How China escaped the poverty trap?

Political Scientist Yuen Ang's new book "How China escaped the poverty trap?" is the new talk of the town in development economics. I am yet to read the book but it seems a promising work from her talk on the book and Lant Pritchett's commentary on the book.

Prof Ang's book seeks to address the grand old question of "Why do some nations prosper and others don't?". Why Nationals Fail?" by Daren Acemogulu and James Robinson is the most recent authoritative work on this subject. They argued that inclusive and non-extractive institutions are essential for a nation's success. 

There are two problems with the insight that inclusive and non-extractive institutions critically decide growth. One, as Arvind Subramanian famously pointed out in his review of "Why Nations Fail?", this thesis doesn't apply to India and China, that constitute more than half the population of the world! Two, this insight isn't particularly helpful to countries that have weak institutions. The challenge for them is how to build from here, given that you have weak institutions.

Prof Ang seeks to bridge this gap in understanding on China's remarkable success story. To give an example of the distance that China has traversed, she cites that GDP per capita of China was lower than that of Bangladesh, Chad and many other countries in 1980. Today China's GDP per capita is multiple times higher than that of Chad. How did this happen?

Prof Ang questions several other hypotheses regarding Chinese success like the existence of necessary ingredients for growth by 1980, the role of culture etc. She argues that even if necessary ingredients existed, it alone doesn't cause growth. Someone has to cook these ingredients to make it into a dish. Similarly, the culture explanation is also not convincing because Chinese culture didn't drastically change at the stroke of midnight in 1980. There's something more to the story. What's that story?

Prof Ang's thesis is that China harnessed the existing weak institutions to improve institutions and set up institutions for market. How exactly did it harness? Lant Pritchett summarizes Prof Ang's insights as follows

...(Prof Ang's) insight is that the central government in China had to balance between control that was “too loose” and control that was “too tight.”  She shows that the central government issued directives of three types. 
One clearly prohibited local governments from doing some things.  It was no question of “anything goes.”  Another type of directive clearly mandated that all local governments had to do certain things.  But the third type specified objectives but was deliberately vague about how to accomplish the objective and made it clear innovation was allowed but did not specify exactly what was allowed. 
This created a space in which local governments could create their own innovations and attempts that the central government might have never thought of, while at the same time, allowing the central government the space to claw back if things were headed in bad directions. 
This, she argues was central to China’s ability to (in our words) “crawl the design space” incrementally towards a market system.  The organizational and institutional forms created on the path—like Township and Village Enterprises—were, as to be expected, unique hybrid forms.  These allowed much of the functionality and dynamism of a market economy even before there were private firms and clear delineation of property rights.
Prof Ang calles this Chinese model of building institutions as directed improvisation. Was this possible because of the authoritarian state? Prof Ang answers in the affirmative but she's quick to explain. By this, she doesn't mean that authoritarian state is necessary to do this, she means that because the state is authoritarian, it ended up following this path. If it was a democratic state, the path would have been different, probably with more participation of civil society in the growth. In short, she means that authoritarian state isn't a prerequisite but just that it's the given constraint, China found a way to work around it.

Regarding corruption, Prof. Ang says that China was very particular about ending petty corruption, the usual daily bribes that common man pay to the bureaucracy. However, higher level collusive corruption still persists.

Overall, the important contribution of Prof Ang's work is that it initiates the process of chiseling the question - how to prosper, starting with weak institutions? I am sure this will kickstart more debate on this topic. [Check here for Lant Pritchett's comments on directed improvisation vs. directed experimentation.]

I hope to read this book soon. I will post a detailed review/critique then.

PS: Another book talk of Prof Ang here [This one is at the World Bank]

Are Polarisation and Daily Outrage in Twitter outcomes of identity vacuum in an anarchist digital world?

Identity is perceived as an important aspect of human life. But is it that important? Can humans live without identity, without something to identify themselves with? What if we remove the important identities that people associate themselves with and place them in a setting without any centralised authority? Do new identities emerge? What's the nature of such identities? Are they static or dynamic?

Before pursuing this thought experiment, it's useful to discuss "who gives an identity" and "role of identity in a society".

Various debates around source of identity creation revolve around three aspects - self, society, and government. While Foucault argued that societies create identities, so that they can discipline people by forcing them to adhere to the norms associated with the identity, others like Deborah Stone have explored the role of government in creating and perpetuating identities through census. In fact, the seeds of Hindu-Muslim rivalry are said to be sown when British conducted a census. It brought the poor state of Muslims into light, which increased Muslim's self-consciousness.

Regarding the role of identity, some argue that identities are important for several reasons and shouldn't be removed.  For instance, a national identity acts as a glue keeping people together. The careless restructuring of national boundaries in Africa, without regards for the ethnic identities, is said to be the reason for ethnic clashes in some places.

Emphasising the importance of certain identities, some argue that certain identities act as bulwarks against authoritarianism. Hannah Arendt famously argued that the vacuum created by decaying social structures was occupied by Fascism in Nazi Germany. Similarly, The Rudolphs argued that caste identity prevented the rise of authoritarianism in India.  It means that if there were no caste identities, the need for an identity would have given rise to authoritarianism that gives an identity to people by rallying them around a theme, like Fascists. Ambedkar touched on similar aspects when he argued that in a Marxist stateless utopia, state will be replaced by religion.

Returning to our question, what happens if we bring people together, by stripping them off their identities, and without any central authority - the challenge in pursuing this thought experiment till now was that "bringing people together" always meant to be "physically bringing people together". Hence, the primary concern of security dominated the discourse making identity aspects secondary. The famous one being Hobbes, who called such "state of nature" (stateless society) as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short", highlighting the lawless nature in such thought experiment, emphasising the security aspect.

Twitter provides us a setting that helps us pursue our thought experiment without the challenges of security associated with "physically bringing people together without an authority". It's because Twitter brings people together for all practical purposes by easing peer-peer communication; it has no centralised authority to either discipline or to give oneself an identity; it provides equal access to everyone for anyone. The question now is - what will happen in such situations?

My hypothesis is that people create dynamic and static identities for themselves in such setting. Dynamic identities are created by manufacturing outrage and by strongly associating oneself with particular sides in this outrage. Long term static self identities are created by strongly associating themselves strongly with an idea or theme. The "daily outrage" and "extreme polarisation" of Twitter is a possible outcome of such setting. Let me explain in detail.

1. Daily Outrage: When people are brought together, stripping them off their real life identities, without any central authority, it creates a vacuum of identity. Who are you when you make an account on Twitter? Your profession doesn't matter, your wealth doesn't matter, your real life details don't matter. There's no centralised authority that labels you as BPL/APL, nor are you compulsorily labelled as belonging to particular caste or belief.

This identity vacuum is filled up by creating a phenomenon, where an outrage is manufactured and people can take sides, giving them a temporary identity.  To put it in other words, vacuum created by imperfect penetration of real world identities into virtual world is filled by the dynamic identities, associated with daily outrage waves. The highly networked setting of Twitter facilitates this.

After all, may be Hannah Arendt is correct. Such identity vacuum creates avenues to mobilise people around vile aspects of human nature. We may be just be witnessing this amplification.

2. Extreme Polarisation: When there's no society and government to give you an identity, the only person who can give you an identity is yourself. In such cases, one tries to create identity for themselves by associating themselves strongly with a particular idea or theme, making it part of their identity. The need to be associated with such ideas or themes creates polarisation because identity formation through association works in binary eroding the grey areas.

The combination of extreme polarisation and daily outrage is what makes today's Twitter. The same is not prevalent to this extent in Facebook despite the prevalence of "creating self identity" because Facebook restricts access to unknown people dampening the intensity of outrage wave, thereby restricting the utility of identity creation through outrage.

By all means, I don't mean to say that real world identities have no influence on Twitter nor do I mean that this is the only explanation of daily outrage and polarisation phenomena on Twitter nor do I mean that there's no neutral sane person on Twitter. The point here is to highlight the norm, not the exception.

The next question is - how do we test this hypothesis? Any ideas?

The need to regulate annual private school fee hike

There is a growing debate on the private school fee in recent days, which I had predicted long ago. With rising aspirations of parents and with government schools not being able to meet that demand, the reliance on private schools increases. Earlier, only those who had enough disposable income were sending their children to private schools. Now, even parents who are living on shoe string monthly budgets, are also sending their kids to private schools, and their number is increasing. When this number reaches a critical mass, concerns on school fee hikes are bound to arise.

The debate on regulating school fee hike is often phrased in binary - people who think that government shouldn't regulate fee and treat it like any other commodity, and those who argue that private schools bay for people's blood and are to be strictly regulated. As always, truth is somewhere in between.

I have expressed my views on private schools several times earlier on this blog and in my book - we should allow for-profit schools and definitely reduce infrastructure requirements. That being said, we should also be aware of the special context of education and need to differentiate it with other usual goods for the following reasons.

1. Education has a sociological significance; I wrote about this earlier. In short, it means that education also has a role to build citizens and social capital, not just teach them academic knowledge. Therefore, schools shouldn't be allowed to deliberately let the socio-economic fissures appear in schools, due to their policies. For example, schools shouldn't charge differential fee, giving differential treatment to children, the way it's done in trains and aeroplanes, where AC coach people get better facilities compared to sleeper class. Such policies let socio-economic fissures manifest in the school and has implications for child's education. Refer my earlier post for detailed arguments.

2. Schools can't be allowed to make significant fee hikes within an year because of the market imperfections and impact on household budgets. This needs explanation.

The fundamental question is - how is school fee different from price of any other product? It's different in two important ways:

1. The transaction costs are high: Unlike other goods, where one can choose a different good, if the price of a particular good is hiked, it isn't easy in case of schools. It's because there are huge costs associated with shifting schools. These costs are both monetary and non monetary - efforts to search and find school in the vicinity, the emotional state of child and so on.

One can always argue that parents can easily change, there are lots of private schools, the schools won't dare to increase fee if they fear losing students and so on. But, the fact that some (many?) schools are daring to do this reflects the imperfections in the market that disprove this line of reasoning.

2. Impact on household budgets: This is a very important  aspect that's highly under-appreciated. Unlike people in corporate sector, most people's incomes don't see significant increase every year. 95% of India is self employed whose YoY income growth is not high. Added to that, a significant section of people sending their kids to private schools have tight budgets, without disposable income that can act as buffer for annual hikes.

In that context, if a school fee is suddenly hiked, let's say, 30% for next year, it will have a devastating effect on household budgets. Often this comes with months notice, making it hard for parents, especially considering the high transaction costs in shifting schools. This is equivalent to holding parents hostage, nothing less than charging high money for patient in emergency, cashing on the situation.

Hence, we need at least some form of predictability of fee so that parents can plan it better, ideally for next 3 years. Schools should be treated like universities where the fee of the degree is declared upfront and isn't changed in between the period of the course, so that students aren't held hostage.

Given this situation, there's a need to regulate the annual private school fee hikes. The regulation should be on the following principles.

1. The regulation should be on annual fee hike and not overall fee. Capping school fee is a regressive step, as I argued earlier.

2. There should be a predictability in fee and sufficient notice.  It means that schools should declare fee for next 3 years beforehand and intimate fee hike 1 year earlier. Just to clarify, it doesn't mean that the fee should be same for next 3 years. It can increase but just that the increase should be specified for next 3 years. This gives enough stability and predictability to parents.

If this is not dealt sensibly and left unregulated for long, the situation might intensify and only give justification for government to take blunt and harsh steps like overall cap etc. It's better to avoid that situation and start course correction now itself.

PS: Anurag Behar has a good article in Livemint on this issue, that nudged me to publish this draft that I had written long ago. The number "3" in the 3 year upfront declaration of fee is taken form his article, as I felt that this is a reasonable number.

CEA on sycophancy of Indian economic commentators

I had blogged earlier on the sycophancy of certain commentators on Indian economics, who were bending over backwards to defend certain things, with utter disregard to evidence; some doing that despite being professional academicians and not just journalists. Three cases in point are 

1. Bhagwati and Panagariya's book "Why growth matters?" where they twist and torture numbers too much to discredit Kerala for its success in education.

Some of these arguments are too ridiculous that even a 12th grade student wouldn't make. For example, the claim that Kerala didn't register as much rate of growth in literacy as  Gujarat in recent years. It essentially means that Kerala's literacy should grow at 10% despite it being at 90%+ levels. In other words, Kerala's literacy should cross 100% to satisfy B&P's criteria.

2. The less said about the defense on demonetisation, the better. Some wonder why professional economists like Bhagwati made such loose arguments.

3. The other related example is this analysis on Odd-Even scheme by Dr. Shamika Ravi, which uses a simple pre-post (non rigorous) method of evaluation but phrases the conclusions as if they are of gold standard. Any undergraduate would tell that one can't make claims of such nature ("data is unambiguous...") with simple pre-post analysis. It is particularly important to note that this analysis comes after a more rigorous analysis (diff-in-diff) on the same has been published, and this new analysis doesn't refer to the old one. This is plain and pure intellectual dishonesty, to say the least. 

These are harsh words but Chief Economic Advisor Prof. Arvind Subramanian also shared something similar in his recent VKRV lecture. He didn't use the word "sycophancy" but the essence is clear.

My claim is that experts hold back their objective assessment. Instead, they censor  themselves, and in public fora are insufficiently critical..... To the extent they offer criticism, it is watered down to the point of being unidentifiable as criticism.

Prof. Subramanian further adds 
On the domestic side, there is a clear relationship between expert analysis and official decisions. Before policy decisions, the expert analysis is often illuminating. But once the decisions are taken, it is truly striking how the tune and tone of the analysis changes. Analysts fall over backwards to rationalize the official decision.
Prof. Subramanian quotes example of discourse on FRBM but it can be easily extended to demonetisation in particular and other aspects in general. Consider the example of demonetisation: All those economists trying to come up with justifications as to how awesome demonetisation is, have never ever recommended this in any of their earlier analysis or books, before it was implemented. If it is such a good policy, why didn't they recommend earlier? Now, after the decision is taken, they were coming up with justifications, to use CEA's words "fall over backwards to rationalize the official decision".

Understanding state capacity in the context of education and how to build it using PDIA

Gulzar Natarjan in a post on 'iterative adaptation' remarks that "approaches like PDIA, by their very nature, require strong states". (PDIA is Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation, pioneered by Pritchett et al. For more details, check their youtube channel, newly released book, free course).

This raises two important questions. 

1. Is PDIA for implementing a programme same as PDIA for enhancing capacity?
2. Is strong state a prerequisite for PDIA?

Gulzar argues that we need strong states to do PDIA of programmes, making capacity a prerequisite for PDIA of programmes. I am going to argue that 

i) PDIA for implementing a programme and PDIA for enhancing capacity can be different but if done appropriately, PDIA of a programme and PDIA for capacity can go together. 

ii) strong state needn't be a prerequisite for PDIA, instead it can be an outcome of PDIA. In other words, PDIA can be used to build a strong state.

The rest of the post is structured as follows:

I. Unpacking the elements of state capacity in the context of education
II. Understanding capacity challenges using the framework discussed in I
III. Why do scale-ups fail in education? Analysing using framework discussed in I
IV. How to build capacity using PDIA? 
V. Conclusion

I. Unpacking the elements of state capacity in the context of education

The term state capacity is a black box. Sometimes it hides more than what it reveals. However, it's difficult to quantify and compare. Researchers have used several proxies like adherence to international postal convention, accuracy of census data etc. Francis Fukuyama in his paper "What is governance?" discusses the challenges in disaggregating state capacity, and calls for a context specific approach.

It is thus crucial to unpack the black box of state capacity in the context of education. I had earlier posted an updated version of one such attempt made in my book.  For the purpose of simplicity, I am presenting the summary here.

State capacity in the context of education can be visualised as comprising the following elements. It presumes that evident first order challenges like lack of enough functionaries etc. are addressed.

1. Nature of personnel: It's about the intrinsic motivation and honesty of functionaries at lower level. Fukuyama calls it bureaucratic capacity.

2. Skill of personnel: Self explanatory

Nature of personnel and skill of personnel can be together be termed as "local capacity". It's essentially a proxy of - given a task, how well they can perform without monitoring, which is a function of nature of personnel and their skill.

3. Autonomy: What's functions are devolved to lower levels of bureaucracy or systems?

4. Nature of task: Does the task require discretion to be performed effectively? Lant Pritchett calls these as engagement intensive tasks (education and health care).

5. Monitoring norms of lower bureaucracy: Are they rule-bound or norm-bound?

6. Implementation design of public policies: While the lower bureaucracy has its own distinct norms and rules for functioning, implementation design also has its own design, with reporting structures etc. inbuilt into it.

7. Capacity of higher bureaucracy to design monitoring norms and implementation design of public policies: How well can policy designers formulate implementation design conducive to the particular context of lower bureaucracy?

8. Environment or communities in which the policy is to be implemented: While all the above 7 factors are internal to the bureaucracy, this factor is external to the bureaucracy. It's the environment in which policy is implemented. A bureaucracy that can implement a policy well in a context may not be able to do so in another context.  We can understand it using Joe Midgal's term "resistance to penetration of state".

II. Understanding capacity challenges using the framework discussed in I

The state capacity challenges in education can then be framed as follows, using the above framework.

1. Autonomy vs. Local capacity: Local capacity is a function of nature of personnel and their skill. This challenge is "what functions should be devolved for a given capacity?"

Giving less autonomy is sub-optimal while giving more autonomy can lead to negative effects (Hanushek et al, Leer, Bloom et al). Fukuyama calls it the inverted U relation between autonomy and capacity, suggesting that there is an optimal autonomy for a given local capacity.

2.  Interaction of "Local capacity - Nature of task - Monitoring norms": Generally the problem of low 'local capacity' is addressed by pursuing a strict rule based monitoring. It works for tasks that don't require discretion to perform and hence are amenable to rule based monitoring?

What should be done in case of tasks that aren't amenable to rule based monitoring but the low capacity mandates that (rule based monitoring)?

Education is an engagement intensive task that requires discretion, which by its nature isn't amenable to rule based monitoring. But, low capacity systems that can misuse it lead to rule based monitoring mechanisms.

This is a recurring phenomenon. Citing the constraints of low local capacity or with the presumption of such, engagement intensive tasks that are to be monitored using norms instead of rigid rules are somehow converted into mechanical tasks, that can be monitored using rigid rules. This mindset is particularly striking in higher levels of bureaucracy, for whom managing is equivalent to tightening the screws over people, forcing them to work. It works in case of rule-bound tasks but such approach isn't suitable to education by its very nature that works on presumptive trust.

A different version of the practice of turning engagement tasks to rule-bound tasks is reflected in our approach to teacher training, where teacher training is reduced to an exercise of 2-3 day lectures and adherence to record keeping instead of being a continuous supporting mechanism, what Atul Gawande calls, coaching

Three important studies that document the importance of bureaucratic practices are worth mentioning in this context.

i) Documenting the time-use of Cluster Resource Coordinators (CRCs) from Bihar, Yamini Aiyar points out that ours is a post-office state, where a strict rule based monitoring is followed and that the functionaries (CRCs in this case) feel powerless and believe that their job is only to do what's asked and not take initiative. Note that this is in context where we expect the personnel to use discretion and initiative.

ii) Kiran Bhatty and Radhika Saraf document the bureaucratic practices in education in detail. Confirming Yamini Aiyar's insight on data collection tasks (amenable to rule based monitoring) replacing mentoring tasks (not easily amenable to rule based monitoring) , Bhatty et al estimate that as many as 480 formats had reached the Block for just the 48 schools in their sample.

iii) Akshay Mangla documents bureaucratic practices in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. He argues that the higher outcomes in Himachal Pradesh as compared to Uttarakhand despite their similarity, has its roots in the bureaucratic practices in these two states.

3. Variance in nature of tasks performed by personnel: How to monitor a personnel who does tasks of two different nature - one task that is amenable to rule based monitoring and the other that isn't and requires presumptive trust.

While a rigid rule based monitoring leads to an environment of lack of trust, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues, norm based monitoring signifies 'trust'. Managing these seemingly contradictory aspects together is a challenge.

4. Variance in capacity of local systems: Nature of personnel, skill etc. vary highly across the system. Fairness metrics mandate same treatment to all local systems within the total system. For example, one can't give autonomy to some schools while restricting it to some. 

Such constraints lead to risk averse sub optimal approaches, where a risk averse approach, rule based monitoring is followed. In words of Lant Pritchett, it inhibits 'positive deviance'.

5. Alignment between rules mandated by implementation design of public policy and inherent norms of lower bureaucracy: If lower bureaucracy works on norm based monitoring, a public policy that mandates rule based monitoring in implementing that policy can disturb such structures.

For instance, UP government recently declared that they will hold teachers accountable for completing syllabus. In that context, if one implements a programme that focuses on outcomes, there's good probability that it won't succeed.

6. Alignment between expectations of monitoring authority and communities - vertical accountability vs. horizontal accountability: Parents may use child's discipline as metric to judge teachers, higher bureaucracy uses completion of syllabus as a metric, and activists and commentators use 'learning outcomes' as a metric! 

III. Why do scale-ups fail in education? Analysing using framework discussed in I

Governments' scale up of pedagogical interventions fail because they gloss over the 6 capacity challenges discussed above. They parachute pedagogy into classrooms, thus imposing it over a low capacity systems with non-conducive bureaucratic practices. For example, such interventions don't address the local capacity challenges (motivation and skill of teachers), don't try to change the culture non-conducive bureaucratic practices in lower bureaucracy and so on.

The famed Activity Based Learning (ABL) is a good example. This pedagogy, inspired from Rishi Valley School of Andhra Pradesh is scaled up over 7 states with UNICEF's assistance. Its evaluation study documents important insights on the reasons for its lack of success.

One of the important insights from the report is that academic support to the intervention was reduced to checking adherence to report making and not helping teachers with their classroom issues by providing them feedback.  It ends up happening in almost all scale ups because we are imposing pedagogy on a lower bureaucracy accustomed to being a post-office state. The usual challenges of funds and textbooks not received on time are additional. Addressing such challenges is not part of typical scale-ups, instead scale-ups gloss over them. 

In the end, interventions fail but the failure is attributed to pedagogy and not to the flawed approach. The parachuting of pedagogies keeps continuing, with a new pedagogy next time, by a new bureaucrat. Meanwhile, it reinforces the 'cogs in a wheel' attitude in teachers killing their initiative. 

IV. How to build capacity using PDIA?

Repeating the two points made in the beginning of the post.

i) PDIA for implementing a programme and PDIA for enhancing capacity can be different but if done appropriately, PDIA of a programme and PDIA for capacity can go together. 

ii) strong state needn't be a prerequisite for PDIA, instead it can be an outcome of PDIA. In other words, PDIA can be used to build a strong state.

On the difference between PDIA for programme and PDIA for capacity: while enhancing capacity requires addressing the 6 challenges above, a programme can be implemented without addressing those by resorting to temporary shortcuts for the challenges. For instance, the delay in fund release through usual channels is addressed by setting up a special vehicle, the challenges of monitoring norms are addressed by dismantling the intermediate structures and making everyone report to collector, as done in Mission Gunwatta and so on. These may help implement this particular programme but doesn't help in long term.

A metric to differentiate PDIA for programme and PDIA for capacity is - if one is to implement a similar programme next time, how easy is it compared to the first time? If one has addressed capacity challenges using PDIA, then implementing a new programme next time will be less difficult.

The questions now are i) how to enhance capacity using PDIA? ii) how to integrate PDIA to enhance capacity with PDIA to implement a programme?

The intuition behind an approach that addresses the above two questions can be understood from the following analogy. Consider a person with dysfunctional digestive system, equivalent to a system with weak state capacity. This person isn't able to digest food, which is equivalent to not being able to implement a programme. We can enhance the functioning of digestive system using food as a diagnostic tool.

Let me explain. You start with the easiest food to digest, let's say glucose or saline water. Once you administer the food, you check for enzymes that are to be secreted to digest glucose. If something is missing or not adequate, you fix that. This helps both correct the system, enhancing its capacity, and also digest the food (enhances capacity and helps implement programme). Next time, you take a slightly complex food and do the same. You gradually increase the complexity of food taking it to higher levels, using non vegetarian food that requires more capacity to digest. At each step, you are checking for the corresponding deficiencies and correcting them.

To repeat, we are using food (programme) as a diagnostic tool and at each stage we are correcting the deficiencies, thereby both enhancing the capacity and helping administer the programme.

The principles for a PDIA that enhances capacity and helps implement a programme are clear from the above analogy.

1.  Capacity isn't of one particular kind. There are different types of capacities and each has to be dealt accordingly.

2. Start with the least complex programme that doesn't overwhelm the initial condition of weak systems and gradually increase it with the increase in capacity. Complex programmes that require high capacity may backfire if we begin with them.

3. At each step, focus on easing implementation by going to the root cause of constraints and addressing them, instead of going for short-cuts. The measure of progress in this approach is - how easy is it if we are to implement a similar programme next time.

These principles can be applied in education in the following manner.

1. Think in terms of capabilities (capacities) to be developed and not just tasks to be completed: and Make a list of all constraints known and categorize according to the types of capacity required. For example, if the constraints are increasing parent engagement in schools, improving academic support systems to teachers, speeding up fund flows, the corresponding capacities are capacity of bureaucracy to engage with community, capacity to administer engagement intensive tasks, capacity to address the process challenges.

Many others may emerge in the process of PDIA but it's good to have a list to begin with. It can be appended as we learn new things.

2. Start with simple interventions that require less capacity and gradually increase: Start with the least complex pedagogy, that we know works. Fortunately, we have Pratham's tested CaMAL pedagogy, commonly called as Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL). It's simple to administer and addresses only the basics of learning outcomes.

3. At each step in its implementation, address the constraints as they surface

a) If one finds that issues like lack of transparency in teacher transfers is hampering teacher's attention and motivation, address that. 

b) If one finds that teachers aren't taking this task seriously because they are being judged on metric of completing syllabus and not enhancing outcomes through this programme, address it. Make it clear that teachers won't be judged by metric of completing syllabus and that they will be judged by improving outcomes using this method.

c) If one finds that there's delay in textbook disbursal, address that.

d) Similarly, by making the support personnel administer this particular programme, the bureaucratic practices of lower bureaucracy can be shifted from being rule bound to norm bound and personnel can be made accustomed to that.

e) Build the capacity of higher bureaucracy in the process

.... and so on.

Through this process we are both ensuring the implementation of the TaRL programme and are also enhancing the 'capacity' of the system by both easing the constraints and also shaping the norms and practices of lower bureaucracy. In next step, use a complementary pedagogy to teach higher level stuff and continue this process.

We note that capacity isn't prerequisite for PDIA here but a 'strong will' to continuously sustain the process and withstand various various political economy pressures that arise in the process. Such strong will is necessary both at political level and at levels of top bureaucracy. Also, in a resource constrained context, one might also have to commit to extra expenditure. We must also note that will in itself is not sufficient, an improper approach can squander the will.

Significance of the above approach

The significance of above approach is that it's 'comprehensive'. It sounds simple but it's not. Often, our imperfect mental models about the world make us believe that some specific things (textbooks, classrooms, changing norms etc.) are the binding constraints. But they end up not showing transformatory results. RCTs come and tell us that no such interventions work. The point here is not that these elements are unnecessary but it's that we have ignored all the other complementary elements.

The above approach forces us to think comprehensively about all elements because the process of implementing a programme throws up many other unknown constraints and the goal of implementing this programme forces us to address it.

V. Conclusion

Weak state capacity is the binding constraint in Indian public education. The weak state capacity is not just in terms of visible aspects like teacher absence etc. It also lies in the bureaucratic processes that convert engagement intensive tasks into rule-bound tasks thereby making them non conducive to activities like education.

Scale-ups in education don't work because they parachute pedagogy into classrooms glossing over the different types of capacity challenges. This can be addressed using PDIA approach that helps both implement a programme and enhance the capacity. Such approach addresses all elements comprehensively, as opposed to the current piece meal approaches arising out of our imperfect mental models about binding constraints. 

Strong will, both political and at top bureaucracy levels is a prerequisite for this process and if one doesn't follow appropriate reform approach, such will can be squandered.


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The cognitive dissonance associated with "for-profit" schools

Schools are not supposed to be "for-profit" in India. But why? There are several arguments and counter arguments to this, which I discussed in my book.

All those arguments apart, I am increasingly coming to believe that the arguments for not allowing "for-profit" schools are rooted more in skewed mental models, rather than in any sound reasoning. The various reasons cited to not make schools for-profit are only force-fitted justifications to defend the underlying cognitive mental traps.

Else, how do we explain the paradox of proliferating for-profit education companies and tuition centres. All of these also form a part of "educating the child". However, people seem to have no problem with them being for-profit but they somehow have problem with schools being for-profit. 

The latest example is the Byju learning app. It's an app which claims to have all video lessons for content of a chosen grade. Each subscription costs a whooping Rs. 23,000/- per year (it's the basic price and the cost increases with increasing features).  The Ken reports that Byju's revenue last year, through subscriptions of this app, was an astronomical sum of 850 crore. 

Now, consider this. An organisation makes an app, through which it claims to provide content of a particular grade, in the form of videos. In this respect, it's similar to any traditional school. This organisation charges Rs.23,000/- per year, which is more than the fee of any average private school.

This organisation can be for-profit despite doing the same thing that schools do but schools can't be for-profit. Did you the get the irony or cognitive dissonance (whatever you may choose to call it)?


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Sociological effects of globalisation and unaffordable housing

This article has a beautiful summary of Christophe Guilluy's sociology work on how globalisation is transforming French society and its repercussions.

The standard narrative of globalisation is that it makes processes efficient, making goods cheaper. The movement of labour to developed countries creates jobs at lower end of the spectrum, that provide valuable services like baby care, house cleaning, drivers etc.

All of this is true but the interaction of these phenomenon with public policies can have different effects. Christophe Guilluy describes these in France's setting as follows:

On victims of globalisation

France’s best-performing urban nodes have arguably never been richer or better-stocked with cultural and retail amenities. But too few such places exist to carry a national economy. When France’s was a national economy, its median workers were well compensated and well protected from illness, age, and other vicissitudes. In a knowledge economy, these workers have largely been exiled from the places where the economy still functions. They have been replaced by immigrants
Paris offers the most striking case. As it has prospered, the City of Light has stratified, resembling, in this regard, London or American cities such as New York and San Francisco. It’s a place for millionaires, immigrants, tourists, and the young, with no room for the median Frenchman. Paris now drives out the people once thought of as synonymous with the city. 
Further, effects of public policies 
......After the mid-twentieth century, the French state built a vast stock—about 5 million units—of public housing, which now accounts for a sixth of the country’s households. Much of it is hideous-looking, but it’s all more or less affordable. Its purpose has changed, however. It is now used primarily for billeting not native French workers, as once was the case, but immigrants and their descendants, millions of whom arrived from North Africa starting in the 1960s, with yet another wave of newcomers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East arriving today. 
........ A public-housing development is a community, yes, and one can wish that it be more diverse. But it is also an economic resource that, more and more, is getting fought over tribally. An ethnic Frenchman moving into a heavily North African housing project finds himself threatening a piece of property that members of “the community” think of as theirs. Guilluy speaks of a “battle of the eyes” fought in the lobbies of apartment buildings across France every day, in which one person or the other—the ethnic Frenchman or the immigrant’s son—will drop his gaze to the floor first. 
....... even if French people were willing to do the work that gets offered in these prosperous urban centers, there’d be no way for them to do it, because there is no longer any place for them to live. As a new bourgeoisie has taken over the private housing stock, poor foreigners have taken over the public—which thus serves the metropolitan rich as a kind of taxpayer-subsidized servants’ quarters. Public-housing inhabitants are almost never ethnically French; the prevailing culture there nowadays is often heavily, intimidatingly Muslim.

Guilluy makes 4 important points

1.  Victims of globalisation and its sociological effects: As non-natives occupy cities, prices in functional part increase making leading to stratification, making it unaffordable for the kind of people who once used to inhabit the city.

The natives are forced to periphery but immigrants occupy the functional parts of the city, changing its character. This can be mentally difficult for natives to adjust.

This needn't be true for just immigrants and globalisation. This can be true for intra-country migration in countries like India too, in case of cities like Bengaluru, witnessing huge influx of people who speak different language.

2. The importance of housing: Affordable housing is going to be crucial with growing urbanisation. Guilluy points out that in London, the average monthly rent (£2,580) now exceeds the average monthly salary (£2,300).  This has two effects
  • High prices of housing may reflect the market demand and supply but such situation is sociologically difficult to be sustained.
  • High price localities also tend to have good public facilities like schooling etc. Unaffordable price thus has second order effects, where it creates barriers to access such facilities, thus exacerbating inequalities.

3. Ethnic conflict due to globalisation and urbanisation?: Standard models of social capital tell that inter mingling of communities help reduce the "fear of unknown" making people more tolerant of other cultures and traditions. But if this is in a resource crunched context, where there is a tribal competition for resources, ethnic fault lines may deepen instead of reducing, as narrated above.

Such conflicts deepen if public policies advantage one community over the other, like in case of French where affordable housing preferred immigrants over natives.

4. Taxpayer subsidized workers: This, according to me is a novel way of phrasing the argument. Elite can access low-wage services only if the workers stay close to the localities of the rich. The housing of localities where workers stay are either subsidized or tends to be slums.

Thus,  the low-wage services to the elite aren't possible without the subsidized workers. It would be good if the elite who scream at even the whisper of welfare programmes, realise this and be little humble. Elite are also beneficiaries of lot of unseen subsidies.

Affordable housing in urban areas is going to be a big issue in future. We need to be cognisant of not only its benefits but also its sociological consequences.


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Achieving outputs may be daunting in itself. Yet, we need to focus on outcomes

Gulzar Natarajan has a post on the limitations of outcome oriented approach of development. Gulzar points out that 

1. Mere financial incentive for achieving outcomes isn't enough to overcome the large process issues.

2. Addressing some critical inputs (teacher attendance) in itself can be a daunting task. So, expecting it to be an incidental benefit to outcome based approach is unrealistic.

3.  It isn't easy to re-allocate resources to achieve the outcomes.

So, Gulzar argues that "it is unrealistic to target outcomes in cases of public production involving engagement intensive activities (education, health)".

There's some truth to this argument, depending on the state of the system. Consider this story of Mr. Manoj, District Education Officer of Deoria, Uttar Pradesh. Mr. Manoj is an upright officer facing all odds to get teachers to school. He gets death threats, his office is vandalized and many other things. He even carries a pistol with him for safety purposes.

In a failed system like that with so many things broken, when Mr. Manoj has to spend enormous energies on just ensuring teacher attendance, it may sound unfair to expect him to focus on other elements or outcomes.

While all the above is true, I argue that there is still value in practising outcome based approach over output based approach, for the following reasons. I put the reasons in two categories - harms of following output approach and advantages of outcome approach over output approach.

Potential harms of output approach

1. Defining outputs in a certain manner and focusing on them can be detrimental: The problem with outputs approach is that it's subject to wide interpretation. Defining outputs in a certain manner can actually be detrimental, especially when it comes to monitoring metrics of personnel. "Completion of syllabus" and "Ensuring all CCE papers are checked" are examples of two such output metrics that have turned detrimental.

Excessive focus on completion of syllabus is taking away the focus from "did the children learn?" to "did the teacher teach?", creating a perverse system. It creates a false illusion that the job has been done when in fact it has not been done (child hasn't learnt), thereby misleading us. It also creates an additional hurdle for reform because one has to first bring people out of such illusion, which is a difficult task.

Similarly, these days, CCE support and monitoring of teachers is reduced to output metrics of "did the teacher enter marks in the register?", taking the focus away from the real essence of CCE. All that the teachers now are worried about it is, whether the marks have been entered in the CCE register, regardless of how the correction is done, whether they learnt something about the children in the process, whether they incorporated these in their next session etc. To make matters worse, sometimes teachers make students correct papers themselves and enter the marks, achieving the "output".

In all these cases, focus on outcomes would have helped to avoid this tragedy.

2Piecemeal approach "undoes" the already achieved gains: Following one output at a time (piecemeal approach) has the danger of undoing the progress made in achieving earlier outputs. For instance, for first 10 years, governments work only to construct schools and ensure schools in all locality. Once that's done, in next 10 years, they work to ensure teacher attendance, in next 10 years, some other issue. By that time, the schools have been damaged and need reconstruction. So, we are back to square one.

Thus, piecemeal approach may not appropriately leverage the gains already made regarding certain outputs as they decay with time.

Advantages of outcome approach

Apart from preventing the two dangers mentioned above and many others, there are four distinct reasons to pursue outcome approach.

1. Cognitive reasons: Lant Pritchett in this short video "Selling solutions vs. Solving problems" brilliantly illustrates the effects of mental models on policy approaches.

At the risk of simplifying, Lant says that when people are asked to write down the problem they want to solve, they often write solution. For instance, in education, people write "lack of teacher training" as the problem. When one defines the problem in that manner, the only solution to that can be "teacher training".

This is in other words defining problem in terms of the solution that one wants to have. Defining problems in that manner hinders our ability to dig deeper.

This mode of thinking is seen across the spectrum from education activists to bureaucrats. Daunted by the experiences of the problem, one specific immediate issue clouds our cognitive space, crowding out other elements.

The effects of such thinking gets amplified when it's prevalent at policy making stage. We end up pursuing a piecemeal approach instead of an integrated approach. The consequences are clear, as the history suggests.

Immediately after independence, the problem of lack of schools seemed so daunting that we defined the problem of schooling as "lack of schools", neglecting all other aspects. After 60 years, we realized that this isn't sufficient. Now, we may realize some other daunting problem, let's say teacher attendance. Now we focus on that for another few decades and so on. I think the point is now clear. 

The lesson is that focusing only on one particular element, even if it's daunting, shuts our attention to other elements of the problem and delays the process.

Thus it is still important to define and approach the issue from an outcome perspective. If not anything, outcome based approach at least keeps all elements required to achieve the outcomes within our cognitive attention space.

2. Outcome approach ensures best possible outcomes at each point of time: Pursuing outputs is a sub-optimal approach, as it fails to extract the maximum possible from the system at any given point of time. Let me explain.

There is diversity in a system. For instance, if we consider a district, when we say teacher attendance is the issue, it doesn't mean that it's the issue in every school and is of same severity. It might be less severe in the schools in the district headquarter. 

The problem for such schools is - conditional upon ensuring teacher presence, how do we ensure outcomes? With further actions, we might leverage the specific advantages of this situation.

An output based approach, let's say ensuring teacher attendance, neglects such schools with enough teacher attendance. It thus costs us the gains that would have been achieved by leveraging the advantages of these schools.

On the contrary, if we follow an outcome based approach, we figure out that the issues are different in each case. While we still pursue the daunting task of ensuring teacher attendance in rural schools, we also try to work on the schools that already have attendance and try to get best out of them. That way, even if it's small, we extract something out of the system, instead of nothing.

3. Outcome approach speeds up the reform by leveraging the institutional knowledge: Outcome based approach in context of diversity builds institutional knowledge that speeds up the reform process in lagging schools.

For instance, in a district, if we improve the schools that are already attendance complaint, it builds institutional knowledge in the system. Such knowledge is useful to improve the current non-complaint schools, that might become complaint in future. It thus saves precious time and energy. 

Else, as discussed above, if we wait till every school becomes attendance complaint, before we take the next step, it might take so long that by that Elon Musk's Neuralink might have developed a device to download data to brain by that time doing away with the need to learn, making schools obsolete. Meanwhile, a generation or several of them would have been denied benefits of education.

4. Outcome approach helps realize the missing elements and creates a demand for them: When one follows an outcome approach, one realizes the need for some elements, which aren't otherwise obvious. One may argue that it costs money to achieve all these and hence is unrealistic. But the point is that there is value in realizing the need for these elements, even if they are not met. Also, such realization helps build pressure, which if not now, may help in long term.

Daunti-ness is a function of "will" also, not just the "nature of task"

Tasks that seem daunting may not be actually so if it's matched with commensurate will. These tasks seem daunting because, till now, efforts to streamline the systems were a result of "bureaucratic will" and not "political will" (recollect the example of Mr. Manoj, DEO, discussed above). When efforts are the result of bureaucratic will, without political will, the limitations are obvious. The task will end up being daunting to the bureaucrats as they are leading it alone.

There is no reason why we should hence accept this context as given and work around it. Instead, we should identify this as the problem and  try to address it.

The argument is that when there's strong political will focusing on outcomes, tasks that seemed daunting once don't seem any more. 

This might seem a nice hypothetical argument that's good for theory but not for practice. But we have examples of not-so developed countries like Poland that once faced similar issues like ours, revamping their systems within a decade. 

One might still point to the Indian exceptionalism but the  recent Delhi experience shows that it's possible in India too. To be fair, Delhi has its own advantages by the virtue of being a city, with closely networked schools, making many things relatively easier. Even then, given this context, consider the amount of work and the range of work that's done in past 2 years in Delhi.

1. Appointing estate managers to schools relieving principals of the administrative duties.
2. New classrooms construction to meet the needs.
3. Large scale learning melas to remediate children in higher classes.
4. Teacher training
5. Principal training
6. Building strong SMCs

... and so on, with a strong focus on outcomes. Once the outcomes were the focus, it was realized that many other things are to be done in order to achieve it. Thus, the individual outputs that would have been an individual scheme in themselves, became incidental to the overall goal of outcomes. One could thus get a diverse range of things done within short time, instead of doing them one by one.

If these initiatives were to be done together at the same time at scale by a bureaucrat alone, without strong political will, these would have been termed daunting++ and considered out of reach for any bureaucrat. Such cognitive limitation would have settled bureaucrats to pickup only one of these elements and pursue it, delaying the progress.

In short, many tasks may seem daunting to be dealt with "bureaucratic will" but political will can reduce the daunting nature of tasks. Thus, we do have a way out of the limitations of outcome based approach. We therefore need not consider certain constraints as given and settle for sub-optimal output based approach.

Nature of 'political will' and the 'approach' matter

Often, actions taken under compulsion to do something or at least appear to be doing something masquerades as an illustration of political will. It results in interventions that gloss over state capability constraints. It serves the purpose of self-satisfaction as "something is being done", but it's not useful for outcomes. On the other hand, "appropriate will" has laser sharp focus on outcomes and goes to any extent to achieve it. One might argue that such "will" is not possible. We then better forget about addressing issues like education and health care.

Similarly, an appropriate approach is needed because incorrectly spent political will (herehere) only hurts in long term.


Despite the daunti-ness of achieving outputs and limitations of outcome based approach in business as usual scenario, there is still value in pursuing outcome based approach. Output approach creates a false illusion of job done and can undo the gains already achieved. Outcome based approach keeps all the essential elements within our cognitive attention space, extracts maximum from the system at each point of time, and speeds up the reform process. Further, daunti-ness is a function of "will". When a daunting problem is met with a commensurate will, it can and will become the incidental benefit to the final outcome. We thus need appropriate political will and an appropriate approach.


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