State capacity and second-best solutions

Have you ever heard of advocacy for low-cost private schools as means to provide education or regularizing quacks (untrained doctors) as means to provide health care or encouraging solar home systems as means to provide electricity, in the context of countries like the UK, US etc.? Probably not. But these are widely debated in the context of developing countries.
The emergence of advocacy for such second-best solutions is the result of weak state capacity and prolonged periods of inaction. A strong public delivery system can provide a better quality of services at lower costs to the poor. The question then is - can the state deliver in that context and what's the time required to make these systems work? What do you do in the meantime, especially if there is no hope of change? This then leads to advocacy for second-best solutions. The potential to deliver outcomes is lower for the second-best solutions as compared to strong public systems. However, they can be a lifeline in contexts where there is either no public service delivery or the public service delivery is underperforming to the extent that even a lower potential second-best solution is comparatively better. Let us consider the examples of electricity, education and healthcare.
Electricity: On an absolute scale, providing grid electricity to all households may be better because households benefit from economies of scales in the form of lower charges and they also get to use many appliances. The questions however are - how much time does it take to provide such service? What to do in case of certain areas that witnessed government's neglect and inaction for long and there is no hope of change. Such scenario warrants some immediate action, even if it is a short-term measure. This leads to proposals to provide second-best solutions like providing solar home systems or microgrids etc. These are second-best solutions because they can provide households with enough electricity only to run limited appliances at a higher cost but they can be saviours when there is nothing. We may thus observe that the emergence of proposals for relying on such second-best solutions as means to deliver electricity is due to weak state capacity and prolonged periods of inaction.

- Education: Strong public education system reduces the burden on the poor by cutting down their out-of-pocket expenditure. People can also benefit from the higher potential of public systems and huge investments made in it. But what if such system is underperforming and if the situation hasn't changed since long and if there is no hope of change in near future? Low-cost private schools emerge as the alternative and parents start preferring them. This is a second-best solution because these schools' potential to perform is lower compared to public systems (lack of revenues being one of the constraints) but they can be saviours when the state of public school systems is abysmal. If this continues for some time, some start arguing to rely on these low-cost private schools as means to deliver education. We can again observe that failure of public systems is the root cause of such demands. In my book [pdfhardcopy] I argue that weak state capacity also has implications for quality standards and regulations.
Health: Strong public primary health care can help the poor. In its absence, many quacks (untrained professionals) have emerged in rural areas to deliver medical services. In contexts where the govt. isn't able to monitor its frontline staff, some argue that it is better to train these quacks as a second best solution. Such situation to rely on second best solutions arose here too because of public systems' failure.
We may also observe that proposals for second-best solutions consider the government's neglect as a given constraint.
The arguments against relying on second-best solutions as a means to deliver services are as follows.
- The government shouldn't promote second-best ideas as a remedy for its own failure. It is argued that government cannot evade its responsibility to correct its failures by providing second-best solutions.
- Reliance on second-best solutions leads to reducing expectations and accountability from the government: It is argued that promoting second best ideas as means to deliver services without making efforts to force the governments to deliver, may in long term erode the culture of holding governments accountable. Kenyan activist Ory Okolloh Mwangi argues on similar lines
I didn’t see anyone entrepreneur-ing around public schooling in the U.S. You all went to public schools, you know, and then made it to Harvard or whatever. You turned on your light and it came on. No one is trying to innovate around your electricity power company. So why are we being made to do that? Our systems need to work and we need to figure our shit out” [source] [Video]
 What's the way out?

One, recognize that emergence of second-best solutions is rooted in the failure of public systems. This seems common sense but debates often don’t have this as the anchor, instead, they tend to go on tangential directions based on ideology.

Two, recognize that the alternatives proposed are second best solutions. Untrained quacks, off-grid solutions etc. are second-best solutions at the maximum and this has to be recognized. Often, these are pitched as ‘the best’ solutions and sometimes with the ideology backing it up.

Three, don’t let stigma towards certain ideology come in the way. One needn’t support any ideology but at the least one shouldn’t have a stigma towards different approaches, public or private. For instance, the question of education should not be viewed only through the lens of public vs. private, what if India had the education system like that of Finland, would the proposals for low-cost private schools have come up?

Four, don’t let the temporary become the enemy of the best. Temporary solutions even if they are second-best may have to be adopted till a long-term solution is in place. But, the existence of temporary solutions shouldn’t relax the concerned governments. The temporary satisfaction and thus lack of demand of accountability shouldn’t let us into the illusion that the problem is solved. Efforts have to continue on designing long-term solutions.

The long-term solution in these critical areas is to strengthen public delivery system. The question however is, can it be done? Two recent examples from India give us the hope that with necessary commitment, some of these issues may not be that complex to solve. They are hard, for sure.

Piped water supply to households in Delhi: Earlier the water supply in Delhi was poor with inefficiencies, leakages, and corruption. This led many people to demand privatization of water supply and charge people for money so that they don’t waste water etc. At this juncture, a new government of Aam Aadmi party came up with a poll promise of 20,000 liters of free water per month to every household. Everyone called it a populist move and predicted that the government would go bankrupt. After one year, the water board is in a surplus of Rs.176 crore, after giving free water. The reason being, the government controlled leakages and made the administration efficient. When such inefficiencies continue for long, policy proposals emerge with these inefficiencies as a given condition but this example shows that such conditions need not be taken as given and working on them can yield disproportionate benefits.

Increase in teacher attendance in Deoria district of Uttar Pradesh: This is a story of a District Education Officer (in-charge of education of a district) increasing teacher attendance from 40% to 90%.
"MR. MISHRA says that teacher attendance has soared to above 90 percent, about the best that can be expected considering sickness and personal matters.
Achieving that attendance record has not been easy. Teachers have threatened to shoot Mr. Mishra, roughed him up, turned his desk upside down and loudly denounced him in protests outside his office. Their allies, including ministers and legislators, have made phone calls and visits, demanding he ease up. 
Mr. Mishra, 42, has responded by packing a loaded pistol in his right front pocket, hiring private security guards and putting cameras in his office"
The conventional wisdom is that teachers are hard to deal and marginal solutions like incentives etc. are proposed. Such proposals take the existing situation as a given constraint. The DEO, in this case, worked on this constraint and the effects are again disproportionate.
We may seek refuge in second-best solutions temporarily but there is no escape from the reality of good politics and the potential benefits of good governance and strong accountability.
PS: Read my book "UnpackED - The black box of Indian school education reform" which has a long evidence-based argument on why the challenges in education are an issue of state capacity deficits and not a deficit of ideas or innovations. You can download the pdf free of cost from here. You can buy the hardcopy on Flipkart from here [available only in India]. If you are downloading the pdf, please be kind to share your feedback after you read, because it isn't possible to trace those who download. :)

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