Is power and politics a massive distraction? Crossing swords with the World Bank.

May 8, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

This post is written on the hoof, dashing between presentations, so please pardon the rough edges.

Yesterday I shared a platform with Marcelo Giugale, the World Bank’s Africa Director for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management (right). We weremarcelo-giugale coming from very different places, some might say different planets, which is always stimulating. I did my standard power and politics spiel, focusing on multidimensional poverty, inequality and complex systems and their implications for aid agencies (more on that to follow).

Marcelo responded by saying that this was all a massive distraction, and that we should keep our eyes on the prize of ending poverty. And on this he was relentlessly upbeat, optimistic and pretty apolitical. ‘We can end poverty without blasting the system… we have the technology’ he said.

Marcelo argued that six key developments have made this possible:

  • We will know the poor by name, individually. Thanks to a combination of technology and the widespread introduction of cash transfers, governments are increasingly registering all their poor citizens (the mega example being India’s biometric identity card programme – below, left). This allows them to scale up transfers rapidly in the event of shocks.
  • Biometric-ID-a-must-to-buy-property-in-IndiaWe can determine impact, not just outcome. He defined impact as ‘that subset of outcomes that would not have happened without the intervention’ and pointed out that many of them are negative. Eg aid agencies give aid for education, so the education budget is redirected to something less worthwhile.
  • ‘The time has come to link people with their natural resources.’ The World Bank seems to be getting behind the ‘doing an Alaska’ proposal to distribute natural resource revenues straight into the hands of poor people. Interestingly their power analysis suggests that the most likely way to overcome domestic political barriers (politicians not wanting to give up their slush funds) is by persuading ‘desperate oppositions’ who do not expect to win to adopt it as a last throw of the dice. Something a bit similar led to the introduction of India’s renowned Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. They think early adopters will ease the political logjam and increase pressure on neighbouring countries to follow suit.
  • Equity not Equality: the way to steer a course through the politically polarized terrain of inequality is to focus on children. Hence the Bank’s new Human Opportunity Index, which asks ‘how important are a child’s  personal circumstances  over which he/she has no control or responsibility (e.g., gender, family income, skin colour, birthplace, etc), to his/her probability to access the services without which he/she can’t succeed in life (things like completing 6th grade on time or having potable water in the first two years of life)?’ I’m not sure about this – is it a way to get at the real causes of inequality, breaking the transmission between generations that has grown so much more rigid in recent years. Or is it a convenient way of dodging politically contentious issues of distribution and redistribution, kicking the can down the road with a new version of the kind of ‘equality of opportunity’ approach (aka the American Dream), which I thought we had left behind?
  • Focus on non-cognitive skills, such as punctuality, respect and dedication to understand the reasons for success. Why? Because they are important and becoming more measurable.
  • A proliferating set of ‘standards’ for public expenditure will help governments to introduce results-based payments and budgeting.

Most of this is taken from his (freely downloadable) 2010 book The Day After Tomorrow.

Several things struck me about his presentation. Firstly, the overwhelming can-do optimism is very seductive. And the emphasis on technology neatlyoptimism avoids any difficult political decisions. This is a happy technocratic world of win-wins. In contrast my presentation was all about difficult politics – I’m not sure I had the best tunes.

But in the end, I didn’t buy a lot of it – by invoking the use of ‘we’, as in ‘we can end poverty, by fixing X or Y’, he reminded me of Pierre Jacquet’s great question – who is we? And why assume that ‘we’ have a common agenda?

Marcelo has a remarkably outsiderish view of the ‘we’ – in a follow-up email he defined them as “All those that care about ending poverty, not just 19th Street, but NGOs, advocacy groups,  faith-based organizations, the college kid that spends a year in a developing country giving a  hand, etc”.

In contrast, I would argue that these are all bit players: the key ‘we’ is within developing countries – political actors, civil society organizations, faith leaders and the rest. There, assumptions of a common agenda are likely to prove unfounded. That’s why we need to go back to school on power and politics. Which all reminded me of Matt Andrews’ critique of the World Bank’s efforts to ‘roll out best practice’ on institutional reform, including the institutions needed to introduce these new technologies.

Today I’m launching the book at the World Bank at 12.30, so expect the debates to continue……