amongst the political elite. Can this be done by creating and empowering a new set of political actors? In part, that is what decentralised governance can help achieve. At each level though, clear accountability measures need to be identified and implemented – why not start by reimagining and regulating how political parties function?

As Shah concludes:

In India, we now need a new wave of intricate engineering in order to achieve cars that work. For every arm of government, we have to clarify objectives — getting government away from random meddling to narrowly addressing market failures. We need to precisely define the powers of government, to get away from the abuses of sweeping powers. We need to envelop government in an array of accountability mechanisms, so that functionaries serve the people of India instead of wallowing in laziness, corruption and ignorance. We need to figure out organisation diagrams, write new process manuals and do recruitment and reskilling.

Rahul Gandhi’s “right to” approach doesn’t work

This World Bank book on MGNREGA once again exposes the limitations of the legislative route to development

Knowledge is lower for women than for men, and higher for those who are better educated. The sharing of information between men and women within the household appears to be weak. There are also strong village effects on knowledge about the scheme. Holding constant individual and household characteristics, levels of awareness of the scheme are lower in villages with higher inequality and where there are more signs of tension between different social groups. The characteristics of the village leader (such as whether he or she lives in the village) also matter.

Yet another example of the limitation of the “right to” approach. When even this legislation, ten years old, suffers from poor awareness amongst the poor, what makes us expect any better from the other legislations – food/education/etc? No programme has generated more interest and activity at the district-level or the Panchayat-level; most District Collectors have virtually turned into MGNREGA implementers more than anything else. One can even argue that the law is amongst the more straightforward ones, with the registration, job request and payment mechanisms being relatively simple. Of course, because of the volume of funds involved here, it is also the one scheme most prone to serious ground-level corruption. Even so…

Healthcare in Rwanda – matching demand and supply

A significant driver seems to have been universal health insurance based on principles of cost-sharing and cross-subsidies that helped generate demand for healthcare

…health insurance — called Mutuelle de Santé — is nearly universal. Andrew Makaka, who manages the health financing unit at the Ministry of Health, said that only 4 percent of Rwandans are uninsured.

Mutuelle is a community system — premiums go into a local risk pool and are administered by communities. Until last year, Mutuelle’s premiums were about two dollars a year. This system turned out to be untenable…

…Last year Mutuelle adopted a sliding scale. For the wealthiest, premiums essentially quadrupled, to about $8 a year. Each visit to a clinic has a co-pay of about 33 cents. If you need to go to the hospital, you pay a tenth of your hospital bill. But now the poorest — as judged by their communities — pay nothing…

This NYT Fixes blog also refers to the fact that Rwanda fixed the problem of doctors not coming to work and the lack of medical equipment.

This 2008 presentation by a doctor from the Ministry of Health in Rwanda explains how. Three key steps that potentially improved the supply-side:

  1. Performance-based service contracts with local governments and with health workers; also indicative of decentralised service delivery arrangements
  2. Health sector financing predicated on a composite index of gaps/bottlenecks in health care
  3. Functional autonomy to health facilities (this might have been the most critical of them all)
Research by external agencies seem to agreeLessons for India? another post, soon…

Why legislation is not enough…

Lant Pritchett on the importance of implementation

Rights do not eliminate the need for administrative reform. Even if the government had funds for universal pensions, the mechanisms for pro-poor implementation would still be missing. Implementing a universal right requires changes in how the poor prove citizenship, access courts and apply for schemes; and in how bureaucracies are trained, funded and staffed. There is a larger concern here. By using the rhetoric of rights, without shoring up the commensurate resources to incentivise and enable their implementation, the state risks further delegitimising the rights discourse and disenchanting its own citizens. Without building legitimacy, rights-based approaches cannot fulfill their potential. Legitimacy can be built by getting things done right, not by rights alone. You can’t legislate your way to good implementation.

Do read the piece in full! Love the bit where he refers to the ‘street-level bureaucrat’ – one of my favourite characters in government.

This piece provides more reasons (if you still need any) for why you should be wary of uncritically cheering the various “Right Tos” that are spun out by the government. The proof of the pudding, is in the eating – no less.

The great sanitation stink

Recently, addressing a workshop of state secretaries in-charge of Rural Water Supply and Sanitation, Jairam Ramesh​, the minister for rural development, termed it a shame that 58% of the world’s open defecation happens in India. Anyone who has worked on sanitation would take this figure with a pinch of salt, knowing how misleading sanitation coverage figures are – possibly not just in India, but all over the developing world.

A country that aspires to be a global superpower lags behind numerous other poorer countries when it comes to a ranking on the basis of the proportion of population with access to improved sanitation. In India, sanitation seems to suffer from a policy blind-spot, being overshadowed as policymakers miss the link between sanitation, hygiene, health and productivity. This has led to numerous unsuccessful policy attempts to address the issue. There are of course hundreds of successes, but rarely have they been replicated or scaled up to a degree that matters. In this piece, we would like to highlight a few broad challenges.

Excerpt from our piece published on livemint