How to operationalise ‘good fit’

By David Booth

In the Copenhagen Joint Statement, we ended by advocating a ‘good fit’ approach to institutional reform in Africa. We didn’t go very far into what that might mean. Now, one of the five programmes that authored the statement, APPP, has provided some further pointers in its final synthesis report (Governance as a Collective Action Problem).

A central argument of the APPP synthesis is that the idea of ‘good fit’ doesn’t by itself guarantee a fresh approach to practice. In fact, it can easily mask continued reform practices and donor programming of quite a conventional sort. So there is more that urgently needs to be said. Some of this is about the importance of getting rid of the conventional ‘supply’ versus ‘demand’ concept of how to improve governance for development.

This argument is very directly relevant to some areas of current aid-funded governance work. Let me start by saying how. In an excellent recent contribution to the World Bank’s Governance for Development site (Peeling the Mango), Margaux Hall describes an interesting experience in a social accountability programme in Sierra Leone.

‘Margaux Hall’s blog points to a serious mismatch between what local facilitators find effective in working towards improved health service delivery and the theory that in principle governs their intervention.

The programme theory suggests an adversarial relationship between the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ sides of service delivery. Citizens are pitted against state agents, encouraged to monitor service providers and demand their rights. The practice, in contrast, takes into account the penalties that may be incurred by villagers who make formal complaints. It also recognises that service providers face their own constraints, often struggling to meet heavy demands with severely limited resources. Facilitators find that it helps not to use adversarial methods and that it pays to invest in understanding the specific problems affecting provision. This leads them to focus on brokering mutual commitments among providers and users, which sometimes results in better provision.

Margaux offers this as an illustration of the importance of understanding socio-cultural dynamics when working to strengthen accountability relationships in local settings. It is that, but it has further implications.

To begin with, this is not an isolated example or one that reflects the particularities of Sierra Leone. An equivalent mismatch between experience and programme theory is cropping up in local accountability interventions in several parts of Africa, with recently documented examples from Malawi and Tanzania. In those settings, too, significant local improvements have been achieved with non-adversarial facilitation approaches, sometimes without any explicit recognition of the methods actually being used, particularly when reporting to funders.

Secondly, the Sierra Leone case illustrates a broader point about the current status of the good fit agenda. As Merilee Grindle pointed out last year, advocates of good fit need to start providing development practitioners with robust middle-range guidelines on what to do differently, as distinct from studying every situation afresh before doing anything. One of the implications of this line of thinking is that, if current programme theories are being refuted in practice, we need to be putting something in their place. In other words, this is a moment for new concepts and directions.

In the field of social accountability, we do have some new concepts. The idea of ‘working across the demand and supply dichotomy’ is now much discussed, thanks to the build-up of documented experience on ‘blurring the boundaries’ between state and non-state action in improving service delivery. Research in the Citizenship and Future States centres at IDS Sussex have contributed importantly to this awareness of problems and potentialities.

Now, however, we need to question the usefulness of merely bridging ‘supply’ and ‘demand’. The above-mentioned APPP synthesis report argues that the supply/demand metaphor is itself problematic, reflecting the persisting influence of an unrealistic principal-agent perspective on governance reform in Africa.

As the report presentation and summary put it, governance challenges in Africa are not fundamentally about one set of people getting another set of people to behave better. They are about both sets of people finding ways to act collectively in their own best interests. In other words, it needs to be recognised that actors at all levels typically face collective action problems in acting in ways that favour development results.

This applies to the government leaders tacitly treated as developmentally oriented ‘principals’ in the best-known types of ‘supply side’ public sector reforms. It applies equally to the citizen groups treated as principals in the many intervention logics that rest on the power of information and eliciting demand for good governance. The APPP research shows that thinking about governance reform as a collective action problem is not just helpful in making sense of what works in the provision of local public goods. It also sheds light on the big questions about why some types of national political regime promote economic transformation and others do not.

The Sierra Leone, Malawi and Tanzania examples suggest that, in some important respects, development practice is running ahead of the relevant theory. That may be welcomed as sign of high-quality programme implementation. But it is a less than ideal state of affairs in that it wastes the potential for systematic learning.

For example, Margaux Hall tells us that the government of Sierra Leone is evaluating the impact of the intervention by means of a randomised control trial. That is good, but only on condition that the exercise is serious about specifying what is being evaluated. Is it the stimulation of citizen ‘demands’ and rights-claims, in adversarial mode? Or is it what the intervention teams consider the better approach: facilitating constructive relationships among providers and users based on a detailed appreciation of barriers to behaviour change in specific local settings? Unless this question is answered, we shall not have learned much about what works. In this important sense, theory matters.

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One Response to How to operationalise ‘good fit’

  1. Lars Engberg-Pedersen says:

    The usefulness of collective action

    Thanks for this important attempt to take the understanding of service delivery and governance challenges forward in an African context! Based on a rapid reading of parts of the APPP synthesis report (Development as a collective action problem), I have a few comments and questions:

    I appreciate very much the attempt to develop precise ideas about what ‘good fit’ means. The supply and demand approaches are based on naive and idealized assumptions about the interests and abilities of civil servants and citizens, respectively. Often, people particularly in rural areas refrain from engaging in state institutions because these are perceived to be dangerous, full of power struggles and politics which poor people cannot handle. Stimulating demand for better services under such conditions is futile.

    APPP has carried out a lot of thorough fieldwork and this constitutes a very good basis for discussions of how and when progress takes place. The criticism of ‘good governance’ and ‘good fit’ approaches is clear and convincing. However, I am uncertain about the attempt to pull out a general alternative approach from the important fieldwork.

    First, and less important, is the description of ‘good fit’ as a principal-agent approach to public management reform. As far as I know, a very important part of this theory has to do with information asymmetries: The agent knows more about the implementation of a particular policy than the principal, and the agent uses this knowledge to divert the policy from its intended objective. Is this the underlying assumption of current ‘best fit’ work? My understanding is that supply side approaches believe that more resources and better capacity will produce better services which people automatically will use. Demand side approaches on the other hand posit that popular pressure will force civil servants to provide services. Information asymmetries are not important in these approaches, and describing them with reference to principal-agent theory may, accordingly, not capture their underlying assumptions in a useful manner.

    Second, I wonder whether it is useful to describe the way forward as the solution to collective action problems. It is argued that successful cases of service delivery are characterized by cooperation between people using the services and the service providers. However, my understanding of collective action problems is that a number of actors fail to cooperate about something in which they have a similar interest (regulating fishing in a lake), but service users and providers do not have similar interests, do they? Moreover, the theory predicts that freeriding is a central reason why collective action fails, but what freeriding can take place if there is no service delivery? Is the idea that, e.g., teachers may free ride by getting their pay without teaching? If so, there is no common interest in getting the service delivery to function across the different actors.

    More generally, presenting governance challenges in Africa as collective action problems seems to depoliticize the matter in the sense that it sweeps contradicting interests and political struggle under the carpet. The synthesis report argues that governance challenges are about “people finding ways of being able to act collectively in their own best interests” (p. 11). If these interests contradict each other and if certain actors have much more political power than others, the scope for institutional innovation beneficial to everyone is rather limited.

    Third, is it useful to present African governance challenges in the rational choice language of principal-agent and collective action theory? It is of course a much needed departure from neo-patrimonialism and the understanding that Africa is culturally doomed forever. But is it a good framework for understanding the complex interplay between dynamic economic and socio-political changes on the one hand and established norms and practices in communities and state institutions on the other hand? I fear that a collective action framework for solving governance challenges, though a bold attempt at providing practical guidelines for development practitioners, may simplify the issue just as much as the supply and demand approaches.

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