Does Chris Blattman hate state capacity?

The simple answer is NO. The long answer is below.

Blattman’s latest post decries Bill Gates’ (and much of the development community’s) focus on data gathering, and may I add, strengthening of statistics departments. He writes:

I would like to see better GDP numbers–who wouldn’t?–but it’s hard for me to see the constraint on development this revelation would relieve, and why it’s anywhere close to the top ten constraints poor countries face.

The problem with those of us in the development complex, be we academics or Presidents or foundations or NGOs, is we want the world nicely ordered with levers to pull and a dashboard to monitor. And so we put a lot of energies into levers and dashboards and monitors.

I think of poverty and political powerlessness in terms of constraints and frictions–the limitless host of things, little and big, that made it more difficult to run a business profitably or turn a profit or invent a new product or get your kid educated or select the leader who serves your interests. States and institutions and norms and technology and organizations reduce these frictions and relieve these constraints. That is the fundamental driver of development. This is the basic logic behind almost every theory of development in your textbooks, from growth models to poverty traps to everything in between.

Blattman is right that improving the capacity of statistics departments will not do much to alleviate poverty now (although as I write this in the basement of a government library in Nairobi I can’t stop thinking that stats departments need to do more). At the same time however, I would be wary of an outright dismissal of the need for better data gathering by governments, for two reasons.

Firstly, at the core of state capacity is the ability to make legible (depite Scott’s observations) the terrain over which the state claims to have dominion. Strong states are those that know your home address, the number of children you have and how much money you made last year. When governments have the capacity to get better GDP data, they will also know how many kids died or were not immunized last year, etc etc. And perhaps more importantly, they will be able to know how much you made last year and how they can get a bigger share of it. As Besley and Persson have argued, there is a strong case to be made for the centrality of public finance to development. Poor countries have small tax bases yes, but tax evasion in these countries still denies national treasuries lots of cash. And it is not just a question political will. Low capacity plays a role. Imagine trying to implement an income tax in a country of about 20 million adults but where under 4 million are in formal employment and can have their taxes withheld.

Secondly, Blattman seems to be making an argument for the private sector as a key part of greasing frictions that stifle development (which is true). But the private sector initiatives he cites can only flourish when there is strong state monitoring (with reliable data) in the background. Credit bureaus need a strong and enforceable regulatory framework. Otherwise no one will believe their credit reports. Freedom of (government) information laws are cool, but such information must first exist, and in reliable format. In other words stats departments must do their job well.

Lastly, good data also make for more informed politics. Kenya, for instance, could do with more disaggregated GDP data – by counties or lower – as it attempts to implement a devolved system of government and revenue allocation.

All this to say that when states have a handle on how much is produced, they will know how and where to get their share. And the more they demand a bigger share, the more the people will demand some of it to be returned as public goods (and these can also include reliable information that would be accessed via freedom of information laws). Yes, GDP data was invented post-WWII when some countries were already winning against poverty for decades. But even before that the more successful states were the ones that were better at information gathering. Flying blind is simply not an option for states.



2 thoughts on “Does Chris Blattman hate state capacity?

  1. Pingback: Data, Information and Development | UWA Microeconomics Blog

  2. Pingback: Seeing Like a State in Africa: Data Needed | APHRC

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