Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank Chief Economist for Africa, describes in an important new blog post the evolution of development policy in terms of changing ideas about market failures and government failures. In the 1950s and 1960s, he says, development was about addressing market failures by providing public goods, addressing externalities, and redistributing income to poor people. Starting in the 1970s, attention shifted to government failures such as weak capacity, rent-seeking, political patronage and corruption. Today, he says, many of the most egregious failures have been addressed, but the remaining failures directly hurt poor people.
On Shanta’s view, these failures arise from two kinds of imperfection in the public sector: that governments have difficulty monitoring and enforcing performance (leading to absentee teachers, clinics without drugs, etc) and imperfections in the political system which prevent it from serving the poor.
Shanta says that changes in technology and the rise of civil society can change all this:
Our understanding of government failure has coincided with two other developments. One is the rise of civil society’s voice in public discourse. The second is the technology revolution in poor countries. There’s a message here. Can we use technology and the voice of civil society to address these government failures? Rather than imposing conditions, we can empower poor people to monitor service providers. With some 80 percent of Africans having access to a cell phone, it is not difficult to have parents (or the students themselves) send an SMS message if the teacher is not in school, or there are no drugs in the clinic or the purported road maintenance program is not happening. This could do more for helping governments and donors get value for money than all the fiduciary controls we put in place. While we are at it, why don’t donors (including the World Bank) use technology to have the beneficiaries monitor and supervise development projects?
Can this work? Is social accountability a new model for development?
There is increasingly good evidence that transparency and accountability make a significant difference, in some cases surprisingly transformational. There is an increasingly impressive collection of individual case studies, rigorously evaluated, which demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach. For example, Jacob Svensson and Martina Björkman conducted a randomized field experiment in Uganda to test the effect of increasing community-based monitoring. They found that when communities more extensively monitored providers, both the quality and quantity of health services improved, including reducing infant mortality by a third.
There have, however, been no significant comparative studies bringing this evidence together. Until now. Rosemary McGee and John Gaventa have just published an extensive review of literature and experience across the field. There is a lot of material to digest, but here is the core of what they find:
…there are a number of micro level studies, especially in the service delivery and budget transparency fields. These begin to suggest that in some conditions, the initiatives can contribute to a range of positive outcomes including, for instance,
- increased state or institutional responsiveness
- lowering of corruption
- building new democratic spaces for citizen engagement
- empowering local voices
- better budget utilization and better delivery of services.
Reading the study, my conclusion is that we know rather more about the impact of greater accountability than we know about what we can do to bring that accountability about.
I currently work on transparency, because I think makes an important contribution to the ability of citizens to hold governments and donors to account and so improve service delivery and accelerate poverty reduction. There have been some good examples of how this can work in practice, which are summarised in Appendix 1 of this cost benefit analysis for the International Aid Transparency Initiative (page 23 of this pdf; disclosure: I’m a co-author). The most famous example is this study of the impact of information on funds flowing to schools in Uganda which found a strong relationship between transparency and funds flowing to schools, though the evidence was subsequently challenged. So while there is increasingly good evidence to confirm the intuition that transparency plays an important role, we need to understand a lot better how, and in what circumstances, transparency works, and particularly to understand better what else needs to be in place.
One issue on which Shanta is clearly right is that role that technology can play in supporting greater accountability. We know that technology does not end poverty, but we are seeing more and more examples of how technology – especially mobile telephony and text – has enabled and supported changes from mobile banking to wholesale agriculture markets. Just as technology underpins changes in markets (think of newspapers, or bookselling), so it can underpin changes in political economy and social accountability.
So is this, as Shanta says, Development 3.0?
Development is a long, slow, uncertain process and the road is bumpy and winding. Transparency and accountability are not a one bound and we are free solution, any more than the ‘big push’ or the Washington consensus which Shanta labels Development 1.0 and 2.0 respectively. But this time there is an important difference. The ‘big push’ and the Washington consensus were blueprints for a better world. Social accountability, by contrast, does not start with a preconceived idea of how resources should be used or services should be delivered: it seeks to change the dynamics of the system to make it more responsive and more likely to converge by itself on solutions which better serve poor people in developing countries.
A big challenge will be whether development agencies themselves are able to adapt. Their models for project cycle management are based on a top-down view: you specify the world you are trying to create (the “goal”) and then you articulate a series of outputs and activities which you expect will bring this about. It will be a big change – intellectually, organisationally and culturally – to modify their systems, incentives and procedures to a world in which donors work instead to help the citizens of developing countries to determine their goals and priorities and build their own systems to achieve them.
If what Shanta is calling Development 3.0 means that instead of offering a one-size fits all solution we should work to close the broken feedback loop so that communities themselves can find the answer, then I think this may indeed be a change of perspective on development worthy of a major version number.