Is free stuff bad for development?

Thanks to Guy Grossman for forwarding this piece from Uganda’s New Vision, lamenting the detrimental effects of free education:

THE day Government started paying tuition for all school going children, was the say parents ‘declared’ a holiday from taking care about their children’s education. What a shame.

Almost all school management committee became dull. Government stood at a distance and barked, but did not care to bite. Years down the road, the rot seems to be perforating its way through free education’s foundation in the country.

A decade down the road, Government is gradually realising that the parents stealthily put so much weight on its back, and this is gradually eating down the country’s quality of education.

As I ‘ve written about before, I’ve heard much the same thing from various head teachers in Kenya, absolutely lamenting the detrimental effects of free primary education (FPE)! The simple argument is that when parents don’t have to pay, they feel no stake in the school, no obligation to participate in management, and they simply delegate education to government. And because poor people in poor areas are not paying any kind of direct income tax, given low or non-existent incomes, they are not engaged in any type of fiscal contract. It’s pretty painful to think that in trying to provide universal primary education (and beyond) in these East African countries that the plan itself might actually be causing harm to the quality of learning.

Of course, so far, the evidence concerning the negative effects of FPE on parent involvement is only anecdotal. It certainly stands to reason that what’s really going on is that the parents who previously were most active in schools are deciding that the quality of education is too low, and they are opting to send their children to private schools instead. And in turn, a new crop of parents, who would not have sent their children to school unless it was absolutely free, have emerged. So what’s changed is not the attitudes or behaviors of parents, but simply the population of parents associated with the newly free primary schools. Indeed, a paper by Bold et al (2010) at the Centre for the Study of African Economics finds that FPE has resulted in the selection of weaker children into public schools, which in turn may be correlated with parental attitudes and behaviors.

All of this raises the question of the implications of free stuff in poor settings. In particular, from a development standpoint, how can citizens be encouraged to “consume” or take advantage of goods and services that are privately and publicly welfare-enhancing? How do governments, donors, local leaders, humanitarians get citizens to take advantage of disease prevention strategies and educational opportunities when convinced that the status quo is leading to severe under-consumption?

One of the most interesting and counter-intuitive ideas that I encountered when I first started doing research on HIV/AIDS several years ago was the idea of “socially marketed condoms.” The idea was that if you just give away condoms they will seem worthless, and no one will want or use them. But if you charge a little, and provide a bit of value added marketing, they are going to value it more, increasing both demand and usage. This was the argument of the international NGO, Population Services International (PSI) and many others, and the notion was accepted on faith by many, including me.

But as various scholars and analysts have pointed out, including Banerjee & Duflo in their book on Poor Economics (I admit, I hadn’t really read it until this summer, and it’s breathtakingly good), it turns out that the free condom argument probably wasn’t correct, or at the very least, was overly simplistic. Whether it’s bednets (Rwanda is about to distribute 6 million for free), home water purification, or condoms, several pretty careful studies show that usage is often not affected by subsidies, even to free.

Education is a trickier good to consider in this context. For the examples above, presumably the quality of the good is the same – of course if the free bednet has holes in it, we would expect that a quality net for a price would be preferable. And this is relatively easy to establish. When it comes to education, parents who opt for private school presumably are choosing a better quality school.

But the argument being made by the Ugandan writer and the various Kenyan head teachers it not about sunk costs inducing commitment to usage. It is really more about what causes parent citizens to perceive a sense of responsibility to make institutions successful. In this sense, payment serves as a symbolic indication of responsibility and ownership. I could certainly be convinced that there are other useful commitment mechanisms apart from payment, perhaps ritualistic ones, and maybe these ought to be considered to address some of the perceived costs of free.

Commemorating a famous South African protest with new protests

South African president Jacob Zuma spoke yesterday in Kliptown, Soweto in commemoration of the 1960 Sharpeville massacres — an infamous event, during which peaceful protests against the South African pass law turned into a police killing of 69 people. In an attempt to put an affirming spin on this horrible but political watershed event, the anniversary has been renamed, “Human Rights Day.”

According to Business Day, protests erupted in Sharpeville on Tuesday when the news circulated that the speech would take place in Kliptown and not in Sharpeville. And in turn, a series of “service delivery” protests followed in other areas — a term I put in quotes only because some analysts, such as Steven Friedman, have argued that these protests have tended to be motivated by broader political agendas rather than specific gripes about service under-provision. The modern Sharpeville protest suggests the centrality of the politics of dignity.

And with respect to the subject of human rights, various South African news outlets have been highlighting the contradiction between Zuma’s discussion of the importance of the constitution and the bill of rights on the one hand; alongside recent his administration’s recent moves to curtail free information, to review the constitution, and to question the integrity of the judiciary.

In short, the question of which services and protections ought to be aspirations, and which ought to be rights remain the subject of active political conflict in the South African polity.

And as part of that political struggle, protest remains a powerful and important citizen tool for voicing discontent, especially when the electoral system seems to offer little recourse. But I’m torn: Will today’s protests bring about stronger and more responsive democratic governance? Perhaps. But it also might backfire if such protests are organized at too low of a threshold, and if active engagement falls by the wayside as a strategy for realizing human rights and promoting better service delivery. My point is not to blame the protesters, but to wonder why the ANC continues to alienate its base, rather than drafting the citizenry as partners?

Why South Africa’s upcoming local elections matter

In just nine days, South Africans will return to the polls to vote for several thousand local councilors throughout the country. At first blush, this might seem a singularly mundane event. But consider a few facts: First off, South Africa is one of the continent’s few relatively stable democracies, having had a series of free and fair elections and two presidential turnovers since 1994. Every election sets something of a bar for what democracy might be in South Africa, and elsewhere in Africa. While Nigeria’s recent election was considered a fair one, it was also marred by episodes of post-election violence. And while there are no reports of violence in South Africa, increased police presence in certain areas is a response to perceived voter intimidation.

Second, the responsibility for “service delivery,” which includes vital outputs like water, electricity, sanitation, and community development more generally have been delegated to local governments. While the country is among the wealthier middle-income countries, huge inequalities persist, and large swaths of the country continue to be marred by truly unpleasant living conditions. If the poor are going to use their vote and the democratic process to improve the environment in which they live, surely the best near-term prospects are through local government.

Third, and I don’t want to over-state this, the political future of the country could pivot a bit on the fate of these elections. In particular, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is giving the ruling African National Congress (ANC) a run for its money in a few key areas including in the economic powerhouse province, Gauteng. The big question is whether voters will be able to actually remove poorly performing ANC councilors or, as is too often the case in post-liberation countries, the idiom of liberation begins to overshadow the mandate to govern well, and people are stuck with lousy, self-serving leaders. Polls are showing that at least in a few places, voters are inclined for some change. And if they act on this, the next question will be to what extent the ANC will take that message as a prompt for reform or political revenge.

Elections are scheduled for May 18. A guide is available from the Mail and Guardian

Protests in typically calm (aka docile) Botswana

I’ve been pretty surprised to read about the extent to which public servants have acted collectively and stayed away from work this week, protesting three years of stagnant wages. We’re not used to seeing much in the way of mass action in Botswana. The country is a unique case as the most stable and fastest growing African economy in the post-independence era. But as some have pointed out, the same party has been in power the whole time, which raises the question of how democratic the country really is. I must admit, I’ve been impressed by how competent and effective the civil service is, and as nurses stay home from hospitals, and teachers from schools, the country will really feel the bite of the absence of ordinarily high quality services. But the key question of how we describe Botswana — and its tolerance for political contestation — may well be revealed by how the government reacts to this strike.