Monday, February 9, 2009

Easterly on What the Poor Would Say...

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the conference held last Friday by NYU's Development Research Institute entitled "What Would The Poor Say: Debates In Aid Evaluation". I had one or two grumbles about the format - as so often happens at these things, the way in which the presentations were structured meant that there was relatively little actual "conferring" - just a set of fairly heavily truncated Q&A sessions that were too short to develop into exchanges of real interest. This notwithstanding, I found the event - as a series of extremely interesting lectures - to be very worthwhile; perhaps particularly so from the perspective of those who, like me, were not overly familiar with the issues involved from an economics/social science perspective.

In this post, I wanted to discuss Professor Easterly's talk, "The Big Picture on Aid Accountability", and in particular to frame it within a global administrative law perspective (not a particularly difficult task). In it, he confronted squarely the question posed in the title of the conference, although was at pains to stress at the outset that he was in no position to offer a substantive response to "What the Poor Would Say". Rather, he was interested in how the institutional mechanisms of development aid could be recalibrated in order to ensure that this question was both regularly asked and effectively answered; insisting that the question itself was the "basic question" upon which aid should be judged.

Easterly argued that there were three basic components of any effective mechanism of this sort: transparency, feedback (or "voice") and accountability (see, I wasn't lying when I said that it wouldn't take much work to frame this from a GAL perspective...). The basic evidence for his claim was offered in the form of a series of structural analogues drawn from other (relatively) effective institutional frameworks for regulating and directing human endeavour: the provision of private goods (the market); the provision of public goods (democratic governance); and the production of knowledge (the scientific method and community).

Easterly's fundamental argument was that the success of each of these governance frameworks was dependent upon its being able to furnish an answer to the question of "What would people say"? - which in turn is clearly related to the issue of accountability, which he styled as the most important of the three components outlined above. (It should be noted that Easterly is using a farily broad understanding of "accountability" - many examples of such mechanisms that he cites have been rejected by those who have sought to take a more systematic approach to the concept - see e.g. here for Richard Stewart's approach, and here for Grant and Keohane). he then proceeded to give an outline of how each of the components cashes out in the effective frameworks, and contrasted each of these to the world of development aid.

In private markets, for example, Easterly argued that "transparency" was ensured by the fact that businesses advertise what they are selling, and so customers know what their buying options are. Feedback is ensured, inter alia, by the copious amounts of market research that companies do, by consumer choices themselves, and by the emergence of a decentralised form of review through customer opinion pages on a vast range of websites. Accountability is ensured by the fact businesses go bust if they fail to be sufficiently transparent, or to respond to consumer voice. According to Easterly, however, aid agencies have none of these characteristics: there is very scant information on what services are being provided by whom to whom; feedback is limited as target audiences rarely if ever get to choose with what they will be aided or how they are to be developed, and there are no equivalents of the decentralised "customer satusfaction" reports that we find on the internet; and the big aid agencies are never threatened with extinction.

It is worth pausing at this point to head off one potentially important objection that could be made (and I'm grateful to my colleague at the IILJ, Sarah Dadush, for making it). It is of course true that businesses are rarely if ever as transparent as consumers would want them to be; certainly, it is in their interest to advertise their own products, but it may well be equally so to suppress other relevant information. Very frequently, indeed, product advertisements contain entirely misleading claims, to say nothing of the potential presence of unethical business practices, etc. Moreover, do we really want to transfer the logic of the market to the provision of aid? Two quick points to make in this regard, on my own reading at least: firstly, Easterly was not seeking to suggest that the market was in any sense perfect, but rather that it was relatively effective at delivering private goods for consumption, and the existence of transparency, feedback and accountability mechanisms were vital to that. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, his point was not to argue that market logics of transparency, feedback and accountability should rule supreme in the global governance of aid; but rather that these constitute basic principles of effectiveness that find expression in structurally analogous but substantively different ways within different governance frameworks. While market logics may well have an important role to play, these will have to be sometimes complemented, sometimes contradicted, by other competing logics. It is also worth noting in this regard that his basic contention - that "the poor" and their wants/needs are the relevant constituency for feedback and accountability - is a judgement that will have to be made and defended prior to discussions about institutional developments.

The point about structural analogues was confirmed by the fact that Easterly made a similar comparative analysis for the other two relatively effective governance frameworks that he discussed - for the provision of public goods, and the production of knowlegde. In terms of the former, he focused on democracy, arguing that transparency was provided by laws such as the US Freedom of Information Act; that feedback comes from many sources, such as elections, polls, an independent media, and opposition politicians; and that accountability is ensured by the prospect that unpopular politicians will be removed from power. Again, he argued that the governance of aid was lacking many of the mechanisms that render democracy an effective provider of public goods: indeed, he went so far as to argue that the "Aid State" was effectively totalitarian in nature, never sharing its operational documents with interested parties, and sticking rigidly to a dogmatic consensus that is extremely resistant to conflict and change (thus lacking "opposition politicians"). I have not the experience to know whether this is an accurate reflection of how these agencies operate, but it's a powerful metaphor - and one that cries out for a GAL perspective.

Lastly, Easterly also argued that structural analogues of these successful transparency, feedback and accountability mechanisms are to be found in the production of knowledge. Transparency is ensured through the "centralised" promulgation of regular textbooks, and through the "decentralised" existence of many independent journals. Feedback is ensured through fostering debate on published works, through the mechanism of peer review, and through the fact that anyone - regardless of qualification - can disprove orthodoxy by following the established (scientific) method. Accountability is largely reputational in form; yet not unimportant for that. Again, Easterly found aid agencies wanting in terms of the basic elements of good governance that enable knowledge to be effectively produced: there are only centralised and very partial databases of statistics in aid; there is a lack of scientific freedom of research within aid agencies, and little if any peer review; and there appear to be no penalties for refusal to provide data or other accoutnability mechanisms (including an interesting story about USAID, which I will blog on shortly).

I should note that I have altered the ordering of Easterly's talk a little here in seeking to frame these issues from within a global administrative law perspective. The GAL-relevance of the first two governance frameworks should be clear: GAL rules are very often enforced to ensure that the market is allowed to operate free from governmental distortions: very many administrative law provisions of the WTO agreements - and the TRIPS agreement in particular - are, indeed, explicitly aimed at this objective. Nor is it news that administrative law can be used to entrench democratic protections - or at least "surrogates" - for those individuals upon whose interests the activities of administrative bodies impact. Indeed, these in some ways map fairly neatly onto the different ("efficiency" and "justice") governance logics that I outlined here (although it is worth noting in this regard that Easterly's take on "democratic" governance was itself here largely framed in terms of its "efficiency" in the provision of public goods. While there may well be something to this, my own view is that reliance on this alone can only provide a distinctly impoverished, and deeply inadequate, account of what democracy brings to the legitimacy table).

As I suggested in an earlier post, however, there may be another logic that is based neither upon markets or morals (to use Benedict Kingsbury's formulation), but rather on the technocratic production of knowledge - a "global administrative law of science". This would seek to regulate not any particular substantive outcome, but would rather ensure the the basic elements of the scientific method - its own transparency, feedback and accountability mechanisms included - are enforceable by law. As science becomes increasingly important to policy decisions, and to global administrative action more generally, it seems reasonable to suggest that it to should be subject to some of the "requirements of publicness" (to steal from Kingsbury again) to which we routinely subject our administrative agencies.

As I noted in a previous post, this is one type of reading that can be made of the - hugely controversial - Wegman Report that was critical of some of the science used in one of the IPCC's reports on climate change; and it is a claim that has been made repeatedly by the - equally controversial - critic of much of the "hockey stick" climate science, Steve McIntyre, over on his Climate Audit blog. Indeed, McIntyre was kind enough to link to my previous post, including some thoughtful reflections of his own on the possibility and desirability of applying GAL to the works of global bodies such as the IPCC. Whatever the truth behind the science here(and, like all good lawyers - if not good scientists - I rely exclusively on the "argument from authority" here, placing me firmly behind the weight of scientific opinion that global warming is both real and terrifying), I'd reckon that it must be difficult for lawyers in general, and administrative lawyers in particular, not to feel sympathetic towards McIntyre's "due diligence" arguments relating to full transparency on data and code used in climate reconstructions. Clearly, however, the role of science in global administration - and hence the potential need for a global administrative law of science - goes far beyond the realm of climate change: it is implicated in a great many WTO controversies, for example (see e.g. Chapter 6.3 of the GAL casebook, for example, or the more recent EC-Hormones decision of the Appellate Body); and lies behind some recent concerns over CERN's activities with the LHC.

My key point here is that, although it exhausts none of them, GAL cuts across all three of the relatively effective governance frameworks identified by Easterly, serving to entrench many of the requirements of transparency, feedback and accountability not merely as governance desiderata but as legal obligation. In a field such as the provision of aid - which, in ideal form at least, provides a public good through the provision of private goods based upon robust knowledge of what works and what doesn't - it is clear that different measures of each is required, calibrated differently to each concrete context in which they are to be applied. Global administrative law thus provides an extremely useful framework and vocabulary for discussing the ways in which the law can be implicated, and can assist, in the good global governance of the provision of aid. One way of capturing this may be to acknowledge a third, "technocratic" governance logic to sit alongside the "efficacy" and "justice" logics that I outlined previously.

Easterly's point can thus, I think, be framed in this way, at a very general level: for any governance activity, first decide upon who the relevant "publics" or "constituencies" are, and then determine and apply the appropriate mixture of different transparency, feedback and accountability mechanisms - drawn from the structural analogues to be found in relatively successful public, private and technocratic governance logics - to ensure the effectiveness of the governance in question. Clearly, this does not provide us with a solution to any concrete governance problem; it may well, however, provide us with the outlines of a framework within which effective solutions can be conceived, developed and implemented. And, as I hope this post has shown, GAL can and should play an absolutely central role in this process.

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