Unintended consequences of policy decisions


There is a word one hears being thrown about quite a lot among the educated elite in Africa. Perhaps it is thrown about quite a lot elsewhere too, but I don’t know that. We usually talk of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ policies and criticize or applaud our leaders for championing them, and governments for implementing them. In some instances, we talk of governments which are good at formulating or making policies but hopeless at implementing them. In others we talk of governments which are very good at policy implementation. Sometimes we go as far as claiming that these ones ‘steal’ policies made by others and implement them fast, while those that made them are sleeping on the job.

The one thing we do not do enough of, however, is to reflect on the challenges of policy implementation, even where the policies in question are very good, at least on paper. I have been studying ‘development’ for almost 30 years now.

My journey with development started in my early years at graduate school at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The school motto is: “to Know the Cause of Things”. It was founded “for the betterment of society”. It was there that I was first introduced to a subject which was entirely new to me: Development Studies. In my native Uganda it was not yet being taught during the early 1990s.

One of the joys of being on the course was being spoilt for choice when it came to deciding what one might want to study in-depth. One could choose from as many as 30 options from across a very wide range of disciplines. Development Studies was the quintessential multi-disciplinary course. There was no limit to what one could discover about the world around. With a first degree in political science, I became keenly interested in ‘politics of development’.

Two decades since I left LSE, packed my bags and returned to Africa, the politics of development remains a key pre-occupation to this day, kicking up puzzle after puzzle the more I try to understand the cause of this or that phenomenon. And the one thing I have puzzled over for years is why policies that on the surface seem to be good, tend to produce perverse outcomes. There are many examples of this from across Africa, in agriculture, public health, micro-finance, education, name it.

The story of agriculture can best be looked at from the vantage point of reforms that once sought to stimulate more private sector participation while curtailing state intervention. State intervention in markets had messed things up quite a bit by the 1980s when the push for market-driven agriculture began. A key effect of private sector entry was the destruction or collapse of cooperatives, and with them, support systems which had provided subsidized inputs and scientific advice to multitudes of small farmers.

If agriculture in Africa continues to contribute far less than it ought to in terms of GDP, it is because of the failure by the profit-drive private sector to fill the gap left by cooperatives and the infrastructure they had used to support farmers. Today if agricultural extension services in most African countries are weak, it is because the market was supposed to provide them. Someone forgot that the private sector won’t provide services where there is no money to be made.

Serving small-scale farmers who previously depended on cooperatives linked to the state does not make money. And so privatization which was supposed to inject much dynamism into efforts to develop agriculture, make it less of a subsistence activity and more of an income-generating one, has to a significant degree created new challenges for which many governments do not have immediate solutions.

The story of reforms in health is long and detailed. The most instructive bit is about the results that enthusiasm for strengthening primary health care, at the expense of tertiary services, has produced. The decisions which were taken to invest in lower-level health facilities were justified on the grounds that they served more poor people than tertiary, urban-based facilities which catered for the urban elite. This made a lot of sense. But then someone forgot that there were services which even the best lower-level facilities could not provide, such as specialized surgery.

With the increase in non-communicable diseases on the continent, demand for specialized services has grown tremendously. With very little investment in tertiary care, now Africans needing specialized care either simply die or they must find large sums of money to seek care from the local private sector, assuming it is sufficiently well-developed. Otherwise they must fly to India. In so doing, they boost India’s highly lucrative medical tourism.

And so, what seemed like a policy that made sense is now seen for what it really was: short-sighted. As non-communicable diseases become more common, the weak health systems of most African countries cannot possibly cope.

Nothing in the world of ‘development’ has boosted the careers of those working in philanthropy than poverty in Africa. The world is not short of people who want to reduce, alleviate, or eliminate poverty using all sorts of stratagems.

The thing about poverty in Africa, though, is that for decades it has remained pretty immune to most efforts seeking to enable the poor to free themselves from it. We may hear stories about countries that lift large numbers of their people out of poverty, but overall, poverty in Africa remains a fact of life for multitudes. One of the strategies for eliminating or reducing or alleviating it has been micro-finance.

It entails lending small amounts of money to the poor to enable them to invest in income-generating activities which, it has always been hoped, will lift them out of poverty. As with most things, there are many stories about micro-finance and how it works or does not work. The one that has struck me, nonetheless, is where the poor are given loans, only for them to channel the money into purposes other than the intended investment in income-generation.

Some invest, of course, only for their businesses to collapse without turning a profit. There are, however, others who squander the money on things that will never generate any income. The government of one East African country has invested millions of dollars in giving loans to young people to create their own jobs. Relatively few have used the money judiciously and paid it back. Many simply disappeared with it.

Others misused it, failed to pay back, and ended up in jail. The one thing that well-meaning advocates of micro-credit as a one-size-fits-all anti-poverty tool have disregarded and continue to disregard is that not every poor person has the aptitude for doing business.

We have all heard of the slogan “education for all”. Like all mantras which are meant to culminate in actions designed to benefit everybody or the greatest number of people, it is driven by the noble intention of getting as many school-going-age children into school as possible, and making sure that they do not drop out before they complete their studies. The thing about initiatives such as ‘education for all’ which pursue universal outcomes is that they must ensure zero exclusion of eligible beneficiaries.

Education for all, therefore, entails providing free education to those who would otherwise have the capacity to pay for it, and those who couldn’t possibly afford to do so. In practice it means that parents of children who qualify under the set criteria, are told that ‘education is now free’, which is usually understood to mean ‘you do not have to pay anything’. But anyone who has been to school knows that there is no such thing as education that is completely free of charge.

If parents are exempted from paying school fees, they will find that they have to buy requirements such as uniforms and supplies, and even food which their children will eat while at school. Because parents are told that ‘education for all is free of charge’, they usually resist or neglect or even refuse to pay for these things, after all “the government told us that education is free”.

This gap between what parents are told by governments and the reality they confront when schools ask them to pay for things, in many cases leads to children dropping out of school, which undermines the achievement of ‘education for all’. Even worse, education for all policies often worsen inequality because ‘free education’ leads to over-crowding in public schools. Parents who can afford to pay fees then move their children to private schools, which turns public schools into ghettos for children of the poor.

Besides public schools losing children from well-to-do families, they also lose their parents who are likely to be the ones that are able and willing to speak out and push for change whenever change becomes necessary. If public schools tend to be dysfunctional, it is because many parents lack the civic competence necessary to make demands.

There are good reasons why seemingly good policies produce perverse outcomes: they tend to originate from outside the very contexts in which they are implemented, pushed by experts without sufficient knowledge of the implementation context and all its peculiarities. What does all this mean then? That we in Africa ought to be more thorough in scrutinizing received ideas for how they fit our context, keeping what is useful, and discarding what isn’t. What we should strive to achieve in policy making is not “best practice”, but rather “best fit”.


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