Stephen Kosack on Government Accountability

Interviewed by Doug Gavel on May 30, 2012

As democracy has spread across the globe, so has the promise of more accountable government. Assistant Professor Stephen Kosack is a political scientist who studies the factors and mechanisms that make governments more accountable to citizens, particularly poorer citizens in developing countries. He has written extensively on human development, education, civil society, transparency and accountability, foreign aid, foreign-direct investment, and democratic governance.

Q: Tell us more about the focus of your academic research.

Kosack: The general focus of my research is on the causes of distributive policymaking. I am particularly interested in the factors that lead governments to invest more in particularly poor citizens in developing countries – when governments choose to equip their poor citizens with access to skills or health care, things they need to improve their lives and their society.

Now why do I study that? I think that scholars have not developed a very firm understanding of why and under what circumstances political leaders have the incentive to try to improve the lives of poor citizens. And this has a number of consequences. It leads to a misdirection of a lot of our assistance to developing countries from here in the developed world. I think we misinterpret when governments are likely to make the kinds of improvements that we would like to augment.

And I also think it often feeds a false sense of optimism by people across the world that if they push for particular changes in their governments – for example if they try to make their governments more democratic – that once that happens they can relax and the democratic institutions will keep the leadership focused on their needs. So I think that in many ways, misunderstanding of the circumstances under which governments have the incentive to serve poor citizens leads to a lot of misdirected efforts and some important misconceptions by citizens themselves.

Q: Your most recent research is a comparative study on how governments in developing societies decide to provide education. Please discuss this research.

Kosack: In my most recent book, "The Education of Nations," I try to construct a framework for when governments are likely to invest in mass education, when they're likely to equip their citizens with skills.

I have a couple of goals with the book. The first is one is to try to re-conceptualize, to some extent, the way that we think about government decisions about education. Because education is so valuable and determines so much a persons' ability to advance his or her own life – so much of their own opportunities in life – it's tempting to think of education as a right that governments should simply provide because it's the right thing to do. But to think about how a government's going to provide education you need to step into the shoes of a political leader. Political leaders aren't free to choose any policy they want or believe is the right policy; they serve at the pleasure of particular groups of citizens, particular voting blocks or groups like business elites or landowners or the military, organized groups that can threaten their power. And if those groups aren't happy with the policies that the leader is making, then the leader is soon having to look for other work. So generally a leader is only free to choose from only among those policies, and this includes the education policies, that will primarily benefit the groups whose support they need to continue governing.

So in order to think about the kind of education that a government is going to provide we need to recast the question as what kind of education is going keep leaders in power? My second purpose with the book is to provide a framework for when governments will want to provide different kinds of education.

What kind of education will help particular governments stay in power? Here the key is to know that citizens in society will demand or will benefit most from different kinds of education depending on whether they are wealthy or poor – thus to stay in power, governments that need the support of poor citizens will need to make very different educational policies than those governments that need the support of wealthier citizens. Wealthy citizens, especially in developing countries, tend to be able on their own to afford pretty good primary and secondary education without any sort of government assistance. So they benefit the most when the government provides them with assistance with higher education, which is the most valuable level and is also the most expensive without any government assistance. And they benefit when that higher education is pretty restrictive, so that their children have a good chance of attending. This is in contrast with poor families, who are unable to afford any education on their own, and so of necessity need the government to give them assistance starting with the first grade of primary education – and then only provide higher levels if there is money left over. Moreover, poor families will want these levels to be very accessible, so that they're not only available to elites, but also to poor citizens generally.

The second purpose of the book is to provide a framework for when a government will need the support of poor citizens, and is therefore more likely to provide mass education – more primary-focused educational investments – versus those circumstances under which the government will need the support of elites, and is therefore more likely to focus on providing and improving higher education.

Q: Please discuss how the findings differ by country.

Kosack: In the book I look at three countries – Ghana, Taiwan and Brazil. I chose these countries primarily because they have almost nothing in common. So they allow me to observe the similar dynamics that push governments to invest in mass education in very different contexts. And what I found is something very surprising.

Usually we think that governments are much more likely to need the support of poor citizens and therefore to make policy in their interests among other things, invest in mass education, but they are more likely to do that when they are democratic – so when leaders have the incentive to serve poor voters because they need their support to gain re-election. But what I found is that this electoral incentive, while that certainly is the case that leaders have the incentive to serve voters, this incentive is almost never more powerful than another incentive that leaders face, which is to serve groups that are organized.

That is, a leader in a developing country has a lot more to fear from organized interest groups such as business elites, landowners, or the military, than they do from average voters. And that's both because these organized interest groups can directly threaten a leader's survival, and also because these organized interest groups can indirectly influence the electorate through emotional appeals or by carefully selecting wedge issues about which some poor voters care more than they do about their material welfare, all sorts of things that mean that organized interest groups can be very threatening to a leader whose policies they don't approve of, just as they can be very supportive of a leader whose policies they do approve of.

The key here is – and I hope this is one of the contributions in the book – is to argue that, first the masses are generally unable to compete with elite organization, even if they can vote. Poor citizens generally have a difficult time organizing themselves.

In reality, the only way they are to become organized and therefore compete with elites is when they've had some assistance organizing. So the key dynamic that I find in the book, the dynamic that allows the masses to become organized and therefore incentivizes a leader to make mass education policy is when a political leader provides some assistance to poor citizens to organize themselves, or when an organization like a union or a religion provides some kind of organizational structures that help keep poor citizens politically active and therefore able to support a government.

And when poor citizens are organized, then they are very powerful. They tend to be much more powerful than even very well organized elites, because while elites have a great deal of resources, the poor have numbers – and there are very few political leaders who don't deeply fear the masses going to the streets and who in turn wouldn't love to have the support of masses who are in the streets.

So what I find in all three of these countries, and again these are very different countries, what I find in all three is that when there is this kind of dynamic, which I call “political entrepreneurship of the poor” – where a leader or an organization helps the poor to become organized – and when that kind of political entrepreneur becomes affiliated with the government, then reliably the government changes its education policy to make far more investments in mass education. And I see this across all three countries.

Q: Some of your earlier work examined the proliferation of independent monitoring organizations in the developing world. Please discuss this research.

Kosack: Some of the dynamics that I’ve been describing are huge societal changes – changes in the organization of poor citizens, big changes in education policy – but citizens who are trying to seek more accountable government or more responsive policymaking have other tools at their disposal, and one of these I and a group of colleagues examined in a recent book called “From the Ground Up: Improving Government Performance with Independent Monitoring Organizations.”

In the book we describe a project in which small civic society organizations in developing countries would receive small grants, about $50,000, to conduct studies into service delivery problems in their communities, for example, problems with health or education such as teachers or nurses not showing up for work, or inefficiencies in the way that books or medical supplies were delivered to schools or clinics.

In recent years, efforts like this have gotten a lot of attention from researchers and donors. Where our project differed from a lot of the other work being done in this field is that while there were very few restrictions put on how the local organizations would conduct their work, they were required to take what they had learned about what was going wrong with service delivery in their communities – what were the reasons that for example teachers or clinicians weren’t showing up or what was responsible for money not making it from the Treasury down to the level of a clinic – that they took those findings and then used them to develop solutions to those problems that they uncovered, and then advocated for those solutions to be implemented either by the government or by other relevant parties.

The project produced some very inspiring success stories, which we discuss in the book. In some cases local organizations were able to reduce absenteeism. One organization in Guatemala was even able to get the Guatemalan government to change the start of the school year by two weeks which allowed school supplies to arrive on time – a very simple solution, easy to implement, and which had a huge effect on the availability of resources in schools.

And currently, with some colleagues at the Kennedy School and an NGO called the Results for Development Institute, which was responsible for the original project described in “From the Ground Up,” we are planning a multi-year research project which will seek to evaluate whether and under what circumstances these kind of interventions, this kind of work, can improve health and education service delivery in countries across the developing world.

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