Veronica Mungoma is a social entrepreneur, but I don’t think she knows it. Veronica isn’t one for buzzwords. She’s probably never heard of Skoll, or TED, or even Ashoka. Veronica is just woman who finds ways to improve her community.

MAPLE connected with Veronica last year through her role as founder and chair of the Mbale United Women’s Association. More recently, she has founded the Sukuya United Talents Association (SUTA).* The 15 or so members are all from Sukuya, though most live in or near Mbale town now. The members include business entrepreneurs, teachers, a hotel manager and a local council member. They are all intelligent, caring and successful, though one would never call them upper class.

As I mentioned in a previous post, SUTA has a dual mission. The first part is to promote better livelihoods among the members. They do this primarily through group savings, which are loaned out to members at an interest of 10% per month. This is an important function for individuals who lack access to formal bank accounts. They are also discussing joint income-generating ventures, like buying chicks to raise and then sell. The second part of the mission is charitable. SUTA plans to help those in their community in need, using part of the generated income plus donations they raise.

I have had the opportunity to attend recent SUTA meetings. These are held every other Sunday at a member’s home, or in the front yard, as their houses are usually too small to fit so many guests. They open with a prayer, then move through the set agenda, which includes a treasurer’s report, reading of the previous minutes, discussion of various items, collection of savings, and borrowing. They end with dinner and tea, and another prayer. The meetings are well-run and the minutes are thorough. Being late comes with a fee of 500 Ush (about a quarter) — a practice that I think many American organizations could benefit from. The four hours of meeting (from 3pm to about 7pm) is hardly efficient by American standards, but the time together fosters community among the members.

I have also been able to meet with Veronica individually. She proudly showed me the business that she runs from her home, making and packaging flours from maize, rice, soya, and mukene, a nutrient filled minnow. She sells in bulk to local supermarkets.

It’s hard to convey Veronica’s personality in writing. Blogging best practice would suggest that I include a picture of her, but a snapshot is only so useful for understanding someone; besides, taking people’s pictures makes me feel like a tourist. She would speak passionately and at length about the importance of self-reliance, knowledge, and skills for improving one’s own livelihood. She worries that too many of her peers don’t share these values. If she wanted to make sure that I was following along, she would say, “Have you seen?” — a wonderful phrase that I think I might borrow in the future. In the meetings, she struck a balance between controlling the conversation and throwing questions out to the group. If group members switched to full Lugisu (their normal habit was to use a mix, which I’ll call “Englisu”, so I could basically follow along), she would lean over and give me a translated summary. She demonstrates vision, and the other group members seem to recognize it.

When I talk to Veronica and the members of SUTA, who have been so gracious in welcoming me to their homes, I think about all the buzz around social entreprise/entrepreneurship/innovation/whatever. It’s become the hip new thing among newly-minted MBAs and wealthy tech entrepreneurs. A whole industry and epistemic community has emerged around it, with student groupsconferences, foundations, journals, and even a video game (I’m just waiting on the sit-com and the reality show). It’s become a movement with aspirations of global impact. An awful lot of money, ink and time is spent promoting it.

Despite all the activity, I have to confess that I’m not sure what it’s all about. That people should do things to improve their communities? Be smart about it? Be aware of the incentives at play and use market mechanisms when appropriate? Start new organizations? Try different strategies when the old ones aren’t working? These are certainly all important. But how are they new? How did this come to constitute a movement? It seems to me that people have always done these things. It’s certainly what Veronica Mungoma does.

* The organization was previously Opportunity Sukuya United Talents Association (OSUTA), but dropped the first word recently for brevity’s sake. Another correction from the previous post: I called the group a savings and credit cooperative, or SACCO. It is not. I’ve since learned that being a SACCO is some particular status in Uganda, with a government program that provides funding.

During our visit to the MAPLE project in Lira, I spent much of my time interviewing local entrepreneurs. Most interviews took place under a shady tree, in relative quiet. Until school let out. While interviewing this shopkeeper (seated center), a crowd of children gathered. They stayed a few feet away at first, then slowly crept closer. After the interview, our translator (seated left) asked the kids why they had come crowding around. Had they never seen a muzungu before? Yes, they had seen others, they replied — just not up close.

I’m back in Mbale after a weekend trip to Bududa, a small town that was devastated by mudslides in March. Over the course of two days I learned new things, acted like a total cliché, and was greatly humbled by meeting some incredible people. More on that over the next day or so.

Right now, I want to comment on a nice little summary of health intervention pricing studies from the Poverty Action Lab (aka J-PAL). Each study looked at how the quantity demanded of various interventions (deworming drugs, insecticide-treated bednets, chlorine for drinking water, soap) differed as the price of the product was varied. These studies found that access to the intervention was higher when it was free; so was utilization of the product. These were great studies, and I’m generally a big fan of J-PAL.

But: I disagree with the inference from these studies that the health products should be provided free of charge. Duncan Green (on whose blog I saw the study, and whose analysis I generally like) calls this an “unequivocal conclusion“.

The problem: these studies looked at demand, found it to be high when the price was low (duh), and called that access to the health interventions. They didn’t look at the other curve that every Econ 101 student knows so well: supply. That’s okay, these studies are still great for what they are. However, we can’t conclude from them that a price of zero will ensure the products reach those who need them. The researchers who ran the studies had outside funding to supply the products at any price. The real world is not so simple.

A price of zero only works when a government or donor runs the supply operation. We know that such service delivery often fails to reach the efficiency and penetration of private sector supply chains. Here in Mbale, every third shop sells pre-paid airtime cards for MTN, Warid, or other networks. This is even true in nearby rural villages that barely have electricity. There is an incredibly extensive supply network because those doing the supplying have a chance to profit. Obviously, bed nets and other health products are different from cell phone minutes (for one thing, they’re heavier). But even still, we think too much of ourselves to assume that governments/donors can match this kind of efficiency and penetration.

If setting a price allows people to make a profit, we may actually generate more total access to the health intervention than if we try to give it away for free. We can’t know unless we study intervention supply chains as much as we study demand.

Owen Barder had an interesting post yesterday on “megatrends” affecting development organizations over the next five years. He offers the following list:

  1. Climate change.
  2. Technology, especially communications.
  3. The post-bureaucratic age.
  4. Changing role for aid towards support for the most vulnerable.

(see the full post for more on each)

It’s an interesting list. #4 stands out as a trend within the field of development, rather than a broader trend impacting the field. That suggests a distinction: exogenous megatrends that the development industry should keep in mind, and shifts within the industry (which I’ll call endogenous for the sake of symmetry, even though they may or may not be in reaction to the exogenous trends). That distinction is blurry when you debate the boundaries of “development” work — but I think it’s useful anyway.

So with that distinction in mind, I offer my list:

Exogenous trends
1. Increasingly multipolar world. This goes beyond just the often discussed “rise of China” or even the BRIC countries more broadly. Economically, it means more good neighbors for developing countries to connect with, and that changes their potential development strategies. Politically, it could mean more multilateral engagement with the Irans and North Koreas of the world; in developing countries, it could also mean more nations engaged in self-interested meddling. Militarily, it could be very good if it means burden sharing for an over-extended US security apparatus, or it could be very very bad (my money is on the former).

2. Climate change. Definitely agree with Mr. Barder on this one. This will impact development and international affairs in general, as Copenhagen demonstrated. It’s interesting to see how the private sector has increasingly embraced this issue, largely in response to consumer opinion in the developed world.

Endogenous trends
3. Focus on measuring impact. This includes the mainstreaming of randomized controlled trials à la Duflo, JPAL, IPA and others. The issue has spread beyond the academics and is influencing the practitioners, donors and others. But it seems (from my admittedly limited vantage point) that it hasn’t fully matured yet.

4. Defense-development overlap. Secretary Clinton has talked about this, Afghanistan/ISAF/McChrystal and AfriCOM show the US is seriously trying to do it, but NGOs and others remain skeptical.

5. Lowering the bar for access to the formal economy. Isn’t that what microfinance, mobile banking, base-of-the-pyramid, etc. are all about? Communication technology is important for this, but the real action is in the application to expanding economic connectivity.

Any additions or arguments?

P.S. My apologies for the poorly formatted post. I’m posting via iPhone from JFK, on my way to Uganda.

There’s been lots of interesting movement and commentary on aid transparency recently, including the following:

  • Owen Abroad blogged today on why donors and others should just put the data out there, rather than focusing on interpreting (or spinning) it for users.
  • Easterly’s AidWatch blog recently lauded the World Bank for making its data available and user-friendly.
  • Texas in Africa has a guest post from AidData describing how their system could be useful to project managers (as opposed to just researchers/academics).

I agree whole-heartedly with Owen. The data needs to be free — and also easily searchable. So I applaud AidData for bringing the information together from multiple sources. The important point is that the organization holding the data will never be able to predict all the useful things someone might do with it. Better to make it accessible and let others decide.

Of course, numerical data is not the only thing that needs to be public. Project documents and evaluations should be as well. Accessibility and search-ability become harder with these. I bumped up against this a few weeks ago when I was researching the impact of multilaterals on decentralization in developing countries. (There are some interesting questions about sovereignty and agency, but I’ll save those issues for another day.)

What I discovered was a stark contrast between the World Bank and UNDP when it comes to providing project information. The Bank makes documentation on all their projects (relatively) searchable by country, region, sector, theme, etc. UNDP provides nothing of the sort. Most UNDP country websites have project lists, but the agency is decentralized enough that there’s no way to search across countries. If you’ve ever worked in a large bureaucracy, you can imagine that such a central system would place a massive burden on the country staff. Entering project information in a standardized format takes time. And it wouldn’t be very accurate for creative interventions that fall outside the “project” paradigm of aid delivery.

So my attempt to understand how UNDP engages with decentralization efforts took a lot of time, as I waded through each individual country site. I was hopeful that someone in UNDP’s evaluation office had already done the legwork. “Thematic Evaluations” looked especially promising — until I discovered that the most recent document on decentralization is a decade old. Dead end.

But all was not lost. As long as I was on the site, I perused the “Independent Review of UNDP Evaluation Policy” from earlier this year. I haven’t read it thoroughly, but here are some choice quotes from the “Overarching Conclusions” section. For starters, the reviewers found:

“There is little need to revise the present [evaluation] policy document, as the correct principles are identified.”

Translation: Some smart person wrote a good policy. So far so good. However:

“Specifying changes in operational procedures for budget preparation and human resources is required.”

And furthermore:

“Independent evaluation…has not been sufficiently institutionalized in systems and procedures.”

As usual, the challenge is implementation. And a final interesting tidbit:

“Increase in the quality of independent evaluations hinges on strengthening the basic ‘evaluability’ of UNDP interventions.”

In other words: evaluation starts with program design. You can design a program in a way that lends itself to evaluation, and start the evaluation early enough to be meaningful, without compromising the program legitimacy.

The report seemed to acknowledge that UNDP’s decentralized structure provides a hurdle to implementing the evaluation policy and making interventions more “evaluable” (evaluatable?), just as it provides a hurdle to creating a central database of projects. The report offered recommendations. The first one stated:

“…the most significant challenge lies with the pace and commitment of senior management to drive improvements in the decentralized evaluation system, as envisaged in the evaluation policy.”

Which is to say, they’re not really trying. But it reminds me of the common complaint that insufficient “political will” is responsible for the failure of various developing country reforms. In my opinion, this is an analytical punt insofar as it ignores the (lack of) incentives facing key actors.

I justified this detour in my decentralization research with the question: How can UNDP have a beneficial impact on decentralization in developing countries, if it can’t manage decentralization within itself? Really, I was just procrastinating. But this issue does have implications for the aid transparency movement: sometimes there are internal organizational constraints compounding the external (dis)incentives to making information available. Such constraints may be difficult to overcome.

I just finished Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart’s “Fixing Failed States” – only about two years after it came out. So I’m a little behind on my reading list. Are the ideas out of date? Probably not. So would an interesting summary/critique be totally useless? Hopefully not. Let’s proceed.

First, the praise: FFS puts the issue of state effectiveness center stage. The book is concerned with about 50 countries, home to nearly 2 billion people, suffering from a “sovereignty gap” — that is, a gap between the de jure sovereignty granted by the international system, and the state’s de facto inability to provide services within its borders. This gap leads to ongoing conflicts, terrorism, drug trafficking, persistent poverty, etc. (Admittedly, these ~50 states might not all deserve the label “failed”; Clare Lockhart mentioned in a talk that she would have preferred to title the book “Building Effective States” but it lacked the same panache.)

The issue of state building/state effectiveness has gotten increasing attention in international development over the past few decades, as donors have realized that interventions of all kinds (health, education, infrastructure, etc) struggle to have impact without an effective state. But efforts to promote “good governance” and “institutions” have remained fragmentary add-ons to these other development objectives. More inspirational concepts like democracy and freedom have also stolen the spotlight. “State effectiveness” just sounds so boring in comparison.

One of the book’s explicit goals is to put the issue on the agenda, inspiring various stakeholders to appreciate the importance of the state. The analysis is up to the task, though I don’t know much about how well the book has penetrated the intended audiences. The first half of the book outlines success stories of state turnarounds (Europe since WWII, Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew, the US southern states, Ireland) and continued failures (Lebanon, Sudan, Kosovo, Afghanistan). The book also describes today’s unique international context: the networked world, the rise of the knowledge economy and private international players, and the failures of the aid system. The last point is especially important, as FFS describes how the familiar issue of donor fragmentation not only undermines the impact of specific interventions but also undercuts state effectiveness across the board.

My praise is similar to the praise that I’ve heard William Easterly give for Jeffrey Sachs:  Easterly acknowledges that Sachs has managed to put the issue of poverty at the top of the agenda. He has helped to re-orient development economics from a focus on growth to a focus on poverty reduction. But Sachs’ strategy of big top-down efforts fundamentally misses how change happens. And that same critique applies to Ghani and Lockhart. Speaking of which..

Next, the critique: The recommendations leave much to be desired. The second half of FFS charts a course that seems to ignore the same political analysis that was so well articulated in the first half.

The authors give a brief history of the concept of the state (cue Weber et al.) before diving into their own list of ten functions a 21st century state must fulfill. They are: Rule of law; Monopoly on violence; Administrative control; Sound management of public finances; Investments in human capital; Creation of citizenship rights through social policy; Provision of infrastructure services; Formation of a market; Management of public assets; Effective public borrowing.

While Ghani/Lockhart don’t claim the list is definitive, they do claim that it is meant to spark discussion that will eventually yield a consensus. Their hope for consensus is where the argument starts to slip. This consensus is meant to provide the framework for two things. First, a “sovereignty index” that would show each country’s performance. This is analytically difficult — some effective states fail on criteria that others may find essential, e.g. the US on “effective public borrowing” — but not impossible. However, it’s not entirely clear that a consensus could be built, as states may be reluctant to label their allies “failed”. Furthermore, it’s not clear that a consensus should be built: human history is marked with experimentation in political forms, and this diversity and innovation is beneficial in the long run.

The bigger problem comes from the second purpose of the consensus: the creation of (context-specific) “sovereignty strategies” for each state suffering from a sovereignty gap. FFS defines a sovereignty strategy as: “the alignment of internal and external stakeholders to the goals of a sovereign state through the joint formulation, calibration of, and adherence to the rules of the game.” Thus the consensus must go beyond simple agreement on concepts, and must also include alignment of activities. Ghani/Lockhart have a few mechanisms and principles for achieving this: root-cause/constraint-relaxing analysis; a “double compact” between the national government and citizens on the one hand, and between the national government and the international community on the other; clear decisions on sequencing; strong focus on setting an implementable strategy. But none are sufficient for overcoming the political hurdle. How do you actually convince disparate aid agencies and other foreign policy actors to work together?

The first half of FFS contained astute political analysis on the incentives facing donors and other international actors. The second half ignored this analysis and assumed they can all be brought on board. While greater discussion on the importance of states might bring some consensus on their appropriate role, it won’t solve the political economy problem. Coordination on single issues is complex enough; getting everyone to agree on a cross-sectoral strategy for state-building (not to mention crafting an appropriate one) will be next to impossible.

Then, the tie-ins: There’s some interesting overlap with other thinkers worth noting. For example, the application of root-cause analysis to identify constraints to state effectiveness sounds a lot like the growth diagnostics of Dani Rodrik and others (Duncan Green discussed this in his own, much more timely, review of FFS). But as Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock point out in their brilliantly snarky “Solutions when the Solution is the Problem“, it’s not entirely clear what questions would go at the nodes of the decision tree. This difficulty calls into question the analytical project of devising a “sovereignty strategy”, which further compounds the political complexity.

Another interesting tie-in is the similarity between FFS’s “sovereignty gap” and Thomas Barnett’s “non-integrated gap” — which Barnett defines in terms of connectivity to the global economy. Specifically, those countries suffering from a sovereignty gap are the same ones that are unable to manage the rules for connecting to the global economy.

Finally, the take-aways: Operating without consensus. FFS’s main failing is to imagine that consensus can be built around a “sovereignty strategy” for a given country. The book does not explicitly address how to operate in the absence of such consensus. However, it offers applicable lessons anyway, namely the “national programs” that it proposes as the key modality for implementing sovereignty strategies. Examples include Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Program, which gives block grants to villages for participatory development projects (the authors were directly involved in this program), and United States’ GI Bill of Rights, which promoted human capital development by providing access to higher education. Ghani/Lockhart contrast such programs with other modalities: large-scale humanitarian projects, quick-impact projects, developmental projects, and sector approaches.

The examples make a compelling case for the potential of national programs to address specific development problems while simultaneously building state capacity. Such programs seem to exist just fine in the absence of comprehensive sovereignty strategies. Rather trying to establish such a strategy, energy may be better spent pursuing national programs, in isolation if necessary.