Policy Ideas in Poor Countries

Published on 2nd August 2005

“Poverty reduction” is the new buzzword of the donor community and all those “bleeding hearts” that wish to see things improve in poor countries. The expression of this pious intention gives them the right to pontificate on all aspects of poor societies. It is commonplace to find the leading figures in the development world giving us advice on “poverty reduction” on the Op/ed pages of many of the most influential newspapers these days. But these same papers do not carry anything written by the thinkers of that have come from the poor countries. This is not that such people are not available. They are but they are scattered all over the world and not empowered in their own countries to participate in the policy dialogue. There is even a possibility that they are crowded out by the very people who want to help them. Let me explain!  

To begin with it is important to recognize that domestic “policy-idea generation” through think-tanks and professional associations have played a critical role in economic development in countries such as the US. These institutions create a network of idea exchange, competitive funding and peer review, thereby underpinning the innovative research work done at universities and institutions. Additionally, they also develop an interface between those who develop ideas and policymakers and help educate civil society.  As a result, they help develop an appropriate reform strategy that is domestically owned. 

Unfortunately, in low-income countries, professions, professional associations, think-tanks remain largely undeveloped. Foundations do not exist and are replaced by aid-giving institutions that are run from far off capitals with little vision. Whatever public policy debate takes place is conducted in the relatively closed groups comprising mainly of these aid institutions, their professionals and consultants. In such discussions the only group that has a marginal participation is the government-- marginal because the government has neither the capacity nor often the political time to concern itself with longer term implications of public policy.

A collaboration of donors and the government has attempted to develop public policy debate capacity.  However, given the inefficiencies and corruption in the bureaucracy and political system in these countries, such efforts have not allowed any creative activity to flourish. Despite substantial funding, all that was achieved was another government department and no domestic capacity for public policy research and investigation.  

Given the lack of domestic organized capacity for public policy research and debate, low income countries remain dependent on expatriate advice for their policy reform ideas. There are, at least three shortcomings arising from this dependence. 

 First, the design of the expatriate expert who has limited familiarity with that society as well as limited time to acquire such knowledge, may not fully conform to the needs of the domestic society.  In the absence of organized fora such as research universities, professional associations and think-tanks, the scattered thought that may exist in those countries in stray newspapers and periodicals may be too inaccessible for the expatriate.

Second, and related to the first point, the ideas developed in this manner may not end up being “owned” by the domestic populace. Given that the ideas have not been borne out of domestic experience, nor have they been digested through domestic debate, there may be a lukewarm response to them.  This lack of ownership often has been the cause of poor implementation and lack of success of the reform.

Third, there is a danger that the reliance on the expatriate advice “crowds out” domestic thinking and policy development capacity.  Like a child that has little room for growth in the presence of an oppressive parent, domestic talent continues to be limited in its capacity to grow.

Surprisingly, lessons for institution-building have not been drawn from experiences of the more successful institutions in the world such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Chicago, think tanks such as the Bookings, Carnegie, and Rand. I found it very surprising to learn that in the space of a few short years, the combination of a generous grant from a non-interfering philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, and a talented visionary, William Rainey Harper created a major force in the academic world, the University of Chicago.  Indeed that university with its polemics in public policy has been credited with sparking off much of the recent, highly-successful, market-oriented reform not only in the US but also in far off places like Chile.

A study of the history of such innovative institutions emphasizes the need to nurture and retain domestic talent. Strong institutions in the industrial countries have developed around local talent.  The expatriate may provide the training or the knowledge, if need be. But it requires dedicated and talented people such as Robert S. Brookings, Harold G. Moulton and Robert D. Calkins to create domestic important learning and research centers that are so critical to public policy development. Such institutions are managed in the main by local professionals with a minimum of (or no) bureaucratic or sponsor demands. Only the right domestic talent can provide the vision and the sense of mission required to make it happen. Moreover, to succeed, all institutions must create a core professional staff. Finally, competition among these institutions and participation in professional associations, allow for public policy debates and peer review that guides their work and allows their evaluation.

This reading suggests that for institutional development, a core grouping of professionals in institutions and professions is required.  Considerable domestic professional development must take place and be deployed for the appropriate cores to form. Do the current arrangements allow for this?

The current approach to developing these institutions in the low income countries depends too heavily on the notion of superior knowledge of the grouping of the donor and the government.  This approach leaves no room for a “Harper” to take charge of his institution and make it happen.  He will be hidebound by externally drawn plans, as well as rules and reporting requirements that will leave him little room for his innovations. 

Additionally, the incentives are not for attracting talent and inducing the required effort but more for migration out of the needed professions or out of the country.  Domestic talent continues to be rated as inferior to foreign talent, with lower salary incentives as well as a lower stature in the hierarchy.  Indeed the UN actually mandates two tier salary scale and organizational structure in each poor country that places local expertise of all kinds well below all expatriate staff.  Naturally, the response to this discriminatory arrangement is that the more capable people in the poor countries move into other activities or migrate overseas. The goal of competent professionals from these countries then is to join the international agency staff.  As a result, domestic institutions are stripped of talent. 

The view of inferiority of domestic talent results in little effort being made by the sponsors to find that special “Harper”.  Instead it is believed that any retired government official and/or any minor academic from the West can create a “Chicago of the East.” Unfortunately experience has shown otherwise.  This approach needs to be urgently changed!



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