The perils of weak state capacity

Inefficient implementation of policies is often thought of as the major consequence of weak state capacity. It’s only partially true. I argued in my book that there are other serious consequences of weak state capacity.

First, the straight forward consequence is that weak state capacity decreases the returns to governments’ investment. Governments make huge investments in resources. When they don’t function properly, we end up wasting a great deal of money. For instance, government may recruit 1 lakh teachers but if they do not attend schools or don’t deliver value, the money is essentially going down the drain. The additional 1 lakh teachers have not resulted in any value addition but increased fiscal burden. Lant Pritchett and Yamini Aiyar estimate that with the existing inefficiencies of public school system, it would need an extra 2.78% of our GDP, or Rs. 2,32,000 crore to be able to reach the learning levels of private schools in India.

Two, repeated failure due to state capacity deficiencies causes experimentation fatigue. It resists new innovations. Any new innovation will be viewed with suspicion and may not be taken seriously while implementing because we already know that it’s going to fail. Such prolonged situation of weak state capacity can kill the spirit of the system and the people.

Three, weak state capacity kills good ideas. If a good idea fails due to implementation bottlenecks, the failure is attributed to the idea. Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) is a good example. Continuous low stake diagnostic testing is a good idea. The implementation challenges are now posing aspersions on the idea of low stake diagnostic testing itself.

Four, weak state capacity shrinks the imagination of ‘what can be done’. If government repeatedly fails to implement policy ideas, overwhelmed by implementation deficiencies, many end up thinking that innovative models can never be implemented in our systems. Over time, this perception gets ingrained in our belief systems and can limit our imagination to dream big. We start thinking of solutions with the presumption of ‘we can’t afford complex ideas’, thus leaving many good ideas out of our radar.

For instance, Finland revamped its curriculum shifting from individual subject based learning to theme based learning. Instead of learning geography, history, economics separately, you would study Europe as a whole (theme based). In our context, where we can’t even teach letters to children, our cognition restricts our ability to think of such ambitious innovations.

Five, weak state capacity reduces policy options. Let’s take a problem, say, skill building. There are many policy options to skill building. Germany uses apprenticeship model. Implementing such model requires certain prerequisites. The World Bank report on skill building says “The strongest constraint in the transferability of such programmes is that they require a strong institutional framework, in particular a clear legal framework.

Now, if a country doesn’t have strong institutional capacity to set up legal frameworks, German model is out of that country’s pool of options. Thus, when faced with a policy problem, weak state capacity limits the pool of solutions from which we can adopt. It naturally affects the quality of our policy. Ideally, we should be able to learn from a big pool of ideas and make the best of all, without having to think of capacity challenges.

Six, weak state capacity leads to policy traps and forces us to settle for second-best solutions. This is at the core of many debates in development.

Regulation and certification is one of the core functions of modern state. Let’s take the example of haircut. There is no great danger if governments don’t certify barbers and allow non professionals to do the hair cuts.

Now, move on to school education. The debate gets stronger here. Some argue that teaching by non-professionals is going to have significant costs and hence teachers should be strongly regulated. By that reasoning, low cost private schools shouldn’t be allowed. Some others argue that low cost private schools should be allowed because they are preferred by the people. The absolutists however argue that crucial aspects like education shouldn’t be left to people alone. There should be strict standards.

Its a policy trap. We don’t have capacity to build strong public systems in short run. We thus have to settle for second best solution of allowing education service delivery through untrained professionals.

A person once rightly asked a professor - "You have well functioning public school system in your country. Why are you are coming to us and asking us to settle for low budget private schools?" Weak state capacity is at the root of this question.

Health care is an example on the extreme end. There may be some case to argue that not regulating teachers may not be harmful. It poses a difficult conundrum in case of doctors. The recent debate on Jishnu Das’s papers on health care in Madhya Pradesh documenting the effectiveness of quacks and public doctors, and the effect of training quacks in West Bengal is a good example.

Our intuitive reasoning suggests that only trained professionals should be allowed to practice medicine because the stakes are high. Such reasoning challenges the reality, where a large number of untrained doctors, called quacks, deliver health care service.

Some argue that quacks are preferred by patients and hence should be allowed. They argue that government doesn’t have the capacity to train large number of doctors who are available to people all the time and provide equivalent service. Hence, quacks should be made central to service delivery by training them. This is an example of settling for second best solutions in the absence of capacity to embrace first best solutions.

It evokes strong response from some who argue quacks shouldn’t be allowed to practice. They argue that health care delivery shouldn’t be subjected to such work around (jugaad) — second best solutions and that we should focus on building strong public systems.

Weak state capacity is at the root of these debates. In some cases we can afford to ignore some good solutions because we don’t have the capacity. In case of critical sectors like health care, it is difficult to argue to reject first best solutions due to lack of capacity and instead embrace second best solutions. We should instead build capacity and do whatever is required because some sectors are too important to be left for second-best solutions.

We must also note that till now, there haven’t been any strong efforts by governments to reform our public health care. It’s a case of lack of political will. So, if second best solutions are advocated, without even attempting to reform, it may not go down well. It may not be even desirable. The recent experience of Delhi government’s efforts to revamp public education and successful results rekindles hope that given sufficient attention, public systems can be reformed.

All the above discussion says that weak state capacity affects our cognition as much as it affects the policies. It strongly illustrates the need to enhance our state capacity. It’s time we stop thinking of solutions in terms of schemes or designing new policies and start focusing on first order fundamentals, the state capacity.

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