Are evidence-informed policies and decision-making processes the prerogative of central governments or can they also take place at local level?

I thought about this question when reading ‘23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism’, a very engaging book by University of Cambridge professor of political economy, Ha-Joon Chang.

In chapter three – Most people in rich countries are paid more than they should be - Chang asks a deceptively simple question: Why is a bus driver in Stockholm paid nearly fifty times more than a bus driver in Delhi?

Standard economic theory provides some explanations, none of which convinces Chang:

  1. Is the Swedish bus driver fifty times more productive than the one working in Delhi? No, they perform a very similar task and the most skilled driver is probably the one driving in the traffic of Delhi;
  2. Do the skills and knowledge acquired by the Swedish bus driver through education and training determine his/her higher salary? No, very little of that extra knowledge is actually necessary for driving a bus in Stockholm.
Chang presents two new answers: the first is that protectionism, in the form of controls which prevent foreign workers from entering the Swedish labour market, determine the higher salary. However, it is his second point which is more relevant for my discussion.

According to Chang, countries are sometimes described as being poor because of the poor people who live in them. Chang disagrees and argues that, while it is true that statistically poor people lower the average national income, rich people in poor countries do not realise their countries are poor - not because of poor people - but because of themselves. In other words, the Swedish bus driver in Stockholm is not fifty times more productive than his colleague in Delhi, but his bosses are many times more productive than the bosses of the Delhi bus driver. In this they are helped by their education as well as better technologies, institutions and physical infrastructure. So, Chang argues, rather than the poor pulling their countries down, it is the rich who are unable to lift them.

Does this model also hold true for policy-making? Does good evidence-informed policy-making need high productivity and good practice from national bureaucrats and elected representatives, or can a culture of evidence-based decision-making develop at local level, regardless of what’s going at national level?

Following Chang’s analysis, improving productivity within central bureaucracies may be a key to improving policy implementation at local level. Most developing countries have implemented decentralisation reforms in order to provide more autonomy at local government level. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that these reforms struggle to work effectively.

Fortunately, decentralisation offers opportunities for research and local knowledge to inform policy and decision-making processes and thereby help develop a culture of evidence-based decision-making at local level.

Here are two examples:

Between 2002 and 2005 I worked as a local government advisor in the Community Based Rural Development Project in the provinces of Kampong Thom and Kampot in Cambodia. In order to strengthen social capital and promote people’s participation in the decisions of the elected Commune Councils ‘Village Networks’ were established. Each Village Network comprised five members chosen from the leaders of traditional village associations (e.g. cash or rice associations) who would discuss with their Commune Councillors small local projects such as a village road, a dike or school transport. In doing so, they provided experience, expertise and social commitment, and thereby helped make Commune Councils more relevant to ordinary people’s lives. At the end of the project we had established Village Networks in 347 villages, with more than 1,900 members.

A second example comes from a political economy study on disaster risk management I conducted in Indonesia at the end of last year. We found evidence that decentralisation can provide opportunities for establishing closer collaboration between local research institutions and local government. The Watershed Management Forum in the province of East Nusa Tenggara became a multi-stakeholder forum consisting of academics, community members, civil society organisations and related government agencies. It was established in 2003 following a provincial meeting of farmers in response to a very damaging flood a few years earlier. The academic members of the forum engaged in research related to livelihoods, spatial planning and disaster mitigation, while government officials engaged in capacity-building and policy decisions. Studies carried out by the forum are regularly shared internally and with provincial government agencies. The forum’s work has achieved a lot of political influence, evidenced by new provincial regulation in 2008 outlining its role to assist the governor in creating watershed plans.

There is a lot more that can be researched and discussed on this topic. A colleague, Harry Jones, who lives and works in Pokhara, Nepal, has noted that local governments and line agencies usually have very limited access to technical knowledge. However, with better access it would make a lot of difference in terms of decision-making, planning and implementation at local level.

I believe decentralisation reforms offer a unique opportunity to escape Chang’s bus driver model. However, the question still remains: is evidence based-policy making mainly a top down affair? If so, does it have to be?

This article was also published on the Local First blog. Local First is an approach to international development that prioritises the views and leadership of people and organisations in the countries affected, over those of outsiders from the international community.