Working With the Grain in Development

I finally got to reading Brian Levy’s Working With the Grain. It is easily the most underestimated development book of 2014, and should be read alongside William Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts (which it both complements and pushes back against). Like Easterly, Levy worked at the Bank and has insightful case studies and anecdotes from South Korea, to Ethiopia, to Bangladesh, among other countries. The book’s main thrust is that approaches to interventionist development policy ought to internalize the fact that:

… Successful reforms need to be aligned with a country’s political and institutional realities. For any specific reform, an incentive compatible approach begins by asking, who might be the critical mass of actors who both have standing and a stake in the proposed arrangements – and so are in a position to support and protect them in the face of opposition? [p. 142-3]

From a policy perspective, Levy tackles the relationship between governance, regime types, and development head on. How do you deal with the Biyas, Kagames or Zenawis of this world if you deeply care about [both] the material aspects of human welfare – roads, hospitals, schools, electricity, etc., [and] political freedoms and inclusive institutions?

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Levy’s answer is that development experts should work with the grain, focusing on incrementally solidifying past gains in specific agencies and issue areas, instead of engaging in epic battles against ill-defined and equally poorly understood “bad institutions” and evils like “corruption.” He aptly points out that you do not need the full set of the “good governance” bundle in order to continue chugging along on the path to economic prosperity.

In other words, we don’t have to put everything else on pause until we get the institutions right (or topple the bad guys). It is not an all or nothing game. His argument is persuasive (“good governance” has failed as a prescriptive remedy for underdevelopment), albeit at the cost of casting the immense toll of living under autocratic regimes as somewhat ineluctable on the road to economic prosperity. But at least he dares to challenge conventional approaches to governance reform that have at best failed, and at worst distracted governing elites from initiatives that could have worked to improve human welfare in developing countries.

As I read the book I wondered what Levy might think of the current state of development research. We are lucky to live in an age of increasing appreciation for evidence-based policy development, implementation, and evaluation. However, the resulting aura of “objectivity” in development research often leaves little room for politics, and its inefficiencies and contextual nuances. Sometimes the quest for generalizability makes us get too much into the weeds and forget that what is good for journal reviewers seldom passes the politicians’ (or other influential actors’) incentive compatibility test, rendering our findings useless from their perspective.

It is obvious, but worth reiterating, that the outcomes we can quantify, and therefore study, do not always overlap with the most pressing issues in development or policies that are politically feasible.

Perhaps this is a call for greater investment in public policy schools (not two-day capacity building workshops) in the developing world that will train experts to bridge the gap between academic development research and actual policy formulation and implementation (talking to policymakers makes your realize that this gap is wider than you think). Linking research findings to actual policy may sound easy, but you only need to see a “policy recommendations” section of a report written by those of us in the academy to know that it is not.

Development Experts and Their Biases

It is perhaps uncontroversial to suggest that World Bank staff have a different worldview from others. World Bank staff are highly educated and relatively wealthier than a large proportion of the world. However, it is interesting to note that while the goal of development is to end poverty, development professionals are not always good at predicting how poverty shapes mindsets. For example, although 42 percent of Bank staff predicted that most poor people in Nairobi, Kenya, would agree with the statement that “vaccines are risky because they can cause sterilization,” only 11 percent of the poor people sampled in Nairobi actually agreed with that statement. Overall, immunization coverage rates in Kenya are over 80 percent. There were also no significant differences in the responses of Bank staff in country offices and those in headquarters or in responses of staff working directly on poverty relative to staff working on other issues. This finding suggests the presence of a shared mental model, not tempered by direct exposure to poverty [emphasis added].

That is an excerpt from the World Development Report 2015, the section on the biases of development professionals.

One hopes that the problem highlighted by the last line is not crowded out of President Kim’s agenda at the Bank by the ongoing cost-cutting. And in case you were wondering, I don’t think flying coach and no breakfast will cut it since airports and the Mamba Points of this world are beyond the reach of most poor people. Speaking from experience, the development “expert” bubble is real, and enduring. We definitely need to do more to burst the bubble.

If field country offices are mere extensions of DC, then many development projects will continue to be variants of the proverbial solar cookers decried by Jim Ferguson in the Anti-Politics Machine. And everyone will continue to run around in circles.

In which I talk development with Bill Easterly and others on Al Jazeera

This afternoon I joined NYU’s William Easterly, Ingrid Kvangraven of the New School and Daniel Kaufmann of Revenue Watch to talk about Easterly’s new book, The Tyranny of Experts. You will notice that I am a huge fan of STATE CAPACITY.

(Apparently, graduate school prepares you not for TV appearances…)

Note: If you are in the US you have to VPN it since al jazeera doesn’t stream content in the US.

In preparation for the show I finally finished reading Easterly’s book. A review is coming soon (grad school permitting). 


Foreign Aid for Institutional Development?

In a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney urged that more of U.S. foreign assistance should have strings attached. Mr. Romney said that:

“Working with the private sector, the program will identify the barriers to investment and trade and entrepreneurialism in developing nations…………. In exchange for removing those barriers and opening their markets to U.S. investment and trade, developing nations will receive U.S. assistance packages focused on developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law, and property rights.”

Romney also added that:

“The aim of a much larger share of our aid must be the promotion of work and the fostering of free enterprise. Nothing we can do as a nation will change lives and nations more effectively and permanently than sharing the insight that lies at the foundation of America’s own economy — and that is that free people pursuing happiness in their own ways build a strong and prosperous nation.”

I am of the opinion that an approach to foreign assistance embodying the spirit of the latter quote is more likely to succeed than the former.

The thing with institutions is that they often reflect already existing social equilibria. The courts, the police, the military, the legislature, the stock exchange, etc, all reflect established norms and moral claims that individual stakeholders have on the system and on each other. When Westerners foreigners come in (many of whom often have very little understanding of the social basis of the existing equilibria) they often tend to work at cross-purposes with the existing social compacts (a good example here is the phenomenon of mono-issue activism – think of Human Rights Watch fighting the World Bank at the expense of locals).

Granted in some parts of the world these very social compacts need to be changed (e.g. misogynous social systems). But even in such cases the changes have to be grounded in local political arrangements that are self-enforcing. Media pronouncements from Western ambassadors are not enough.

Many development academics and practitioners alike often neglect the fact that in European history (contemporary Western experience informs a lot of institutional proselytizing) political development (i.e. the creation of responsive and impartial bureaucratic institutions to manage the affairs of the state) was preceded by modernization and general economic development. In most of the developing world this relationship is reversed. Political development has become the independent variable charged with driving the process of modernization and economic growth and development.

As a result, the mantra seems to be that if only everyone could get governance right then everything would fall in place and we’d all be on the road to becoming Denmark.

May be this can be achieved. I remain skeptical.

Big vs. Small Development

The Economist raises an interesting question regarding approaches to “development,” claiming that the recent race for the World Bank presidency represented a contest between two broad approaches:

Michael Woolcock, a World Bank staffer, suggests that two rather different models of development have been pitted against one another in the contest for president. On the one hand is what he calls Big Development, whose aim is the transformation of entire countries through investments in national education, justice and public health. Governments are essential to Big Development because they are responsible for the overall policy. And the World Bank is pre-eminently a Big Development institution.

On the other hand is Small Development. “Inspired less by transformational visions of entire countries,” Mr Woolcock argues, “and more by the immediate plight of particular demographic groups (AIDS orphans, child soldiers, ‘the poor’) living in particular geographic places (disaster zones, refugee camps, urban slums), Small Development advocates focus not on building systems in the medium run but on compensating for the failure of systems in the short run. ‘Development’ thus becomes an exercise in advocacy, in accurate targeting, in identifying particular ‘tools’ that ‘work’”.

In this scheme of things Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, the former finance minister, represented Big Development; Dr Kim, a public-health advocate, Small. Dr Kim was almost certainly picked because of his passport. But if his background is any guide, his tenure as chief is likely to shift the bank more towards Small Development. Whether that is a good thing on balance remains to be seen.

I take the side of Big Development (if such a dichotomy actually exists) because of my beef with “pro-poor development” as it is currently practiced  (more on this here).

Development is a giant coordination game with a million moving parts. This makes it much harder to coordinate on “scalable” “tools that work” at the micro-level. Indeed, no one has any idea what these tools really do. In addition, focus on “tools” casts the problem of underdevelopment as a technical one that can be fixed by “experts.”

This approach misses the point by miles.

This and this (highly recommended, a cogent critique of Big Development) and this are some of the reasons wby.

More on Obama’s WB President Nomination

Source: Wikipedia

Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is definitely the dream candidate for the Bank. But the realities of U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy concerns are stacked against her nomination to the presidency of the Bank. It will be hard for the U.S. to selflessly relinquish an important tool of foreign policy and influence in the Bank’s presidency.

If Obama backs down, he will be criticized for being soft in the face of international pressure. If he nominates a non-American, he will still be criticized as an apologist for those who hate America (real or imagined) and a believer in American decline.

Obama’s incentive is to get his nominee become World Bank President. Full stop.

Source: Wikipedia

So far those rooting for Ngozi (including yours truly) have questioned Jim Yong Kim’s credibility (he is/was not a fan of neo-liberalism) and competence (he is not an Economics PhD; but a mere MD, PhD) as World Bank president.

You can get Kim’s co-authored book here (or your local library; $97 is a bit pricey), it is on my to-read list (A review of the book is available here).

Here is quoting a post over at the Duck of Minerva for a more balanced take:

If Dr. Kim criticized the growth agenda of the structural adjustment era, so what? This has all become mainstreamed into the Bank’s own philosophy of pro-poor growth.Does it take a PhD in Economics to run the World Bank successfully? If selected, Dr. Kim would be the leader with the most hands-on development experience that the Bank has ever possessed. He would be as or more experienced in the field as serious contenders that were mooted in advance like Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, or Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi (ok, maybe Larry Summers knows more but Summers always know more than anybody). As Daron Acemoglu and Jim Robinson pointed out on their blog [Why Nations Fail]: “Perhaps all of Mr. Kim’s critics prefer the status quo where the World Bank is run by ex-warmongers (Robert McNamara), bankers (James Wolfensohn) or career civil servants (Robert Zoelick). Wait wasn’t that the World Bank that they loved to criticize?”

Adding that:

You don’t have to denigrate Dr. Kim to praise the other candidates. The strongest case is that while Dr. Kim is a good candidate, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is the dream candidate. She’s from a large developing country, knows the issue well, understands the complex world of global finance, and is intimately familiar with the culture and organization of the Bank. And, for her supporters, the changing nature of the international system has made this practice of the U.S. having the automatic right to appoint the Bank’s president an anachronism.

Beating the drum for Ngozi

The Economist has joined a string of internet commentators in endorsing Nigerian Minister of Finance to become the next president of the World Bank. Contrasted against the resume of Obama’s choice for the Bank, Ngozi wins. By miles.

According to the Economist:

The World Bank is the world’s premier development institution. Its boss needs experience in government, in economics and in finance (it is a bank, after all). He or she should have a broad record in development, too. Ms Okonjo-Iweala has all these attributes, and Colombia’s José Antonio Ocampo has a couple. By contrast Jim Yong Kim, the American public-health professor whom Barack Obama wants to impose on the bank, has at most one.

However, it is interesting that in all the debate no one has talked about HOW Ngozi will change the Bank’s operations, besides insinuations that she has hands on experience in transforming Nigeria’s public finances, coupled with her previous experience at the Bank.

More importantly, what would be the cost to Nigeria if they lose Ngozi? Is this important at all?

Ngozi leading the bank will probably make a difference. However, I think that support for her candidacy has thus far been too one-sided. Nigeria, like much of the developing world, does not have much influence on the Bank’s board. Nigeria also stands to lose one of its ablest technocrats just when it is striving to reform its public finances. These considerations should matter too, I think.

Just for the record, I am one of those who think that it would be really cool to have Ngozi lead the Bank (despite the fact that she probably will not).


Update: I just came across some interesting thoughts on Ngozi’s nomination over at Africa is A Country (H/T Chad).

How I would not lead the World Bank – Bill Easterly

For those, like me, who still miss Aid Watch, here is Easterly over at FP:

I would not appoint U.S.-educated elites vetted by their autocratic home governments to represent the underrepresented peoples of the world. I would not negotiate the contents of World Bank reports with governments in either the West or the Rest, except possibly for correcting typos.

I would not lead the World Bank by perpetuating the technocratic illusion that development is something “we” do to “them.” I would not ignore the rights of “them.” If the New York Times should happen to report on the front page that a World Bank-financed project torched the homes and crops of Ugandan farmers, I would not stonewall the investigation for the next 165 days, 4 hours, 37 minutes, and 20 seconds up to now.

More on this here.

And for more on leadership selection at IFIs see CGD’s policy brief here.

Resource flows in Africa

According to this figure FDI and recorded remittances appear to be trending in the right direction. Official aid and portfolio equity and private debt are not.

For more on this check out the World Bank’s new book (digital copy) on how Africa can leverage immigration to boost its growth prospects.

It’s important to remember that while overall these numbers may look encouraging, the problem of illicit capital outflows still plagues Sub-Saharan Africa (and other developing regions); and serves as an impediment to growth. Between 1970-2008 the region hemorrhaged an average of over $22b annually. Various studies (including this one) estimate that the private wealth held by Africans in tax havens and other shady depositories abroad may be upwards of $270b.