By Khurram Ali, MPP ’14, Correspondent
This week, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Professor Matt Andrews, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), on his work in the developing world and his views on public administration.
After the first few sessions of his course on “Money Management and Policy Implementation in Developing Countries”, Andrews already managed to instill in me the perspective that development on the ground is strikingly different from the theories, goals and motivations of “public policy.” An excerpt from the interview follows.
Q: What do you think are some of the under-explored issues in the area of public sector reform in the developing world?
A: My major focus is on the gaps between where the emphasis has been and what the reality looks like. So when you look at public sector reform, it has become a major part of the development discussion. But the focus really is on a set of routine solutions, for example, things like mediums and budgeting, anti-corruption, and rules and laws. It’s troubling to me how little people ask about how these things actually change behavior. Often times you say you’ve changed the procurement system or even changed the voting mechanism; but then the question is, “Why do you do that?”
There seems to be an assumption that there are these routine solutions and all you have to do is implement them and you’ll get to where you want to get to. In reality, what we’ve found is that many governments are doing these things, but you aren’t seeing any gains in the form of better government services, better education systems or less corruption. So, I would say that this is kind of the forgotten reality of government reform – there is this blind assumption that doing the process improves the way governments work. But it doesn’t really work out, and people aren’t really measuring outcomes. You have to ask, why isn’t your country really doing all that much better? So I think we need to be relentlessly focusing on the question: ‘Are governments more functional than they were in the past?’ It is not about the form, but the function.
One of the concerns seems to be that there are leakages where the money slips through. So where are these leakages and how do you go about closing them?
I think there are so many leakages in any kind of system, and they relate a lot to the connections between different agents. The problem with money is that, in government systems, it doesn’t just go from one person to another. There are multiple links, which means there are multiple opportunities for leakages. That leakage could be because of inefficiency; it could be from poor information; or it could be due to corruption.
The first thing I would say is to decrease the number of linkages in your system as much as possible. Where you can’t do that, you want to formalize the linkages and make sure that, at the end of every chain, there are people who know what they should be getting, and who have a way of assessing whether it gets there. For instance, when you are in an education system, the money goes through multiple actors. You want to be able to say to the parents at the end, ‘This is the number of textbooks you should be getting in school. This is how many teachers there should be.’ They’re not interested in the money. They’re interested in what it buys them. So, empower the claimants at the end because they’re the only ones who can tell you how much leakage really occurred. The problem is that those people are the ones who are not really empowered. They don’t really know what they need to be getting, and even if it gets there, they don’t have any recourse.
Q: What is your most memorable experience in the developing world as a student of public administration or as a consultant to other nations?
A: The biggest memory I have is from 2002. I keep this with me. [Here, Professor Andrews shows me a piece of paper lying on his deck. On it there are a few words written in Portuguese.]
When I was in Mozambique, I spent a few years living with a nomadic group. When I was there, one woman in the group, one of the only people who could write, wrote this on behalf of the group.
These are the things that are needed in order for us to function in this environment. And the list is: Spades, buckets, rakes. It grounds you: When you’re thinking at a certain level, those real people are thinking at a much more specified, very basic level. The challenge for me always is: Are we facilitating that degree of functionality? Do our ideas get down there? Will this reform that I’m involved in get these women the buckets? It is not necessarily my fondest memory, but it is my biggest lesson.
As a consultant? I have taken the same lesson. We can’t do as much as we think we can. You know, being with these people – who are so difficult to reach and whose needs are much more basic than our minds allow the world to be – there are some real limitations to what we can do, unfortunately.
Q: So what advice do you have for HKS students who want to work in the developing world?
A: You need to have experience in the field, on the ground. You have to meet poor people. You have to meet bureaucrats. I think people who don’t know bureaucrats often think bureaucrats are all corrupt people. They have ideas about them. You need to go into the field and work with people who really care. And see just how constrained they are in making a difference no matter how much they care. I think it gives you a different perspective on the field than what you get here; where you’re learning the theory. All those things are good, but you need to have a balance. The real world is something that we still don’t theoretically understand very well, as reflected by the fact that development is still a huge problem for us.