Tuesday, August 18, 2015

'Building Confidence: Service Delivery and Political Settlements', by Alan Whaites

There are several dimensions to current work on the relationship between service delivery and politics, particularly in contexts emerging from political conflict.   Much work has been done (often by stabilisation organisations) on service delivery in contexts undergoing some form of `transition.’   These activities can be seen as an important part of demonstrating a `dividend’ from a new political concord.  

However there is also evidence that perceptions around service delivery make some assumptions questionable.   For example I remember in Nepal following the 2006 ceasefire that our efforts to assess need suggested that Madhesi communities on the Terai received services on a par with other areas, but the perception seemed to be of relatively poor treatment in comparison to others.   A few months later Madhesi areas witnessed rioting that shook the emerging peace process.

The Madhesi example underlines that the objective reality of service provision is often less important than perceptions and the importance attached to delivery in relation to other pressures and issues.   Survey work suggests that in Afghanistan over 70% of people are satisfied with local education and water provision, yet levels of trust in government have fluctuated greatly and the belief that the country is moving in the right direction remains at 52%.  

Of course our statebuilding literature, including my own 2008 paper, suggests a dynamic between a central political understanding among elites (a political settlement); their ability to execute policy through core state functions; and their willingness to engage with, and respond to their citizens.   It is this latter element `responsiveness’ that has been the focus for discussions around service delivery.   External critiques have suggested that too often this dimension has led to crude assumptions concerning traditional donor and development agency approaches.   It has been argued that statebuilding ideas became wedded to a simple view of the `social contract’ as a quid pro quo – the state provides education and health, and in return secures legitimacy from its people.

The Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, and Development Leadership Programme have now produced evidence that casts doubt on a simple relationship between service delivery and legitimacy.   Their work has pointed to the multi-dimensional nature of legitimacy, and the complex way in which people ascribe support to institutions and governments.   They suggest that the approach taken by actors is often as important as the final services that are provided to communities - it is how governments engage with their citizens, not what they deliver that can make a difference.   The survey work that underpins this evidence does not, in itself, undermine the original models, they do however suggest that the relationship between service delivery and state-society relations is more complex than assumed.  

Developing a more nuanced understanding of these issues has a direct relevance to programming, but also needs to be kept in perspective in relation to broader development issues.  A significant proportion of aid is devoted to traditional service delivery areas, particularly a set of human development priorities that were profiled within the Millennium Development Goals.   It is therefore important to remember that the ratio of expenditure devoted to health and education, in particular, has a logic and value in its own right – beyond the realm of statebuilding and political settlements.   The human development imperatives behind service delivery are always the best entry point for the discussion on their value. 

However, the tendency to assume that service delivery is inherently playing a positive role in relation to political settlements can lead to a failure to pursue additional activities that should be undertaken; or to look at how service delivery instruments can be adapted to state-society relations and accountability.    The work of SLRC suggests that greater attention could be devoted to the interaction between state and society in the service delivery process.  One implication is that looking at accountability issues, now also profiled strongly in the proposed Sustainable Development Goals, could play a role and actually help to consolidate trust.  

The relationship between accountability/dialogue and approaches to service delivery may also be distorted by mono-dimensional understandings of legitimacy.   It could be argued that engagement around service delivery should be framed around a trajectory that begins with building confidence and trust.   This approach recognises that there is insufficient evidence on the weight that people themselves place on `legitimacy’ as a driver of state society relations (in contrast to other political incentives and beliefs).  The WDR 2011 suggested that confidence may perhaps make a difference to paths to resilience.  

The WDR’s emphasis on confidence echoed the original DFID work on statebuilding in 2008.  `Confidence’ or trust are not necessarily lower bars than legitimacy – they can be different ways to think about human calculations of political power and risk.  Following periods of political contestation an assumption that people value trust/faith in the durability of government is not unreasonable (and does not mean that they do not also value legitimacy as well).  

These emerging debates and the associated evidence have pointed to significant gaps in knowledge.   Questions around the role of service delivery in promoting stable and durable political settlements, the type of accountability mechanisms that matter, and the relationship to accountability/dialogue - all have a bearing on approaches to development.      Interestingly the survey evidence from Afghanistan suggests that they are questions worth asking and connections to be pursued.  In that context at least some people ascribe their growing faith in the state in the sense that some tangible services are being delivered.  

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