What works in promoting governance reform in low income countries?


An anti-corruption campaign in Rwanda, via This is Africa

I’ve recently come across a series of excellent articles on what works in promoting governance reform in low income countries.  Two of them have come out of UK-based ODI, which is sponsoring some very interesting research on institutional development.  The politics of institutional reform haven’t received as much attention in American political science, although there’s a promising panel on this topic at APSA later this week.

My current go-to paper on governance reform is the “Developmental Regimes in Africa” synthesis report.   Some key points:

  • “States like Ethiopia and Rwanda whose leaders are forcing the pace of
    national and rural development [appear to be doing so because there is] an acute rural threat to the future of the elite in power” (p. 3).  Similar explanations have been put forward for the exceptionally strong post-war state-building observed in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.  Most African states do not have organized, class-based rural interest groups which can credibly threaten urban leaders
  • There is “no support for globally influential claims about the positive contribution of inclusive institutions or a ‘golden thread’ linking rule of law, absence of conflict and corruption, and strong formal property rights. … The combination of factors that was present in all six successful episodes [of high growth] and absent in all four unsuccessful ones contained just three elements. They were an intermediate level of ‘systemic vulnerability’ … a broadly market-friendly policy approach, and a policy-making process embedded in one or other of two types of strong institution: a political party with a tradition of consensual decision-making and leadership succession; and a strong, organic state bureaucracy with the ability to insulate policy from changes in political leadership. [This suggests] that the institutional character of the dominant party is the most generally relevant issue in Africa today” (p. 5)
  • Pockets of administrative effectiveness do exist in many African bureaucracies.  They may be particularly important for the outcomes of rural subsistence farmers, who are the majority of the population in many countries.  However, “the typical form of competitive clientelism in Africa today does not and perhaps cannot deliver the political protection that an effective agricultural transformation agency would require” (p. 6)
  • In comparative perspective, “Southeast Asia’s development successes were [emphatically not] the work of a particular type of political regime. Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam achieved comparable development outcomes under very different sorts of regime. What their governments shared was a pragmatic approach to an immediate problem – summarised in the phrase ‘urgency, outreach and expediency’. The change process was not driven by a bold vision for national economic transformation, but by a consistent incrementalism. [Conversely,] ambitious visions for economic transformation were more often found in Africa, where they contributed to a policy climate that systematically avoided providing the needed support to agriculture” (p. 6)

The DRA report takes an admittedly broad approach to the question of institutional change, focusing more on the outcomes of particular institutions than the the question of how those institutions arose in the first place.  Useful perspective on this issue is provided by the the “Change in Challenging Contexts” report, which focuses on the DR Congo, Liberia, South Sudan and Uganda.  To quote the executive summary (p. 7),

Strengthening capacity and systems for public financial management and service delivery in challenging contexts is possible. Attention needs to be placed on fostering genuine behavioural change if such change is to contribute to improved development outcomes.

Reform is messy in practice. The actions which deliver genuine change tend not to be pre-planned but responses to local problems and opportunities. Reforms need to be relevant to those problems and adapted based on experience, and must fit within the available space for reform and capacity.

Senior officials in authority provide and protect the space for change. Yet change is typically taken forward by mid-level bureaucrats who convene teams to deliver reform and build coalitions in support of change.

External actors can play an integral role in fostering genuine change. If this is to be more common, donors need to encourage governments and providers of technical assistance to address local problems and adapt solutions to them.

Another good bit of perspective is offered by Martha Johnson in “Donor Requirements and Pockets of Effectiveness in Senegal’s Bureaucracy.”   (The article is gated, but if you’d like a copy, I can pass it on.)  Here’s the abstract:

Donors increasingly value the work of statistics, project assessment and related offices in developing countries, but can they ensure these offices are able to do their work? This article assesses donors’ efforts to do so in Senegal’s ministries of finance, health and agriculture in the mid-2000s. It contends that donors’ impact is greatest if they generate political incentives for governments to create ‘pockets of effectiveness’ in these areas. The health and agriculture case studies indicate that direct donor involvement, particularly if incompatible with domestic political forces, produces disappointing results, while the finance case studies suggest donors can induce political support for the work of specific offices if donor incentives coincide with domestic political imperatives.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the series of excellent case studies of specific reform efforts collecte by Innovations for Successful Societies at Princeton.

Was Singapore’s growth really exceptional?

The success of the Asian Tiger economies has always posed an interesting question for African economic policy: if these post-colonial countries could grow so rapidly, why haven’t most others?  Strong authoritarian leadership and favorable geography are generally thought to explain some of the difference, but the rest is usually attributed to poor industrial policy on the part of African leaders.

Since the death of Lee Kuan Yew earlier this week, I’ve seen a number of articles questioning this narrative of Singapore’s exceptional growth.  Kevin Lees notes that Lee’s own policy ideas weren’t always very good – the disasterous federation with Malaya being prime among them – and that he was supported by capable finance ministers who might have achieved good outcomes even under a different leader.  More importantly, however, both Singapore and Hong Kong benefited greatly as destinations for overseas investment from China.  As Lees writes, “The obvious inference is that, though British colonial rule of Hong Kong through 1997 may not have been democratic, liberal freedoms didn’t especially hinder the same kind of economic ‘miracle’ there.”

Tom Pepinsky points out that Singapore’s per capita GDP was already fairly high at independence.  In his words,

Already by the 1970s, Singaporean GDP per capita actually exceeded that of the UK. But the main point to take away … is that Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time. That Singapore has progressed tremendously since independence is true, but not a story of turning the “Third World” into the first. If anything, it is a story of how to escape the middle income trap.

In another post, Tom shared a video that makes a similar point: the Singapore of 1957 looked more similar to the Singapore of today than one might have expected.

While not directly related to economic growth, I also found Emmanuel Yujuico’s post on the establishment of the Singaporean military fascinating.  Lacking the domestic capability to build a strong army quickly, Lee solicited help from Israel, and the strong military relationship between the two countries persists to this day.