Jean Drèze on the politics of evidence-based policymaking in India

I’m a bit behind on this Ideas for India article, but Jean Drèze has a refreshingly clear and compelling take on the difficulties of translating evidence into policy.  He highlights four political, ethical, and logistical challenges that academics may face in providing policy advice.

First, feasible policies must balance the competing interests of a range of different societal groups, which requires value judgements as well as some apolitical weighting of evidence.

No value judgements are required to conduct an RCT aimed at examining whether adding eggs in school meals helps to enhance pupil attendance or child nutrition. But advocating the inclusion of eggs in school meals is a very different ballgame. It means dealing with the arguments of upper-caste vegetarian lobbies (eggs are considered non-vegetarian in India) and animal-rights activists, aside from those of the Finance Ministry, the Education Department, and teachers’ unions. Commercial interests, too, are likely to come into play as the poultry business eyes big contracts. The debate can easily get very charged. Any ‘advice’ offered in this charged atmosphere may have serious repercussions, good or bad.

Second, the advice one provides to a technocrat who wants to maximize program efficiency and an advocacy group who wants to minimize social harm from a program might be very different.

 It is easy to imagine an economist giving the following sort of advice to the government: Our RCT shows that people essentially treat food transfers as an implicit cash transfer. Considering the high transaction costs of food subsidies, a transition to cash transfers seems advisable…

It is possible, however, that based on the same research a person who addresses herself to poor people would give the following – very different – advice: The government is planning to replace food transfers with cash transfers. You should resist this at all cost. Our work shows that the banking infrastructure is not ready. If you get cash instead of food, you will have to travel long distances and queue for hours to collect your meagre benefits.

Third, it’s not obvious that academics are sufficiently familiar with the deeply particular local political contexts in which every development program must be implemented to give useful advice on them.

Just to pursue the first angle, a development scheme can stand or fall on minor details such as whether the monthly cheques are signed by the district magistrate or village head, whether a government-sponsored latrine has one pit or two pits, or whether biometric authentication is necessary to apply for benefits…

Economists certainly have much to contribute, but in many cases they have no special competence on the relevant details. This has often struck me in the context of discussions of India’s MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), a complex programme that makes exacting demands on the administrative machinery. In my experience, it is possible to have enlightening discussions on the operational details with local administrators, village-level functionaries, and even MNREGA workers… In academic seminars on this subject, by contrast, the ignorance of operational matters is epic.

Finally, there is the very real possibility that advocacy on behalf of a specific policy could backfire.  But it is unclear how well academics can game out the policymaking process and anticipate precisely how their advice will be used.

 If you advise A, you may get a.A (a fraction of A), or A’ (a variant of A), or B (or an alternative to A), or even -A (the opposite of A). In the first case, should one actually advise (1/a).A, in the hope of getting A? That is, indeed, a common tactic among activists – ask for the loaf, settle for a slice. To put this in a different way (familiar to economists), policy advice can be seen as a kind of ‘game’, where the outcome depends on the strategies of all players, and the players must take each other’s strategies into account. Or perhaps it would be unprincipled to look at it that way, and economists should just give the advice they think is right, irrespective of the consequences? It is hard to tell.

The whole article is well worth a read.