April 16, 2012—In advance of the upcoming event "Catalyzing Change for Results in Africa–the Role of Capacity Development" (April 19) during the World Bank’s 2012 Spring Meetings, we talked with Shanta Devarajan, Chief Economist, Africa Region, World Bank, about capacity building in Africa.
WBI: There is an increasing focus on achieving development results in countries where the World Bank works. What are your thoughts on how capacity can improve results?
SD: You are starting at the right point, which is development results. We always feel that we could do better on the structural and human development side. And the question is: why?
We’ve had a lot of growth in Africa in the past 10 to 15 years, and quite a lot of resources going into Africa, including from the World Bank. The results are somewhat disappointing in some areas, in particular those associated with the effectiveness of public spending. That translates into infrastructure, health, education, even some aspects of employment.
We hear a lot of rhetoric that capacity is what is standing in the way of more effective spending. And that governments don’t have mechanisms for making strategic prioritizations; they don’t have mechanisms for getting value for money. Once you’ve made the decision that you’re going to spend a certain percentage on health, how do you guarantee that you will actually deliver health?
But there is a danger that we still slip into this notion that a lack of capacity can be filled by pouring more capacity into the bottle. So we do training programs or send in technical assistance. I think that the problem is deeper than that.
WBI: How do you address capacity if it is not just about technical solutions?
SD: It is definitely not just about technical solutions. At the first level it is a question of incentives. And it is even deeper than that. At a fundamental level, it is a problem of politics.
Take the incentives. You have this problem of absentee doctors in health clinics or absentee teachers in primary schools. Or like in Chad, where you have a leakage rate in public spending in health of 99 percent. Only 1 percent of non-wage expenditures intended for public primary clinics actually arrives at the clinics. And some of this is the pharmaceuticals - they are worth a lot on the open market and they are really easy to steal. You can just put them in your pocket and walk out. These people actually don’t lack for capacity. So there is a public expenditure problem there. No amount of training is going to address problems like this that are deeper.
And there are cases in which the teachers don’t show up at school - and they get paid whether or not they show up. There are ways to try to address the problem. Let’s make their pay dependent on their showing up or give them a bonus. There are experiments with teachers taking photographs with students and sending these in to a central office. But this doesn’t address the fundamental problem - that the teachers can continue to be absent at a public primary school and still get paid without sanctions. And that’s because it’s politics.
In a local district in Tanzania or wherever, the teacher can be the main political operator; he can help run the campaign for the local politicians. In turn the local politician, if elected, gives the teacher a job that he can keep even if he doesn’t show up. It’s an equilibrium. The teacher is happy, the politician is getting what he needs. The loser is the public.
WBI: How do you break out of this system? How can the capacity of country actors to exercise demand and participate in development processes be strengthened?
SD: The only way to break the system is if the losers - the people like the students or the parents - realize that this is a problem. And they demand better and they vote. They demand from their elected officials that their service improves. And if you can get this and that is a big if, then you can trigger this change. Capacity can be improved. Parents can start demanding that the teachers show up, they can demand from the politicians that the teachers need to show up.
So that’s why when you start with the problem being capacity and go all the way back down the chain you realize that it’s the demand for capacity, for service, and for performance.
The demand side doesn’t have to come from the people. It could also come from within government. Here I come back to this example of fiscal decentralization. A lot of these countries are decentralized with powers devolved to local authorities. Let’s be honest - fiscal decentralization is a transfer of power from the center. And people in the central government don’t always like it because it means losing power.
Very often they use the word “capacity” as a way of slowing down or in some cases reversing fiscal decentralization. They may say that the local governments lack the capacity to deal with the funds: “Do you want to actually give them the money to let them decide what to do with it themselves?” There are some responses to this. One reason may be that no one has given local authorities the chance to deal with funds. There may have been no demand for financial management at the local level because the central government has told you what to spend. If you give them the chance to make the decisions, then they might actually build the capacity or hire that capacity because it’s something they can decide for themselves.
Moreover, if the local governments are accountable to the local population, they will have to build capacity really fast. They can no longer put the blame on central government if things don’t work well.
The demand side of capacity building - it’s fundamental. It really is the end at which we should be starting.
WBI: Can you give an example, from your experience, of how African institutions might address both demand and supply side capacity to improve development results?
SD: There’s still a legacy, which was probably a noble thing when it started, of setting up think tanks in Africa. At one level that was a supply side situation. We paid the people, bought the computers, and everything else. And I wonder what we are doing on the demand side so that the think tanks can be effective.
There is a global think tank initiative involving about 50 think tanks around the world and half of them are in Africa. And the idea is to build their capacity. A small part of this is an initiative, where we are involved, is trying to increase the media interest in these think tanks. My goal is that when there is a problem in Mali, I don’t want CNN to call me. I want them to call the think tank in Mali.
We are going to be running a workshop in Cape Town with heads of media houses, journalists, and editors and the heads of these think tanks. We will put them in a room and simulate a press conference and have them fire questions and have them discuss the difficulties on both sides. Sometimes the media are not that good at asking questions and sometimes the think tanks are not so good at answering them.
WBI: What types of evidence gathering on capacity and its development would be relevant for countries and building know-how for implementation?
SD: Let’s do these demand side interventions in a way where we can evaluate them. Allow me to be provocative for a moment. We could do a randomized trial. We could do analytical work and training only on demand, ensuring that people have the necessary financial resources for it. So we could give one group vouchers for this. And to the other group - we would go in and tell them what to do. We would provide technical assistance and training. A pure demand side initiative and pure supply side. And then measure what comes out at the other end.
The April 19 event* will start to inform areas for more systematic learning and evidence gathering on the results of demand and supply side capacity development. Such learning, through distilling and sharing lessons, experimenting with new innovations and gathering new knowledge and information, could expand what we know about what works to address capacity and how to implement capacity development.
* "Catalyzing Change for Results in Africa–the Role of Capacity Development" will take place Thursday, April 19, 2012 from 2:30 pm to 4:30 pm. You are invited to send your questions ahead of time or during the event via Twitter or email. The event hashtag is #WBAfricaCap and the event email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Read Shanta's blog: Africa Can...End Poverty