There is no way around the basics: Development will take time

I just read Chris Blattman’s response to the UK Prime Minister’s op-ed in the Journal. It reminded me of a lot of the things that I have been reading lately in preparation for my fieldwork (My dissertation will tackle the subject of legislative (under)development in Africa, with a focus on the Kenyan and Zambian legislatures).

Cameron’s sentiments in the op-ed are emblematic of the problems of development assistance. Like in all kinds of foreign intervention, developed states often try to externalize their institutions (and more generally, ways of doing things). These attempts often ignore the lived realities of the countries being assisted.

Forgetting the history of his own country (think autocratic monarchs, monopolies, limited suffrage), Cameron thinks that democracy, human rights and free markets (all great things) will magically create jobs in the developing states of the world. They don’t. In fact, they often lag the job creation process. For development assistance to be effective it must eschew these feel-good approaches to the problem of underdevelopment.

Blattman is spot on on a number of points:

  1. Unchecked leaders are bad for economic development (this is why I am so much into PARLIAMENTS!!!): Also, democracy is NOT synonymous with limited government. Heads of state like Queen Victoria or Hu Jintao or Bismarck or even Seretse Khama were in no measure democrats. However, they reined under systems with strong (sometimes extra-constitutional) checks to their power. That made a difference.
  2. Institutions rule, yes, but the right kinds of institutions: 1688 moments do not drop out of the sky. They are often preceded by decades if not centuries of civil strife, economic change and plain old learning. Institutional development takes time. Plus each society requires its own unique and appropriate mix of institutional arrangements to meet unique economic and social needs. A procrustean approach to institutional development (embodied in global capacity building) will inevitably fail. Institutional development must never be allowed to be captured by those who think that we can transform Chad simply by having them adopt Swedish institutions.
  3. Growth will require creation of jobs, i.e. industrial development: The poor countries of the world need real jobs for high school-leavers and other less educated people. The present focus on the “sexy” entrepreneural sectors – whether they are small businesses for the poor or tech hubs for the very highly educated – as the engines for growth in the developing world is misguided. I reiterate, starting a business is a very risky venture that should be left to the wealthy and the occasional dare devil. The poor in the global south need stable 9-5 jobs. Lots of them.

And lastly, where do strong institutions come from? There is no easy answer to this question. What we know is:

  1. History matters: Present countries with a long history of stateness have a better track record of building strong institutions for development. Yes, they may not always be democratic, but countries with a long history of centralized rule have strong states (and institutions) that deliver for their people (for more on this see Englebert and Gennaioli and Rainer).
  2. Democracy does not always create strong institutions: Since 1945 many have chosen to forget the fact that universal suffrage is a pretty recent phenomenon in the political history of the world. For the longest time world polities were ruled by power barons who held de facto power (as opposed to the procedural de jure power in democracies). When democracy came along after the Enlightenment the resulting structures of rule often reflected these de facto configurations of power. Over time institutions in these countries were cemented enough to allow for complete outsiders like say the current president of the United States to be elected without upsetting the balance of power (in another era he would have had to have mounted a coup). This is the challenge of the democratization in the new post-WWII states. How do you make democracy serve the interests of the people, rather that purely that of the elite? How do you use democracy to create strong institutions? Is this even possible? And if not, what other options do we have?

Is our children learning? (Credit to Bushism)

The Guardian reports:

More than two out of every three pupils who have finished two years of primary school in east Africa fail to pass basic tests in English, Swahili or numeracy, according to a new report, Are our children learning?.

The differences in performance vary both across and within countries:

The report found large differences in average test scores between countries in east Africa. Kenyan pupils perform best in literacy and numeracy. Ugandan children perform worst in the lower school years, but slowly overtake Tanzanian children and outperform them after six years in school.

But it is the within-country differences that are cause for a rethink of education policy in east Africa. Kids in private schools appear to do much better than those in public schools (the gap is most stark in Tanzania, 28 percentage points). The Ugandan school system appears to be the worst, with barely half of EVEN the private school kids passing.

In a finding likely to fuel the debate on public versus private schools, the report said students in private schools perform better than pupils in state schools in all three countries – a difference particularly marked inTanzania, where the pass rate among 10 to 16-year-olds for numeracy and literacy tests was 47% in state schools, compared with 75% in private schools.

“In part, the difference between Tanzania and the other countries is likely to be driven by the much smaller share of pupils attending private schools, even among the non-poor, suggesting they must be particularly selective,” said the report. In Kenya, the pass rate in private schools was 83%, compared with 75% in government schools, while in Uganda the gap was 53% to 36%.

As a product of the Kenyan public school system (and a Wazimba for life), I believe that public schools are the way to go. With some thought and innovation, public schools can be made to work – and in the process serve as the best chance for inter-generational SES mobility. The debate should be about how to improve public schools, as opposed to over the false choice of quantity vs. quality.

A possible model could be something akin to the Kenyan National Schools concept in which select schools across the country get extra resources not only to boost performance but also to act as testing grounds for new learning tools – which can then inform policy to help “Provincial Schools” catch up. Of course this would ineluctably create a multi-tier school system at the beginning, but it is arguably better than a system in which most (if not nearly all, see Uganda and Tanzania) public schools are failing.

It is important to note that in Kenya the best high schools have historically been public. With investment and openness to experimentation and innovation this tradition can be maintained.

H/T @AAA_ipregroup