Saturday, 11 May 2013

"Culture" doesn't exist (and some more clarifications on institutions...)

Hi David,

Thanks for the feedback, and your usual gentle but firm style!  I wanted to counter on a few points (I don't think we'll end up disagreeing much, but there do seem to some important subtleties that are worth noting).

1.  You are wrong when you state in your reply, without any qualifications, that "investing money in industry clusters without taking on monopoly regulation is not the most effective way of encouraging innovation".  The failure to put any qualifiers to that (in the same way that you make a sweeping "How Governments Actively Discourage Innovation" statement in your original post - no contextual limiters, just a sweeping blanket statement) is the mistake.

There are plenty of examples from economic history of just that approach being highly successful.  As it happens, here's a very topical article on Brazil from Forbes - note the fifth paragraph that shows just such a constructive 'national champion' as being highly successful (and spawning an innovation hub).  The S Korean chaebols of Samsung and LG are similar phenomenally successful examples.  From heavy industry to consumer durables to sophisticated electronics - with heavy R&D along the way.

The key point in these examples, of course, is that the 'national champions' (which were essentially national monopolies or oligopolies that were created by the respective governments) were still having to compete in international export markets.  So they had to innovate.  This seems to be the difference w Mexico, with the national monopolists not just being protected domestically, but also not being forced to compete in export markets?

So if the point you are trying to make is that competition is important for innovation, then absolutely.  But that does not necessarily mean that competition has to be domestic.  Context - both time & space - is key.  The policies needed in country A may be very different from country B, with one needing national champions and the other needing anti-trust.   Equally the policies needed in country A at time T1 (when perhaps national champions are needed) may be very different from a later time T2 (when perhaps anti-trust breakups are needed).

Pragmatism is vital - see Deng's classic quote here.  And making blanket statements, without qualifiers, is something that I'm afraid I have to call out (very unlike you, in your defence!).

2. This then leads to the question of what is the nature of, and motivation behind, govt policy choices in any country at any time.  My point is that institutional analysis is the key holistic insight here - an insight that leads to my dismissal of "culture".

But before we get to that, I think it is worth clarifying a misundertanding.  You seem to be seeing institutions as something mostly procedural or regulatory (eg, anti-corruption commissions, structured rules, legal rights around property or marriage, or things that can be "accompanied by complementary initiatives in the media and education").  In the normal sense of "institution" in day to day language, that's probably right.

But in new institutional economics, these are simply sub-sets of "institutions", with institutions actually being much broader than that.  In particular, you'll see the references in that hyperlink to not just social norms, but also to governance, ideological values, gained control, asymmetric information, bargaining power and so on.

This may seem just like semantics but its not.  Govts do not control or create institutions - but are in fact themselves a reflection of, and created by, institutions (in the economics sense).  So you cannot separate those, and criticise one without criticising the other.  And equally, if there are shortcomings in one, that will typically be driven by shortcomings in the other.  This is a dynamic, endogenous relationship.

Your critique of 1980s/90s LatAm with import substitution policies that were not accompanied by skills, education or deregulation is a perfect example of this.  All of those seem to be consistent with LatAm having extractive institutions in that period.  The elites benefited from import substitution (since they controlled the national champions) and of course also had no incentives (or pressure) to invest in the skills, education or opportunity-creation of the non-elites.  So actually the fact that that happened is not surprising at all.

The real question is how and why did LatAm institutions change to become more inclusive.  I'm not an expert on the region, but I daresay the political struggle and mobilisation of the marginalised or underprivileged was the key factor (a la Lula, Morales, Chavez et al).  I'd doubt that there was any magical, benevolent culture shift in the region.  I'd wager that it was political competition that either led to outright regime change, or progressively more inclusive politicoeconomic bargaining by incumbent elites.

(Yes, I'm aware that Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador have all gone different ways.  Context is indeed key as flagged above - there is no deterministic blanket path.  Even Lula I believe started his first administration as a classic radical, but was foresighted enough to know he had to be pragmatic).

3.  So when you extol the importance of norms, behaviours and values, I couldn't agree with you more.  But those are part of institutions!  They are not something alien or parallel (or exogenous) to institutions.  Media and education are not things that accompany institutions, they are examples of institutions.

This may seem like generalising institutions to such an all-encompassing level that they are no longer useful for analytical purposes.  Not so, because what such a lens of "institutions" forces us to look at is not just the formal rules, but also the underlying norms, behaviours and value systems.  But not just stop there, but also to look at bargaining power, information asymmetry etc.  And not just stop there, but to look at the fact that these shape each other endogenously and reflexively - and that therefore the whole thing becomes not just dynamic but also the epitome of a complex system.

This forcing process to look at all these factors is vital (and is the real value-add of such an institutional approach).  It is also why I argue that "Culture" does not exist.  And that arguments based on "Culture" are prescriptive, ascriptive and are rhetorical camouflage (devices of distraction even).

4.  So now we come to the point that you seem to have felt most strongly.  And actually your example proves my point :) ...

Let me ask you, is there such a thing as "Mexican" culture?  I know much less about the region than you, but do the peasants in Chiapas share the same culture as the landowners and industrialists or the hipsters and techies or the narcos?

Certainly, if we look at other parts of the world, the values, beliefs, worldviews, norms (however you want to define "Culture") vary hugely within countries.  Not many folks would claim that the Northern states of India have the same culture as the North-Eastern or Southern states.  Or that the adivasis have the same culture as the landowners, or the landowners the same culture as the city-dwellers.  Or that the Muslims have the same culture as the Hindus or the Christians.  Or that even within the same state or city, that 20-something dalits have the same culture as 20-something upper-caste Hindus.

Or that in Nigeria, for example, that the northern Muslims have the same culture as the southern Christians.  Or that the Igbo have the same culture as the Yoruba or Hausa.  Or that in Kenya (very topical), that the Kikuyu have the same culture as the Kalenjin or Luo.  Or that in Uganda that the Karamojong have the same culture as the Kampala-dwellers. Or that in South Africa, the English have the same culture as the Afrikaners, and either of them have the same culture as rural black people (whether Zulu, Xhosa or other).

You get my point.  Where or what is "Culture" in these countries?  "Culture" as a proposed explanatory variable omits a crucial dimension: power.

I believe that societies are composed of hugely diverse groups.  These groups have different world-views, norms, beliefs etc.  These groups form coalitions and rivalries in order to advance their own well-being.  These coalitions and rivalries are never static or linear - they will be nuanced, Machiavellian, opportunistic (as well as more strategically motivated through generations of ingrained dogma).  Power is contested for, achieved, shared, lost, rebalanced, renegotiated.  It is frankly a perpetual competitive process.

This is what institutional analysis shows us, and forces us to confront.  You cannot wave a magic wand of "Culture" over this.  You can use "Culture" as a lens to try and taxonomise the component norms, beliefs and views of a particular sub-group.  But the bargaining, coalition and rivalrous behaviour is fundamentally a political one - not a cultural one.

5.  As a coda, you're absolutely right around media and education.  In the long-run, persuasion is more effective (and efficient) than coercion.  Why else do the Jesuits say this?  And why else is education (and the lack thereof) so close to the elites' hearts?  And curricular content (and subject matter prioritisation) so fought over?  And as Freire beautifully wrote, pedagogy also so skewed?

But let's also be clear.  When you correctly say that education is needed, and that cultural campaigns are needed - implicit in that is that these should be aimed at delivering or enhancing the views and beliefs that you share.  (I'm not picking on you - the same is true of anyone who makes this point: it's human nature!).

Gay marriage is a perfect example - "marriage" is a legal institution that is only happening because societally, norms around homosexuality have (thankfully) changed (ie, the institutions around sexual orientation changed to pave the way for an eventual legal reflection of that).  The opposite is also the case with, for example, racism.  There are plenty of laws that prohibit racism, but of course it is institutionalised into society so that it still happens (see the Lawrence enquiry in the UK, or the topical observations by Charles Ramsey in Cleveland).

So when "Culture" is used, it is an ascriptive explanation.  Let's be clear - culture is never neutral, it seeks to convert and evangelise and differentiate (many would argue that is its evolutionary point!).  And indeed it is the most potent tool and device because once it works, people think, behave, act (and elect) on the basis of identity and self-identification.  I would even go as far as saying (to be wilfully provocative) that "Culture" is an insidious framing because it makes those who don't share it a more alien "other".

Anyway, returning to our argument of how best to think about how societies work, "Culture" is not a neutral explanatory framework but a competitive tool, device and objective.

That is why I argue that "Culture" doesn't exist as an explanatory framework.  Societies are made out of sub-groups (themselves often in flux) which are in a constant competitive process of coalitions and rivalries.  Institutional analysis that forces us to look holistically at all these factors is by far the better explanatory framework than "Culture".

Monday, 6 May 2013

Clarifications on a review of Why Nations Fail

Hi David,

Thanks for this.  Always good to see people being blown away by "institutions" (I haven't read the book, mostly because I have read many of the underlying econometric papers - some of which are now 10+ yrs old: those are mind-blowing pieces of analysis - a Nobel is a shoo-in in the future).  Anyway, I did want to just make a few observations sparked by some of what you wrote:

1.  Govts are themselves creatures of the institutions (ie, norms) that prevail in a society.  So they can be extractive or inclusive.  When you say "how govts actively discourage innovation", well they can also actively encourage innovation & growth.  The Israeli govt's catalysed its innovative VC sector with some excellent & subtle intervention.  Many have pointed out that much of US tech is grounded in govt support.  S Korea is another example.  Germany's post-WW2 wirtschaftswunder is another example of canny govt actions.

So, I would query painting "govt" as an automatic bogeyman.  Whether it is or isn't is actually driven by the institutions of the country - you can't blame (or praise) one without doing the same to the other.

2.  Your dismissal of "top-down economic development" in favour of a pastoral paean to "bottom-up entrepreneurial innovation" is misguided (and if A&R actually also say that so starkly, and without acknowledging the points that follow, then so are they).  Entrepreneurial innovation does not (indeed cannot) happen in a vacuum.  A govt can play a subtle guiding hand which is still very much top-down and state-guided - and incredibly effective.  Perhaps you mean command-and-control economies, but then say that (command-and-control is vehemently not the same as top-down - aka guided - economic policy).

See the national examples cited in the first point above for where nuanced top-down economic policy choices have had profound, long-lasting impact.  And see the consequences of the Washington Consensus driven structural adjustment programs imposed on Africa for a missing-state counterfactual.  (Btw, you dismiss China's achievements too quickly - never in the history of the world have so many people had such tremendous increases in wellbeing as in the 20-25 years from 1978 onwards).

3.  Similarly, I have to dispute your statement that "poor countries support old monopolies" and that "top-down economic development...will eventually run out of steam when old sectors can no longer compete with cheaper innovations from abroad".

This is not an inevitable outcome as you imply.  Whether it happens or not depends upon the nature of the institutions in a country.  Wealthy countries are as prone to such capture (aka crony capitalism) - see Wall St's capture of the US (which even Simon Johnson, a former IMF chief economist and co-author with A&R of some of their seminal papers, has called out).

I will also point you towards S Korea, which after WW2 was an agrarian economy (actually lagging behind many African countries).  The country used state-directed capitalism to support national chaebols.  But the chaebols were required to earn foreign currency by competing effectively against their international rivals.  This is what kept them subsidised but sharp.  S Korea's progression from agrarian to shipbuilding to semiconductors to Samsung-about-to-eat-Apple's-lunch, w Seoul the most digitised city on the planet, shows this not to have been a flash in the pan?  And just in case there's anything magical about S Korea (those arguments about culture...see below), look across to Taiwan which similarly has resulted in companies like HTC and Acer.

It is worth noting that with S Korea, Taiwan, Israel, post-WW2 Germany: all these countries were facing existential threats.  As did the cold war US.  Perhaps that is the ultimate competitive impulse that keeps elites, and institutions, inclusive.  Undisputed hegemony is what paves the way to extractive institutions.

I'll also, if I may, cite another industry that might be regionally relevant for you - aerospace.  Embraer is now a globally competitive company: that has had strategic Brazilian govt support, including subsidies, throughout (granted that command-and-control almost killed it - but govt support and subsidies have continued even when managerial autonomy was increased, in a trend similar to the S Korean one of having to compete against international rivals).  Bombardier from Canada - similar govt support.  Airbus?  Ditto.  Boeing?  Ditto.

In all these, you'll see that "established monopolies" with govt protection were still harnessed in a way that delivered powerful competitive growth to the national economy - growth that enforcing the support of domestic "disruptive entrepreneurs" would just not have delivered.

4.  I don't buy arguments about "culture".  Simply because culture can either go two ways.  It is either the social norms, beliefs and behaviours of people - which is what institutions (in the economics sense) are.  Or it becomes a prescriptive or deterministic argument.  Which is a dangerous slope towards the arguments used by colonialists and others of even more venal ilk.  I'll start giving credence for "culture" when someone can show me examples of culture that don't fit into either of those two alternatives.  You cannot differentiate behaviour or norms from institutions.

5.  Be careful about conflating A&R w Dambisa Moyo's arguments.  While they may well offer up a critique about some of the counter-productive possibilities about aid, they do not go as far as Moyo.  In Acemoglu's own words from a recent interview, "aid can neither save countries, nor condemn them to poverty".  

Moyo argues that aid outright condemns them to poverty, and in fact proposes a benevolent elite argument where she argues that democracy is a luxury poor countries should dispense with and instead rely on their business elites (entrepreneurs anyone?) to deliver economic growth that benefits all!  As if inclusive institutions are just the default setting in all incumbent business elites!  I won't get into a critique of her very weak (and often plain wrong) arguments - if you're interested, here's a good one by another Zambian economist.

6.  The point about critical junctures is that they involve existential threats to elites.  This is what forces them to broaden the political bargain with greater swathes of society - leading to more inclusive institutions.  What is needed is genuine intra-elite and inter-elite competition.  It is where this doesn't happen (or just pretends to happen) that extractive institutions start to emerge and ossify.

I think arguments about simply "influencing the next generation of elites" are well-intentioned but naive if they don't realise that elites are much more likely to change when they have to, not when they've been influenced.  Enlightened self-interest can be an effective catalyst of change, but more so when fear rather than greed is involved.  Greed-induced change is marginal at best, leading inevitably to a circulation of elites.  Fear-induced change will probably lead to that as well, but will take longer (having to tread the iron law of oligarchy).  Competition is what is needed - constant, unmanageable, dynamic and at times existential.

I hope these quibbles are taken in the helpful vein intended.  I'm always pleased when folks  realise the importance of institutions - it is eye-opening.  But equally its important to percolate this through and see the consequences for hackneyed arguments about govts, state-directed development, magic-entrepreneurialism.  As A&R say in that same recent interview (and as you'll see also coincidentally echoes Morozov's critiques of solutionism): "getting institutions right is not an engineering problem, it is a political problem".


Thursday, 11 April 2013

Is inequality irrelevant for social progress?

So, today saw the "Social Progress Imperative" launched in the triumphal spotlight of the Skoll World Forum.  A grand new multi-country initiative to measure and compare "Social Progress" across countries.  Involving the thought-leadership of Michael Porter, MIT, the cheerleaders of philanthrocapitalism (Matthew Bishop and Michael Green) and impact investing (Alvaro Rodriguez).

The initiative wraps itself in the flag of Joe Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, while defining Social Progress as "the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential."

So far so worthy, right?  What could be wrong with that?

Well, is inequality relevant or irrelevant for social progress?  Is inequality relevant or irrelevant for opportunity, equity and inclusion?

Judging by this new index, inequality is indeed completely irrelevant.  If you don't believe me, go and explore the index here, and look at the component parts.  Drill down even further into the specific sub-components, or even look at the 16 page methodology appendix.  Not a single mention of inequality or gini (try doing a word-search to see for yourself).

But hey internet access and mobile phone subscriptions are there!

At a time when inequality is rising, when intergenerational mobility is declining, when the world is becoming more plutocratic everywhere you look, these folks would have us now believe that social progress should not even look at inequality.

And this paradigm shift is subtly layered in to people's minds through events nominally about fighting poverty (with suitable glamorous celebrities, ecstatic social media, dynastic successions).  And through vehicles which purport to be about progress.

Beware these wolf in sheep's clothing.  When rich people come to save you (with attendant "movements" and sycophantic courtiers and service-industries in tow) be careful - what they leave out tells you more than what they leave in.  The oldest trick in the magician's book is to distract the audience while the rigging happens.

I want to say that its damning that they can try and do this and get away with it.  But whats more damning is that they succeed so often - the dumb sheep of this world (with their electronic anaesthesia) deserve what they get while the wolves feast on them.

Its late, I'm tired and more words fail me.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Interesting links from w/e 05-04-13

  1. Evgeny Morozov's pointed unpacking of a seemingly Rasputin-like Tim O'Reilly (long but worth reading for some pertinent points in the second half).  Recognition from within SF that such criticism is a necessary and overdue requirement (it is after all another form of competitive pressure!).  Most interestingly, a very good piece by Catherine Bracy (of Obama's tech campaign, Code for All etc) on the disconnectedness of the Valley (and Valley-centred worldviews: "isolation has also deluded them into thinking that they are in fact making the world a better place, simply by building their products and platforms").  As McChesney has pointed out, perhaps its finally time to bring political economy back in to the analysis of "the Internet"!
  2. …continuing this realisation of political economy, an overdue HBR blog on how seemingly objective data (whether "open" or "big") is loaded with biases...
  3. …and another Harvard-sourced piece on the trope of "heroic" vs actual leadership
  4. …and finally from a fecund HBR this week, an interview w Paul Kagame that is worth reading
  5. Tech & mobiles are not an automatic solution - SMS msgs had no impact in an m-health intervention…
  6. …on which solutionist note, this is crazy - edX tries out computer-grading of essays (as one respondent observed, you can get programs to write essays, and now programs to grade essays).  Where is critical thinking in all this?  In the meantime, Rohan Silva, one of the more well-regarded folks within 10 Downing St leaves to start an ed-tech enterprise…anyone sense a bubble?
  7. A Brookings paper finds rising and permanent inequality in the US over the last 20 years - the same period when the peer-progressive, socially network driven, liberation via tech has been happening, right?  Hmm…makes this recent coverage on the missing early childhood education in the US more relevant perhaps?
  8. An amusing yet insightful piece by Andrew Mwenda on oil corruption allegations in Uganda (some interesting comps to Kenyan political economy)
  9. A rather poignant piece by a "coloured" S African writer from c 60 yrs ago about personal interactions w Nkrumah & Kenyatta then - brilliant, nuanced insights on individualism and tribalism
  10. A nice blog calling out the double standards in the open govt "movement" - only a matter of time before the words 'self-legitimising and self-perpetuating' start being applied
  11. Glamorous data-visuals can sometimes be far less insightful than a simple Excel bar graph, as this data on attitudes to domestic violence shows
  12. From the world of hard science, our kids are going to grow up in a brave new world - women's eggs powdered and kept in a sachet at home (empty into jar, add water and…), while 3D printers can use water and oil to make self-assembling living tissue that flexes like muscles and transmits signals like neurones...
  13. Is Steve Cohen effectively buying off the feds (and a Picasso & new Hampton mansion at the same time) - must remember, petty corruption and 3-1-1 is more important than this right?  C'mon Elizabeth Warren, do your stuff...
  14. This paper finding modest (and varied) contribution of aid to growth just won a prize
  15. Quote of the week comes from a female Kikuyu Mau-Mau 'field-marshal' talking about Uhuru Kenyatta: “From the womb comes a warrior, a king, a rich man, a criminal and a killer.”

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Interesting links from w/e 28-03-2013

Here are some links I liked last week - will post some more from this week tomorrow.
  1. Education in:
    • Africa - a good article from SA on teachers & quality; and a blogpost hosted by MSDF from the founder of SA-based LEAP schools calling for local "impact schools"
    • India - a paper looking at Gyan Shala and arguing that its time to move beyond state vs non-state ideological battles and look at quality, equity, scale & sustainability on a mixed approach; and an amusing volte-face on Aakash low-cost tablets as one govt minister gets bounced by another more heavyweight one
    • LatAm - more lessons from a pioneering region, a "10-years later" follow-up to an RCT of a conditional cash transfer program that was tied to young children going to school finds sustained gains in schooling and learning many years after the program stopped
    • Ed-tech - a provocative blog on ed-tech solutionism that has some interesting questions and observations
  2. A good op-ed by Simon Johnson (ex-IMF chief economist) on the consequences for intergenerational inequality in the US via unfair austerity hits on low-income pre-schoolers
  3. A interesting article by Matt Bishop in the next Economist on property rights, the poor and economic growth
  4. A good constructive critique of US philanthropy by Rob Reich and…
  5. …a barnstorming criticism of international philanthropies & NGOs by Andrew Mwenda (a good - and brave - independent journalist in Uganda)
  6. If you're interested in the Kenyan election & appeal saga, an unusual comparison from Foreign Policy of the lessons for the West from Austria & Waldheim for Kenya & Uhuru Kenyatta; a worthwhile quick piece on the very delicate situation that South Asians in Kenya have to navigate; an overdue piece noting the self-censorship of the Kenyan media at a time when it ought to have been asking awkward questions (a case of the dog that didn't bark; to his credit Gado from XYZ Show called out as one of the few pugnacious ones); a remarkably telling old photo that captures all four Kenyan presidents (democracy anyone?); and lastly a further telling remark by political-scion, richest-Kenyan, ICC-indictee and president-elect Uhuru Kenyatta referring to the Kenyan Supreme Court currently reviewing the election as "some six people [who will] decide something or other" (democracy again anyone?)
  7. On openness-for-its-own-sake, a good piece by Tom Whimsley (that Zillow real estate platform sounds horrible), and a nice piece by Panthea Lee
  8. For those who think Botswana is a beacon, this is a must-read (tourists can spend more time in San-country than the San themselves...and did anyone say diamonds?)
  9. This is a lovely first-person piece by a small-scale farmer in Malawi (note the "conservation agriculture" he refers to is zero-till farming which is ecologically sounder, raises yields, has been part of the transformation of the Brazilian cattle-feed industry, and was used in the dustbowls of Australia and the Mid-West)
  10. From the world of measurement: a fantastic (& damning!) RCT that shows confirmation-bias (in this case in microfinance, but in fairness probably also for any other area where humans are involved), and a linked piece on the need for a willingness to take risk and learn from failure in development (a la failfests)
  11. For those who follow drones (as opposed to are followed by drones), here's a graphic on every drone-strike in Pakistan, and here's a piece where we discover that brave drone-operators call a successful kill a "bugsplat" (of course, gamification-culture and "war games" right, ain't that swell?)
  12. From the world of science: MRI scans show correlations between brain activity patterns and future criminal reoffending, while social isolation shortens lifespan even after controlling for health & socioeconomic factors
  13. A nice graphic on SIM card prices in Myanmar - liberation technologists, please proceed to claim causation for the Myanmar re-opening (intra-elite politics and Chinese over-stepping behind the scenes of course have nothing to do with it, it is all tech - a "Yangon Spring" anyone?)
  14. The sins that are revealed after the grave: for those who may know of Patrice Lumumba (first elected PM of the DRC) and recall his brutal death and acid-destruction of body twelve weeks after the election, here's a letter from an English lord revealing that MI6 was a conspirator in having him killed (scroll down to "We did it")

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Where does change come from?

"Tech is a tool.  Change happens through people."

I was asked to chair a panel at a recent event.  The whole evening was themed around "tech for good".  While preparing my notes, the above phrase came into my head.  During the sessions, Mohamed Bouazizi's name came up (invoked by some breathtakingly trendy hipsters).  It got me thinking:

  • That's where the original spark (forgive the horrible pun) came from.  It was his desperation that drove his action.  Tech had nothing to do with it.
  • In the weeks that followed, plenty of other frustrated - and usually ill-educated - people around the region also self-immolated.  Those were their actions.
  • Then came those who eventually protested on the streets - not knowing what the crackdown would or would not be.  Those too were their brave actions.

This was where the catalysis & drive for the change came from.  To the extent that tech was involved in dissemination of news or views, it was purely a transmission mechanism.  No different from the wires that used to carry the telegraph signals.

So why then do people hype tech & social media as a force for good.  They're just tools.  As tools - as transmission mechanisms - they are as likely to be used to try and preserve and sharpen existing inequalities and repressions as they are to try and reduce them.

Ok, so far so un-revelatory - why am I stating the bleeding obvious?

Because the vast majority of the tech for good space seems to be blissfully blind to this.  It seems to be focusing on the tools, but not on the underlying power inequalities.  The people involved are too clever to be doing this accidentally - so are they doing it wilfully?

As an example, take  This website has had so much money and attention thrown at it.  What does it do?  An English-language website allowing Indian citizens to report cases of petty bribes they have been asked to pay.  Last time I checked: 22,000 reports uploaded across 500 cities.  Do the math: that's an average of 44 bribery reports per city.

Now think to yourself.  What sort of people in India would be educated and affluent enough to be accessing a website in English to upload reports of bribes they have paid?  And, leading on from that, what sort of people would be the petty officials asking for these bribes?  (The highest officials are creaming off hundreds of millions in strategic corruption).  And as a coda, ask for yourself whether the type of structural injustices that the lower classes (and castes) have to confront are captured or logged...

So all this noise, attention and money (from big corporate funders) to a platform that is largely irrelevant for the significantly larger and more disadvantaged groups of Indian society?  Either the funders, and media, involved are stupid - or are they more interested in promoting the interests of the middle classes, and not the poorest?

Tech absolutely does present a potentially useful tool - a transmission mechanism that is capable of hitting the trifecta of reaching more, quicker and cheaper.  But as a neutral tool, for this to be deployed in a way that does lead to "good", you have to pick, engage with and support the users of this tool.  These are the people who are mobilising and trying to drive social change.  Those are the people that the funders and media need to support.  Not glorify or fetishize tech as an automatic tool for good.

And here's the rub.  I don't think the funders and media are fetishizing tech out of ignorance.  But I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that they're doing it to distract people from the underlying politics of the choices they make in selecting the organizations they support.

The sector is not interested in making all voices count - it is interested in making the voices that it finds agreeable count (more on this another day).

Another interesting feature of this new philanthropy is its focus on leadership of this social change - portrayed as a hallowed, exalted virtue or skill.  The funders talk about looking for, and supporting, such fabled leaders (who are often, of course, "entrepreneurs").  Hmmm, an astute observation by Freire comes to mind: “The oppressors do not favor promoting the community as a whole, but rather selected leaders.” 

So, as the title of this post asks, where does change come from?  To my mind, it comes from shifting 'power equations' (where such 'equations' are the competitive tension between different norms and interest groups).  And while some power equations can change through the change in transmission costs that tech can deliver, there is no guarantee that such changed costs won't actually work in favour of those with the upper hand already.

To my mind, to really drive change, you need to engage with the fundamental components of power equations.  That is to say, with the norms.  If the norms don't change, tech won't actually lead to any change for good.

And tech itself doesn't change norms.  In countries where ethnic tensions are sharply felt, it should be no surprise that tech could be used to group and mobilise along such sharper lines, or provoke backlashes, or be linked to intolerance as a recent paper notes.  (Btw, this should not be a surprise - there is evidence that shows that simple gender-enabled policies, such as girls' education, can also lead to surprising adverse social consequences among such educated girls.  People are embedded within, and emerge from, their social milieu, and will therefore reflect the biases and value preferences of that milieu.  Why would that automatically be a progressive preference?)

But who - in these days of social entrepreneurship, investment-led development models, tech glossiness etc - focuses on such old-fashioned, boring work as local grassroots groups working through offline networks where norms really are shaped and reinforced in real-time visceral emotions?

...Interestingly, there are of course groups that do exactly this.  Faith-based groups (of all faiths).  And its interesting that these are on the rise - for example look at pentecostalism in Ghana, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or Islam in many parts of traditionally Christian Africa, or .

These groups are emerging as at least as powerful a new wave as tech.  In fact since they are mobilised around specific things, even if tech is the background tool in everything, by being the unashamed users of these (and other) tools, such groups are actually arguably much more driving forces in the types of change happening than tech per se.

If "tech for good" was viewed as a potential pentecostal mobilisation (which the devotion of some its acolytes would sometimes make it look like), then its actually a rather poorly performing one.  Because the grail is being taken by groups that are unabashedly engaged directly with the people.  Theirs may be an aeons old charm and strategy, but that's why its working better than sterile superficiality.

For the funders behind this glossiness of leadership (and tech for good and social entrepreneurialism etc) to not get this doesn't smell right.  That would make them stupidly naive, and they're too canny for that.  So that can only mean that the choices of leaders that are being backed and organizations that are being supported reflect the political preferences of these funders and promoters.  In other words, their revealed preferences.

And that is worth remembering, because the one thing these folks cannot then claim to be is neutral or non-partisan.  I'm again reminded of Freire: “Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Something to keep in mind the next time you read something gushy like this, while reading comparatively less about things like this.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Teachers and low-cost schools

One of the comments on an earlier post raised the good question of whether under-qualified and under-paid teachers were being exploited by the operators of low-fee private schools.

I can't really comment on whether such teachers are being exploited or not - the fairness or otherwise of wages is difficult to objectively opine on.  Supply, demand, cartelistic regulations, public incentives etc all come into the fray.  You have to assume that people who willingly work are making a conscious rational choice within the limits of the context they find themselves in.

But the question does touch upon some interesting - and fairly consistent - evidence that is emerging on the skills needed to be an effective primary-school teacher in low income settings.

1.  It is possible to take comparatively low-qualified youth and train them to be effective teachers who deliver statistically significant gains in children's learning.  Someone who has completed basic secondary schooling can be an effective first, second or even third-grade teacher.

2.  This creates interesting possibilities for youth employment.  Both by govts struggling with teacher deployment (or persistent absenteeism - and also youth unemployment), or by communities looking to improve their own educational lot.  This also allows for average costs in an educational system to be significantly lowered - providing significant NPV gains for limited resource societies.

The Ghanaian govt is indeed trying a first-phase scale-up of this across 30,000+ children who are provided remedial classes (taught either by teachers or local youth as teacher-assistants under the National Youth Employment Program).  The definitive data are not yet out, but it does look like the youth-led remedial classes are raising quality (it will be interesting to see how the youth-led classes compare to those being delivered by the teachers using the same materials).  Exciting!

3.  The mechanisms for this could be linked to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Intrinsically, the qualitative logic is that children and teaching-youth who are from the same communities will be closer (eg, the youth are more motivated to teach their own communities (either for the common good and/or their own profile and sense of agency), and the children find it easier to learn from someone who comes from the same ethnolinguistic milieu as them).  And, intriguingly, there is quantitative evidence as well that suggests the "social distance" between the teacher and the taught is a big factor - the lower the distance, the better the teaching outcomes.

But before getting too rose-tinted about such intrinsic motivation, interim data appear to show that the teaching-assistants in that Ghanaian scale-up have roughly the same level of absenteeism as the professional teachers...(although of course if they deliver better teaching outcomes then...)

4.  Extrinsically, there is also the motivation for a job that could be making the youth teach better.  And there is evidence from Kenya that shows contract teachers as outperforming tenured civil-servant govt teachers.  So extrinsic motivation is a big factor.  Interestingly - and perhaps yet again damningly for the degradation of incentives within govt systems - a follow-up in Kenya scaled up a program in parallel between NGOs and the govt system: the NGOs outperformed the govt...

So, the picture about the most effective types of teachers (at primary level anyway) is complex - wrt the actual level of conventional teaching qualifications needed, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

(Note, this doesn't mean such lower-qualified "parateachers" are the panacea.  Perhaps they can have a systemic presence in the early grades of primary schools - if the professional teaching cadres are not performing up to scratch - but as the ability gap narrows between them and the children being taught, their effectiveness will diminish.  So, upper primary grades and secondary schooling would appear to need better qualified teaching mentors.  And how to do that at scale is another matter...perhaps a future post on possible tech-enabled angles).

Complexity notwithstanding, the original question about whether for-profit operators can also exploit this to boost their profits does remain.  And here, it is worth pointing out that such use of parateachers or tighter intrinsic and extrinsic motivating factors can also be done by NGOs.  Who would be able to deliver learning and reinvest surpluses in growing their operations (or lower costs even more).

That does seem to a net-net better value proposition for society than a shareholder pocketing the surpluses from the deployment of parateachers or using better intrinsic/extrinsic motivation techniques.  And indeed two data-points are worth noting:

1.  Even in the UK, for-profit schools are actively discouraged - even the elite boarding schools are non-profits and cannot extract surpluses.

2.  There is an organization called Gyan Shala in India.  I'll post a little more about that another time.  But just to say that it is a non-profit that deliver low-cost education in urban slum settings, and it does a REALLY good job in the lower primary grades.  Set up originally by an Indian b-school professor, it uses some lean and active management techniques, but also combines this with neat pedagogy and paid teachers who are typically mothers from just outside the slums.  Children truly from all socioeconomic backgrounds (so genuine equity) - and outperforming low-fee private schools in quality of education.

What Gyan Shala shows is that low-cost education through active management, good pedagogy can be equitable and outperform wrt quality.  And that it doesn't have to have the incentive degradation of for-profit (or govt civil service tenure) structures.  (The children are paid for through a per-capita allowance from the govt - parents are not charged!).

I will try and write more about that another day but will stop now: this is toooo long a post, and I can feel my bile rising when I contrast the performance of Gyan Shala (and other non-profits like School for Life in northern Ghana) to the ideological boosters of paid-for models as somehow being automatically better (you know who you are, "impact investors" - why don't you invest in platforms that genuinely deliver equity and quality eh?)...