governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

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Will NITI get it’s hands dirty?

Rajiv-Kumar-NITI

Rajiv Kumar, the new vice-chairman of the Niti Aayog, has made development of an organic, Bharatiya model of development as his mission. He is likely to encounter three problems in this endeavour.

A new, local model of development is doomed from the start in a globalised world 

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First, in a post-ideology world, marked by rapid technological transformations, economic models become outdated even before they can be tested. In these uncertain times, feeling the rocky river bed with one’s feet carefully, while crossing turbulent economic and social currents, seems the wisest option.

Second, isn’t this what Bharat has always done. We have been obsessive about the “uniqueness” of India, which seemingly requires all international experience to be adapted for use locally. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though it has its downsides.

Scaling up rapidly more important than localisation

school lunch

Consider that in the five decades after Independence we have stuck, like leeches, to the Nehruvian development model of ersatz socialism based on a massive industrial public sector accompanied by the outrageous neglect of agriculture, private enterprise or international quality education and health facilities. This, when most other emerging countries, in East Asia, Southeast Asia and Latin America, switched over to a modified Anglo-Saxon, neo-liberal strategy from the 1970s and reaped the benefits of rapid growth.

To be sure, even after 1991, the reform model we followed was Bharatiya. Its core ingredients were incremental rather than big-bang reform — a strategy Russia followed with disastrous results — and careful sequencing of sector reform to minimise the pain from reforms.

It is unclear, however, whether Bharatiya incrementalism helped the poor. Chancel and Picketty (July 2017) estimate that over the period 1980 to 2014 the share of growth accruing to the bottom 50 per cent of adults was 11 per cent in India; 13 per cent in China and only one per cent in the United States. Meanwhile, the top one per cent of adults garnered 29 per cent of the growth in India. China did better by containing the share of this segment at 15 per cent, while the US did worse at 34 per cent. More worryingly, the next nine per cent of adults, from the top, garnered 37 per cent of growth in India, significantly more than in China (29 per cent) and the US (32 per cent). Where we failed spectacularly was in protecting the middle 40 per cent of adults, who got only 23 per cent of the growth versus 43 per cent in China and 33 per cent in the US.

Be shrewd and businesslike not ideologically shortsighted

One Bharatiya innovation which succeeded spectacularly was the phased introduction of currency and capital convertibility. This modified-market approach was validated by India escaping the ill-effects of the 1997 East Asian currency crisis. It is significant that Malaysia followed our innovative approach, endorsed by Jagdish Bhagwati, by reimposing capital controls after 1997, and Iceland did similarly in 2008.

Similarly, our choice of shying away from “big bang” privatisation of the public sector, unlike Latin America in the 1980s and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, worked well. We chose instead to liberalise controls over private investment, thereby enabling private companies to grow and compete with the public sector. This strategy has paid dividends in civil aviation, telecom, minerals and electricity generation. Incremental private sector investment now dominates these sectors and a competitive market-based economy has emerged.

Simultaneously, we contained the social cost of reforms. But a similar policy has not worked in banking. We were too hesitant to give up the political power which comes with the government owning public sector banks. Private banks today account for just one-third of banking assets. The massive economic problem of stressed loan accounts, amounting to around 14 per cent of publicly owned bank assets, is a consequence of our not following through by liberalising the financial sector. Bharatiyata has, unfortunately, become synonymous with crony capitalism in banking.

Aping the turtle gives time to pull a reform coalition together

The GST is operational today due to a strategy of incrementalism, driven by the need for building inter-government consensus. Early indications are positive both on the increase in revenue collected and the enhanced compliance by taxpayers. But the jury is out till the final results come in by April 2018.

In a nutshell, Bharat’s economic policies have always been unique and contextual. Some observers would even say we obsessively reinvent the wheel. It will thus be a tall order for the Niti Aayog to evolve a new Bharatiya model of development, which is completely unknown to us, or the world.

Don’t fix what isn’t broken

Third, do we need a new model of development? The existing model has served us well. The areas for deeper reform are well known and agreed. Indeed, many are already on their way. Hopefully the 15th Finance Commission will continue the task of decentralising fiscal resources, by increasing the share of devolved resources from the 42 per cent existing today towards 50 per cent. This would push the Union government to be more selective in its interventions based on the time-tested principle of subsidiarity — not doing anything that can be efficiently done at a lower level of government. The government is already allocating more resources to agriculture, education and healthcare, which had fallen through the gaps earlier, while also stepping up allocations for defence and infrastructure.

Avoid the temptation to centralise functions – There is enough to do for all.

At the helicopter level of grand plans and policies, there is no gap which the Niti Aayog can address. In fact, it would do well to exercise forbearance in areas where individual ministries are better equipped to take the lead. Where Niti can add value is in addressing the root causes of poor implementation. Tony Blair’s Service Delivery Unit did this to marvellous effect in the UK. Malaysia and Tanzania thereafter copied the template.

Check the plumbing in government. Massive efficiency gains are low hanging fruit

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Niti should focus on the nitty-gritty of getting the plethora of good intentions, embedded in policies, implemented on the ground. This goes beyond close monitoring of targets or punishing laggards. The devil lies in clogged delivery chains, poor metrics to measure results and misaligned incentives, all of which need to be painstakingly mapped and then innovatively declogged. It’s a plumber’s job that needs to be done. Is the Niti Aayog willing to get its hands dirty?

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, September 7, 2017  http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/070917/is-niti-aayog-willing-to-get-its-hands-dirty.html

 

African “big men” in India

African heads of State will don Modi kurtas and party in New Delhi, October 27 to 29. The occasion is the third meeting of the Indo African Summit. It would be quite a sight to see Robert Mugabe, age 91, President of Zimbabwe for the last two decades, take a turn or two on the dance floor. But we may have to make do with the more agile President Jacob Zuma.

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President Jacob Zuma of South Africa at his agile best

Hopefully, the parallel with ASEAN will not extend to Minister Sushma Swaraj having to sing at the concluding party, just to liven up the proceedings, along the lines of Madeline Albright, US Secretary of State in 1997, who crooned her version of “Don’t cry for me Argentina”.

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Minister Sushma Swaraj with members of parliment

Beyond the theatrics, it is tough to figure out what we want to achieve with the possibly forty heads of state or governments and many more senior politicians and officials from Africa who are expected to participate. Similar summits were held in 2008 and again in 2011.

Claim the 21st century for Africa and India

Demographics suggests that the second half of this century belongs to Africa and India. But to claim this “historical destiny” India and Africa have to do the right things. One such is to put the right institutions in place.

This “mirror” long term need is what binds India to African countries far more than the standard diplomatic fare; trade and investment, terrorism and security. These are merely the transactional outcomes of sound institutional development and better dealt with at specialized fora which already exist like the World Trade Organization, the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions and their offshoots.

Context is key for developing “best fit” institutions. Context varies enormously between India and Africa and even more so within Africa. But one common theme across most African countries is a rich endowment of natural resources (except Rwanda and Burundi) which distinguishes them from resource poor India.

In contrast, adherence to broad democratic norms is increasingly the preferred option across Africa. Swaziland and Lesotho remain the only kingdoms in sub-Saharan Africa. Yesterdays “dictators” are today’s leaders, who test their popularity in elections.

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Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda

India has been the world’s largest democracy since 1947. In Africa Senegal has similarly been a multi-party democracy since 1960 when it became independent. Senegal had its “Indira Gandhi moment” in the first decade of this century when then President Wade tried to unduly empower the executive through constitutional amendments. The democratic backlash was strong and he lost in elections to his own Prime Minister in 2012- President Small still leads today. Mauritius, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and later South Africa, Botswana and Namibia also have stellar democratic records.

African public service structures have evolved unlike ours which have atrophied

The institutional architecture within which government functions is critical for achieving developmental goals. Within the broad institutional architecture the manner in which the civil service is structured is key. India has much to learn from select countries. South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, Mauritius, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia for instance, have developed and maintained outstanding public service structures and traditions.

These bureaucracies have weathered far more tumultuous times than we in India have ever encountered in the post- World War II period. But they remained committed, motivated and deliver results- three characteristics that are iffy to apply across the board in India.

India presents a fascinating case study of asymmetric development. On the one hand we have scientists sending space expeditions to Mars. At the other end poor villagers still rely on traditional healers and “bangali” doctors- sometimes out of choice and habit but mostly out of compulsion since the public health service is so poor.

It is fashionable today to advocate the case for asymmetric development- getting reform in through the door wherever possible without attempting an across the board improvement in the civil service. India is a good example of how this does not work. Islands of excellence remain just that cordoned and insulated from the ills that afflict service areas not considered critical from the short term (sighted) point of view.

India manufactures or assembles more brands of cars, scooters and motorcycles in India than it is possible to remember. We pride ourselves on our in-house capacity for developing infrastructure. We have embarked on a “make in India” mission. Foreign students come to India to study management, medicine and engineering.

Yet, within the government, it is rare to find an official with the relevant technical qualifications, in a senior position with decision making powers. This is not to say that our top bureaucrats are not highly educated. Invariably they do have these credentials, in a general way. Many may even be a PhD. It doesn’t get better. But rarely is it that the academic qualifications and the experience overlap. This disregard for “technical excellence” as a driver of good public administration is at the root of our inability to apply the vast knowledge reserves we have built up to improving public services on the ground.

We should learn for countries in Africa which have done away with the hierarchical, cadre based, colonial administration systems they inherited and have moved on to a position based meritocracy. South Africa, Mauritius, Ghana, Senegal, Kenya and Tanzania are examples.

Our federal structure is an outstanding example of contextual decentralization

Whilst our Constitution is a Union of States rather than being a federation like the US Constitution, it is a dynamic yet robust instrument. It has been amended one hundred times since 1952 but it remains the driving force for growing the “Idea of India” as a single nation comprising unparalleled diversity in religion, ethnicity and culture.

Much of richness of the Indian public management experience derives from the significant levels of devolution to the thirty state governments. Around 40% of the Union government’s revenues are made available to state governments as their share of tax. An additional 15% of funds are transferred to state governments for executing national development schemes. State governments also have their own sources of revenue.

The size and character of states varies enormously in India. These range from the mammoth Uttar Pradesh (UP) with a population of 200 million (the next biggest state is Bihar with pop. 100 million) to tiny Sikkim population 600,000.

Uttar Pradesh is larger than the largest African nation-Nigeria-pop. 189 million, renowned for its oil rich economy, entrepreneurial people and pluralistic society.

Sikkim, sticking out like a “thumbs up” between Nepal and China in North Eastern India with streets neat as a pin and people, as disciplined as the Rwandans closely resembles the well governed, gorgeous, North Western African island nation of Cape Verde.

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Cape Verde

Africa manages regional co-operation exceedingly well

India should look closely at the cross country arrangements within Africa which facilitate development based on the comparative advantage of countries. Power pooling across the Southern Cone countries and West Africa is one such example. Access to sea routes for land locked countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda via rail, road and pipelines provides good models for cost sharing across Indian states. Truth and reconciliation type negotiations are another African specialty.

bashir

Presidents Bashir of Sudan and Salva Kiir of South Sudan- friendly foes.

The Indian institutional arrangements for regional integration have fallen into disuse and are ineffective. Water sharing arrangements are particularly dissatisfactory and legal disputes linger for years, increasing conflict and retarding development. Similarly implementing the Goods and Services tax- a single, value added tax, to replace state level taxes on the production and sale of products, to which all parties are agreed in principle, has become harder and more painful than extracting a tooth.

It may have been really useful to arrange sessions where state chief ministers could have interacted with heads of state depending on areas of mutual interest with their officials following up on the detailed areas of cooperation.

We are not China

aarti

aarti” evening prayers on the banks of the Holy Ganga

Finally how can we  differentiate ourselves from China whilst dealing with Africa? Clearly the worst option would be to emulate the muscular Chinese style of economic diplomacy. For one we just don’t have the firepower. For another the principle of comparative advantage advocates that everyone must play to their strengths.

China’s comparative advantage is cash-lots of it. But the Chinese model of development is not something which is easily replicated because of the size of its economy, the homogeneity of its population and its long history of splendid isolation. Also it is unlikely that exporting workers in droves to implement projects overseas is a sustainable or effective developmental strategy for the beneficiary countries.

Our comparative strength is that we are the “Constantinople of Parliamentary Democracy”. We straddle the democratic heritage of the West and the traditional Asian democratic principles. In doing so we have evolved a home spun democratic model. Like all jugaad (learning by doing) the ends of this model are a bit jagged.

parliament

The Indian parliament on high alert post a terrorist attack in 2001

Nevertheless, it is a model which works- both for economic growth and to uphold the human liberties of speech, association and property. Within this generic model of development lie gems of granular achievement at the state government and local level, which provide solutions to the universal development barriers of elite control, low initial capacity, nascent institutions and less than adequate rule of law mechanisms.

India must use the Summit to share these nuggets of experience which are at the heart of building institutional resilience for sustainable development in poor countries.

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