Saturday, July 30, 2011

On rights-based development and populist quick-fixes

Pranab Bardhan has a brilliant essay in Boston Review that strikes an immediate chord with development discourse in India. Instead of commenting, let me reproduce portions.

He appreciates the concern among civil society groups and activists at the extreme poverty and vulnerability of the marginalized and their enthusiasm for a rights-based approach (as against the dole-based approach of traditional welfare state). However, he cautions against the prevailing craze for it,

"It (rights-based approach) serves to raise consciousness among the poor and the vulnerable about their entitlements, and remind them that they are not mere supplicants to politicians and bureaucrats. In a weak administrative and institutional context, however, the NGO approach of uncompromising support for citizen’s rights can cause more harm than good. If the structure for implementing some of these rights is weak and corrupt, then the rights are hollow and promoting them breeds cynicism."

In the context of India where courts have joined civil society groups in taking up the cause of the poor and vulnerable, he strikes a much-needed but politically incorrect note of caution,

"India is already littered with hundreds of unenforced or spasmodically enforced court injunctions, some of them on the implementation of rights. This proliferating judicial activism, egged on by the rights-based movement and the media, may end up, for all its good intentions, undermining the credibility and legitimacy of the judiciary itself."

Prof Bardhan hits the nail on its head when identifying the real limitation of civil-society activism driven rights-based approach to development in societies where the ability of governments to deliver is severely constrained. He writes,

"The social activists share with left-wing unions a preoccupation with redistribution, and a lack of concern for generating enough surplus to enable it. There are obvious trade-offs here between incentives for private enterprise and the need for social justice... When real capacity to create wealth is missing, social activism is often reduced to mere populism, which in the long run can be wasteful and counterproductive."

This is the biggest problem with the dominant development policy discourse in India - too much of wealth re-distribution and too little of wealth creation!

Again, in light of the political drama surrounding anti-corruption activists and their populist quick-fixes, Prof Bardhan questions their right to appropriate the mantle of popular legitimacy in democratic societies,

"In the policy arena... such non-party organizations cannot and should not threaten to replace the role of traditional party organizations in a democracy. Voluntary groups, as single-interest advocacy lobbies, lack the mechanism of transactional negotiations and give-and-take among diverse interest groups that large party organizations, representing and encompassing those varied interests, possess.

This kind of give-and-take is particularly important when resolving controversial issues and requires complex trade-offs and balancing of diverse interests. Those who speak for the poor usually underplay the diversity among the poor and sometimes romanticize their traditional way of life. A dam may benefit thousands of small farmers in hitherto parched land, even as it displaces thousands of others; a development project may displace some from their ancestral land but provide jobs and more productive livelihoods for others; and so on. Each such case involves complex trade-offs and demands negotiated compromises and compensations across groups and over time. Such deliberations should take place within a party forum where diverse interests and stakeholders are represented."

Finally, this message for those opposing capitalism on the grounds that capitalist exploits the poor, is extremely relevant,

"Activists who romanticize the pristine life of the poor and the indigenous, and ignore a great deal of misery and stagnation, should keep in mind that the horrors of capitalism fade in comparison with the horrors of pre-capitalism."


sai prasad said...

Very Informative.
1..Firstly, it is evident that most of the debt is owed to the US public and not to foreign entities (Contrary to the belief floating around)
2..Bernanke has outlined the fallout of a default..Lowered creditworthiness (same as for Individual debt default) and rising interest rates (same for Individuals)
3..I find it difficult to accept that tax cuts are going to revv up the economy. The cuts put money in the hands of the rich with the rich getting richer. As and when they get down to investing and when the multiplier takes effect some of the same would trickle down to the poor and the middle class. What is needed are ideas and projects which put money directly into the hands of the needy without much transmission loss.

On this aspect , i think that the democrats have also failed in getting the max bang for the buck.

I think they a program like the NREGA which puts money directly into the hands of the poor.

sai prasad said...

I think that Prof.Bardhan is optimistic when he says this.

"India is already littered with hundreds of unenforced or spasmodically enforced court injunctions....., may end up, for all its good intentions, undermining the credibility and legitimacy of the judiciary itself."

By overreaching itself the judiciary is geting into areas which it cannot continue to remain for very long. It cannot ensure that the objectives of its orders are met anytime in the near future. Naturally, their orders would count for nought in the minds of the public expect to creating a fleeting moment of goodwill for them.

"...Voluntary groups, as single-interest advocacy lobbies, lack the mechanism of transactional negotiations and give-and-take among diverse interest groups that large party organizations, representing and encompassing those varied interests, possess."

well said and nothing could be truer.

KP said...

Dear Gulzar,

The article by Professor Baradhan, misses the point entirely.

Professor Baradhan’s tone is thinly veiled scorn for the lack of agitation finesse.

A few examples – we have turned the anti-corruption agitation into mocking the persons involved for their inability to agitate within the parameters of accepted norms. We set “norms” for standards to be met by those who take a stance on our behalf (assuming we are against corruption). But such norms of transparency don’t apply to anyone negotiating on the governments behalf. We have reduced fighting corruption to "someone" vs the government, and eventually mock the individual.

Our politics and bureaucracy represent sheer institutionalized contempt for our own. We deserve better, but all we get is a cat and mouse role play, elitist scorn and a catch me if you can response.

This is not restricted to India. A recent example is The Economist mocking the los indignados (Inchoate Rage) in Spain. It is interesting how the odds are stacked against people who protest / first they have to be reasonable / have a plan / a solution / work within the parameters of a failed / failing framework ... be mindful of the big egos they hurt / and do the jobs of people who got themselves elected on the basis of displaying the capability to do just that.

Another, in India, the PDS scheme suffers from 43% illegal diversion / 28% excess administrative expenses - and this under the "heightened" watchfulness of the media in 2010-11. PDS began in the 60's, and we have produced a lot of fat cats who lived and continue to live by siphoning from the poor. To argue that agitating against the PDS implies that those starving for want of a more efficient system should produce better systemic solutions is absurd. Agitations represent voice – an important democratic concept - and our political system carries on with no attempt to offer a genuine response.

To introduce “complex-tradeoff” is just the use of public economics jargon, that seems to imply that dismal health care, starvation and being poorly compensated for being ejected of your land is just collateral damage to be expected in a trade-off.

The other implicit assumption is that the private markets can correct these failures. Mining is a good example – we privatized mining only to replace public sector-political mafia to an ostensibly private sector mafia. The problem here was not deregulation, but a lack of transparency in the implementation of regulation, regulatory capture of a massive scale.

The capacity to create private wealth versus redistributive mechanisms is not the trade-off anymore. The importance of both these approaches need to be recognized in a country with wide disparities. Private sector inefficiencies (stealing, for instance, to be direct) are as ruinous as public sector inefficiency.

Very few activists romanticize poverty, not nearly as economists romanticizing the structure of negotiations. We need a culture of offering activists more support, not less. Agitators may not be "deep" thinkers, but their concerns are REAL.


KP said...

Dear Gulzar,

In refering to mining .. I said " The problem here is not deregulation .." . That is an error - it should read " the solution here is not deregulation"

I wanted to illustrate that we are charmed by americanese imported from their public policy discourse ... and Prof Baradhan, can't but be influenced by extreme market rhetoric. Which is curently evident even in Indian reporting.

Strangely, this while,the US is grappling with wealth concentration, inability to create a better (more equitable?)model of redistribution to drive consumption.

Take this story in TOI on the mining scadal and the drop in share prices of companies involved.

The article almost reads as if the drop in share prices is appropriate and suficient restitutory justice ... and any further legal action is unnecessary. The markets have spoken logic, carefully couched.

Worse, the industry body / analysts ( which one I don't know) says the problem is greed and over-regulation!

Greed I can understand ... over-regulation ??? .. that is rich ... ( since industry analysts just imported an American idea ... out of context !) ..

over regulation???... the need to bribe too many people? ... is that over regulation ... does that imply self regulation will result in less greed ... more transparency??

Over regulation is twisted americanese .. here it is an organized corruption racket ... across both parties and operators in this industry ... and a lack of transparency in regulation (intentional) ... and regulatory capture.

Prof Baradhans seductive notion of reasonable dialogue, with all views considered, seems divorced from the fact that people are normally agitating against an unreasonable and insensitive power elite - an unresponsive cabal to begin with.

We should be careful about co-opting dissenters into the very structure they would like to change - simply because we have an armchair dislike of their means and finesse.


Anonymous said...

KP: Enjoyed reading your comments! You have well captured the angst of common man helpless in face of 'organized corrpution racket' and 'insensitive power elite'. Thank you.

gulzar said...

KP, thank you so much for those comments, which does put the issue in far greater perpsective. Like Anon, I completely enjoyed reading them.

yes, i agree that the discourse and debate has to take place in the real world against real world actors and agents. and in this world, as you suggest, it is indeed difficult, even impossible to carry out any meaningful debate within the existing rules of the game.

further, given the extent to which things have worsened, with none of the available institutional checks doing anything to prevent it, it is not surprising that such opposition that plays "outside the rules of the game" emerge. and instead of shooting the messenger, it may be more appropriate to appreciate the issues raised by them.

this response requires a full post. to cut it short, i have two major preliminary concerns

1. the rights-based approach is a plain populist approach to addressing complex social problems. just like other such populist slogans, it will find immediate attraction, but will achieve little except giving greater policy focus to the issue.

governments simply have no capability to deliver a right on education - in the circumstances, it will be more of building construction and teacher recruitment, with a perpetuation of the prevailing low quality education system. unfortunately, the populist paradigm in which such debates take place is inherently skewed towards simplifying things. simplicity is the seal of political populism, complexity is anathema to populism!

2. if hitherto the debate was completely one-sided in one direction, now it is being pulled in exactly the opposite direction. and as we all know extremes rarely offer sustainable solutions to complex issues. so we have policy making based on populist agendas.

when the tide turns, politicians are the first to switch sides. it actually means little to them about which side they are on, as long as they rally the crowds, since the spoils will be available in equal measure at both extremes. one set of vested interests will be replaced with another.

sorry for not illustrating them with examples. will do that in a longer post..

thanks again KP for your brilliant response.

KP said...

Dear Gulzar,

Thank you for the comments, and I appreciate the sincerity with which the blog handles opinions that do not necessarily toe the line of the blog owner!

And, yes I prefer government funding through subsidies and incentives but private provisioning of public goods wherever possible and veer towards surplus creation in the private sector.

I was reacting to the idea of reasonable centrism, when dealing with a system that is being gamed by the elite - in this case the "meeting in the middle" proposition is essentially flawed.

Centrism may not always be fair to all concerned. This approach from a reputed developmental economist seems out of touch with the extreme reality of the Indian landscape.

But, that apart, thank you for the opportunity to state what I feel.