Governance for Development in Africa: Solving Collective Action Problems: Review of an important new book

The last year or so has been a bit quiet in terms of big new books on development, but now they are piling up on my study floor (my usual filing system)ODI book coverAngus Deaton, Deepak Nayyar, Ben Ramalingam, Nina Munk etc etc. I will review them as soon as I can (or arm-twist better qualified colleagues to do so).

But I thought I’d start off with a nice short one. Governance for Development in Africa: Solving Collective Action Problems, by David Booth and Diana Cammack, provides a very readable 140 page summary of the ODI’s Africa Power and Politics Programme, bits of which I have previously discussed on this blog. 140 pages is wonderful – you can read it in a morning and feel a glow of satisfaction for the rest of the day. Think there’s a lesson for me somewhere there…..

The book moves from theory to the APPP’s in-depth national fieldwork in Rwanda, Mali, Niger and Uganda and back again, coming to some uncomfortable conclusions.

The book’s underlying conceptual message is that trying to understand (and reform) African politics on the basis of ‘principal-agent’ thinking has been a disaster. Instead, it is much better to think in terms of ‘collective action problems’. The difference is that the first approach ‘assumes that there are principles that want goods to be provided but have difficulty in getting the agents to perform’.

The second approach is ‘more sceptical about the motives that drive action. Many groups and individuals may want the benefits in the form of public or collective goods but will not work to obtain them.’ The art is to find ways to bring all parties together, build trust, and find locally relevant solutions, often built on ‘hybrids’ that mix local traditions with ‘modern’ best practice.

‘If there is a genuinely universal truth about governance for transformation, it is that pre-existing institutions need to be treated as a potential resource for reforms….. ‘The ‘grain’ of popular demand in contemporary Africa is not a desire for ‘traditional’ institutions, but rather for modern state structures that have been adapted to, or infused with, contemporary cultural preferences.’

In comparing what works and what doesn’t (in the quality of maternal health care, but other areas of essential services too), Booth and Cammack identify three explanatory features:

  • Whether or not the de facto policy regime, including organizational mandates and resource flows, in the sector is internally coherent
  • The extent to which the national political leadership motivates and disciplines the multiple actors responsible for the quality of provision
  • The degree to which there is an enabling environment that promotes or at least permits problem-solving at sub-national levels of the delivery system

And they identify plenty of examples where these features are not present: in terms of policy (in)coherence, abolishing user fees in health and education, but not increasing budgets to meet the ensuring boom in usage; using aid money to buy a load of ambulances, without any provision to put petrol in them.

On political discipline, the authors applaud Rwanda’s well-organized health and education services and wider incentive systems for public servants. On the scope for local problem solving, there are plenty of examples of national officials blocking local solutions because they are ‘not policy’ (any comparison with Oxfam sign-off procedures is purely coincidental). Interestingly it finds that when it comes to local flexibility, Rwanda’s government is much more relaxed than the other country case studies. It’s not all central control in Kigali.

There are lots of other plusses in the book – handy chronologies of the shifting fads on politics and governance; merciless debunking of a whole magazine of magic bullets (citizen scorecards, publishing budget details for schools etc).

APPP logo_enBut the authors, and the APPP generally, really struggle on the ‘so whats’. The finding on hybrid solutions is significant and useful, but on the national scale, their conclusion is that some kinds of authoritarian regimes can ‘do a Rwanda’, like Ethiopia, ‘when, and perhaps only when, they experience a sharp shock and/or a sustained threat to their existence.’ But, apart from acting promptly in the wake of the next genocide or famine, what does that mean for those wishing to support Africa’s path to good governance? It’s not that clear and to be honest, I found Matt Andrews’ proposals, which cover similar ground, more useful.

The other real struggle is over aid. The authors’ analysis is overwhelmingly condemnatory – the ‘biggest problem’ in policy coherence is wave after wave of externally imposed half-finished reforms, which have made a terrible mess of African governments (and they weren’t that hot to begin with). Reminds me a bit of UK education ministers’ endless tinkering……

But, unsurprisingly perhaps from authors rather dependent on DFID’s shilling, they pull their punches and fail to reach the logical conclusion that less aid is what is required. Instead, they want aid donors to become knowledge-based thinktanks, or to outsource more work as ‘arm’s length aid’.

My other problem with the book is its jarring tone, especially its rather lazy dismissal of both democracy and citizen action. Here’s a sample:

‘Full blown capitalism creates the social structures and organizational capabilities that lead to democratic governance, not the other way around…. Real democracy is not an available option for most of Africa.’

‘Elite level action issues are the most fundamental development issue for most African countries….. the masses are not significant players on their own behalf’ – the role of citizens thus seems to be reduced to that of political pawns or grateful consumers.

Similarly, they are scornful of aid initiatives ‘based on the associational model’.

Not surprisingly, I disagree with a lot of this. They equate supporting citizenship with bunging loads of money at civil society organizations (‘turning them into NGOs’), which I would agree is probably self-defeating, but suggests they are a bit out of touch both with how to support citizen action, and its huge potential. They fail to see the potential role of civil society in identifying and amplifying the problems around which collective problem solving needs to take place. And they downplay the intrinsic value of rights, including democratic rights.

But if you can get past the tone, which is worse in the earlier sections of the book, the conclusion is excellent, and fits exactly with many of the arguments on this blog.

‘External actors have a duty to contribute to the creation of an enabling environment for local problem-solving. But this is challenging. It requires the intervening agent to have the flexibility, learning capacity and intellectual modesty to play a facilitation role…. Several of these qualities are in short supply in the development business.’ (ouch!)

And here (putting their call for ‘intellectual modesty’ to one side) is the final paragraph:

‘We would give priority to two practical steps. One is a robust commitment from the international NGO community to Duncan Green’s ‘convening and brokering’ as opposed to ‘delivering stuff’. The other is greater use of arm’s length assistance- funding of organizations that can do a better job of facilitating governance for development along the lines outlined here.’

Well obviously, I’m going to agree with that, right?

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3 Responses to “Governance for Development in Africa: Solving Collective Action Problems: Review of an important new book”
  1. max

    I have always thought that the UK govt and its various think tanks are best understood in terms of colonial history. They see governance as largely a bureaucratic top down endeavour, and are not very interested in nor have much knowledge of democracy or how to work with democratic institutions.

  2. Anders Östman

    Dear Duncan,
    I find it encouraging that you agree with the view of the authors that Africa’s governance problem fundamentally is a collective action problem. The last twenty years or so of Western style “good governance” has been a disaster for Africa, and I think we agree here too. Aid was a major contributor to this mess. However, in order for Africa to go from poverty to prosperity you cannot search for an “ideal situation”, because emperically it does not tell you why some societies are more succesful than others. Democracy is not the answer. The widespread democratisation we have seen in Africa during the last decades has not translated into improved prosperity for the people. Market reforms have lead to destruction of functioning markets or created more rent-seeking opportunities for political elites in the absence of proper regulation. Civil societies have very little impact on the implementation of development policies, I am sorry to say. So what is the that makes some societies succesful?
    To my understanding and based on research by APPP, Tracking Development (Leiden, Netherlands) and also by the Quality of Government Institute (Gothenburg, Sweden)it is the degree of quality in public services that matters. That is why Rwanda and Ethiopia have better results, not necessarily beacause they are authoritarian. What the latter institute has concluded is that this is not only about legislation, but something more profound. It evolves around the basic principles that guide the operations of public institutions (national or local) such as impartiality, objectivity, equality and integrity in all public services, including providing public goods. In few countries in Africa or pehaps even none is this the case, rather the norm is highly disfunctional public institutions, that creates distrust among the people. You use the word citizen and citizen action. I would be the first to be able to ackowledge the importance of such actions, but without functional public institutions, it is just a distraction. Democratic rights are worth fighting for on their own merits, but they are irrelevant for prosperity.Of utmost importance for creating prosperity in a country is to keep corruption at minimal levels and avoid political appointments for public offices. This is more important than the degree of democracy in creating conditions for prosperity. On booth these counts Rwanda and Ethiopia is doing better than most other African countries, though they are not perfect. Finally, on aid, I am of the opinion, based on my twenty years or so, working with aid in Africa, that it has done more damage than good. It has given, the African elite a free ride, distorted accountability to its own people and “reduced citizens to that of political pawns or grateful consumers” as the authors point out. Africa’s development challenges are not about money, it is about politics, political leaders who have a development as their goal.

  3. First we can do love everyone and culture,voice so we make a better Africa continent,I would demand to my Africa leads to be open for invest of black American and black European to be come in Africa and to give free visa because is your people or is your sons from your continent if we need to work together for everyone.Every invest conduction’s is 50 to 50 not 80 to 20. If you love people in Africa continent or you need to invest in Africa you make 50 to 50 for African people because everything is in Africa continent.

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