Friday, June 3, 2016

Prioritizing Development Projects: Simple Addition vs. Conditional Processes

Many development projects encourage access: access to justice, access to schools, access to hospitals, access to information, etc.  This access is generally provided to the poor, who face difficulties due to a lack of financial or other resources.  On the other hand, some projects – though perhaps relatively fewer - focus on improving the quality of services.  For example, these projects seek to improve the capacity of judges and the efficiency of court processes; others train teachers to improve school quality.  Overall, I think there needs to be a fundamental change in some simple logic, which may transform the rationale for focusing on access vs. quality.

In the justice field, the logic of conventional projects is the following:

Access of the Poor + Good Courts -> Justice

If we want the poor to achieve justice, then we need to fund paralegals to help them develop court cases.  Similarly, we should improve the capacity of these courts.  We should work on both to achieve justice for the poor. 

There is a simple problem with this logic, if we see this as a conditional process where each step depends on the next:

Access of the Poor -> (Quality of the) Courts -> (Quality of) Justice

The steps downstream in the process determine whether the end goal is achieved, which is the conditionality.  If we give the poor access to relatively dysfunctional courts, then the poor don’t get justice.  Even worse is that giving the poor access to dysfunctional courts may make those courts even more dysfunctional, as the case backlog will increase.

A similar logic may be applied to conditional cash transfers for school attendance, i.e. paying parents to send their children to school.  If the quality of education is so poor that students don’t learn anything, then perhaps transfers are not a productive way to increase education among the poor.   

From this, we can come up with several conclusions.

First, perhaps development institutions and governments should not spend so much money on access to badly functioning institutions.  The priority is the downstream areas that are necessary conditions for achieving the outcomes.  As such, a relatively better allocation is to focus greater attention to improving their quality, moreso than increasing access. 

Second, if these badly functioning institutions are not going to improve, then perhaps we should give the poor access to alternative institutions.  If the downstream areas are necessary conditions that will not be met in the short or medium term, an alternative path would make sense.  In the justice example, the poor may find a much greater level of justice through alternative dispute resolution, such as community-level justice. 

Third, none of these factors is absolute.  No justice institutions are completely dysfunctional, or teachers completely unable to teach students.  I’m not arguing for 100% resource allocation for quality.  A calculation must be made relative to each.  What doesn’t make sense is spending 75% of resources on access and 25% on quality.  If the quality is poor, then perhaps this should be closer to 25% and 75%. 

Unfortunately, there are huge incentives for development institutions and government to focus on access rather than the quality of institutions.  Development partners and government can burn through huge amounts of money by providing cash transfers, but improving the quality of education is quite difficult and does not allow for a quick disbursement of resources.  Governments also love handling cash transfer projects for a variety of other reasons, such as the patronage it represents and the large amounts of money that might be diverted.  As such, the internal incentives of these institutions work against a more rational priority.

Here are some other situations to which this logic applies, though they are endless:

Transparency with weak accountability mechanisms.
Legislation that is generally not enforced, to achieve anything.

Road infrastructure on the outskirts of town if that traffic is heading downtown (i.e. you’re speeding up traffic to a larger traffic jam).

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