What Trash Collection Can Teach Us About Maintaining Local Public Goods

December 17, 2013
By Doug Gavel

Why are some communities able to sustain the quality of public goods while others are not? That is the question behind a new Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Working Paper by Assistant Professor Ryan Sheely.
"Maintaining Local Public Goods: Evidence from Rural Kenya" reports the results of field research conducted in a region of rural Kenya beset, like many others, with a significant trash problem. Sheely and his research team investigated three different models of citizen/government/non-governmental institutional engagement to determine which model works best in solving the problem.
"What I have found over time is that there is no shortage of government or non-governmental provision of things like trash collection or other basic public goods, but there is great variation in whether these goods were maintained once they were provided," Sheely said. "And the more I thought about this, this is actually a central challenge in development. This is a serious puzzle for me as an academic, but it is also something that directly impacts the day-to-day life of billions of people around the world."
Sheely's analysis backed his theory of public good maintenance.
"The results of the experiment provided support for the theory, showing that interactions between government and community institutions shape patterns of public goods maintenance over time," he writes. "In particular, the results indicate that although punishing littering behavior can lead to short-term reductions in trash accumulation, such institutions do not lead to sustainable changes in littering behavior and may crowd out ongoing collective action and the creation of new social norms that are necessary to maintain waste management over time."
Development policymakers should heed several important lessons from this research, Sheely argues.
"The evidence in this paper indicates that failure to engage with local institutions may severely limit the short-term and long-term effectiveness of such donor-driven community development projects," he writes. "The theory developed in this paper provides researchers and practitioners with a flexible framework for identifying and classifying the government and community institutions that could be harnessed to maintain any local public goods project."
Ryan Sheely is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He has conducted randomized evaluations and extensive archival and ethnographic fieldwork in Kenya, and has ongoing projects in Kenya and Sierra Leone. He is also the co-founder of the SAFI Project, a nonprofit organization that coordinates waste management and recycling activities in northern Kenya.

Ryan Sheely, assistant professor

Ryan Sheely, assistant professor

"What I have found over time is that there is no shortage of government or non-governmental provision of things like trash collection or other basic public goods, but there is great variation in whether these goods were maintained once they were provided."

Il Polei village located in Laikipia North District, approximately 5 hours drive north of Naiobi, Kenya

Il Polei village located in Laikipia North District, approximately five hours drive north of Naiobi, Kenya

 


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