This post was initially prepared as a preface for the book co-edited by Guillermo Perry and Ramona Angelescu Naqvi (2017), Improving Access and Quality of Public Services in Latin America. To Govern and to Serve (Palgrave MacMillan).
To a casual observer of development debates, “governance” is one of these broad concepts into which a whole set of reasons why development may succeed or fail seem to be subsumed. It encapsulates the “how” as opposed to the “what” and signals a promising move from a prescriptive approach toward a more concrete and operational consideration of implementation issues. However welcome, though, this evolution has somehow fallen in the usual trap of the deterministic and prescriptive temptation: a lot of efforts have been devoted to establishing criteria of “good governance” that developing countries should apply and development finance institutions promote. These may resonate with common sense but leave little room to actually understanding development as a localized process of institutional, cultural and social change throughout which practices evolve on a more or less continuous basis. They treat governance “failures” as pathology to be cured rather than as a component of a complex and multiform process of transformation that is what development is actually about.
This is why the book, co-edited by Guillermo Perry and Ramona Angelescu Naqvi, is important. It reflects a successful attempt to approach governance issues from a concrete, local and empirical, instrumental perspective which focuses on the equity and quality of public service delivery, an essential component of poverty reduction and inclusive growth strategies. Providing equitable access to crucial public services, especially for the poorer segments of society, has long been a concern of politicians, policy-makers and public servants and researchers alike. Doing so effectively in light of declining budgets and organizing the sectors in a way that allows for accountability and transparency between providers, bureaucrats and citizens has been an even bigger challenge. Various stakeholders face different incentives and have disparate access to information about costs, value, quality, satisfaction. Imperfect information and conflicting incentives lead to delays in decision making, cost over-runs, poor quality and inefficiencies. Children don’t learn as much and as fast as they could, the poor pay more than they should for drinking water of dismal quality, and the new road built through a village or a town, sometimes with the rubber-stamping of citizens through the mandatory participatory budgeting process, breaks down two years later because of poor quality and no maintenance.
The Latin American country case studies and the two overview papers included in this volume were part of a three-year global research project titled Varieties of Governance: Effective Public Service Delivery that sought to develop a better understanding of the way in which different aspects of governance such as decentralization, citizen’s participation, regulations and modes of delivery influence service delivery outcomes, in particular quality and equity. A host of donors and partners supported this project led by the Global Development Network, including the Inter-American Bank for the Latin American component. A particular strength of the research presented here is that it focuses on quality of the services provided to citizens – in primary education, drinking water and roads. It thus fills a gap in the literature, which tended to be essentially preoccupied with access. The volume captures important dynamics at the local level as well as relationships between the central and local governments, politicians and lobby groups. The comparative political economy approach, contextualized analysis and multi-disciplinary perspectives of the studies presented here lead to richer and deeper policy insights.
This book therefore has moved well beyond the far too common debates around “good governance” to assessing the effectiveness of specific modes of governance at the sector level, with much clearer policy lessons. Its focus is on the effect of accountability relations on service delivery outcomes when countries opt for decentralized or private or community-led provision, or for the establishment of formal channels for citizen participation (such as participatory budgeting, parents participation in school boards, village or city special councils). Unsurprisingly, the effects of these various modes on the effectiveness of public service delivery are not uniform and notably depend on local characteristics that affect the quality of information and the incentive structure. The volume editors have provided a compelling synthesis of key findings and lessons based on the excellent work of the country-based researchers in Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay.
The findings presented in the book will be of great interest to professionals, practitioners, and policy makers engaged in policy reforms in this crucial area as well as to students of politics, poverty and development. They further make a compelling case for the approach promoted by the Global Development Network throughout its programs: empowering local researchers so that they will produce good quality and contextualized knowledge and will better inform local policies. GDN’s mission of research capacity building, conducted through research projects that produce high quality, policy-relevant knowledge, is a crucial component of development effectiveness.