AS a development economist, I have often repeated the following familiar story to my audiences. It is said that the study of economics is like looking for a black cat in a dark room and economic theory is like a blind man looking for a black cat in a dark room. By now the audience would generally be on my side and I would go on to say that econometrics, one of my specialisations, is like a blind man looking for a black cat in a dark room when the cat is not even there. Finally, my punch line would be that a development economist like me is a blind man looking for a black cat in a dark room when the cat is not even there but he keeps saying: “I have got it, I have got it.”
This story encapsulates the current state of development economics. There is a consensus among development economists that there is no consensus on what causes development. I have been taught development economics by great teachers who have gone on to win the Nobel Prize for Economics, but they have not still cracked the development code.
However, as a teaching, preaching and practising economist, who has worked in the policy trenches in more than 25 countries, I have discovered that the countries in the world can be divided into two broad categories. There are some countries where the gap between what they say and what they do is huge; in the other group of countries they pretty much do what they say. There is no prize for guessing which group of countries develops faster. The countries where the implementation gap between rhetoric and action is smaller tend to develop faster than those countries with a gaping implementation gap.
Thus, I have come to develop a firm conviction that development is all about the ability of a country to implement agreed policies, programmes and projects. The government’s ability to implement is the most powerful predictor of future development and also provides a robust explanation of the existing development divide between ‘more developed’ and ‘less developed nations’.
Management experts tell us that success in any enterprise depends on doing the ‘right thing’ and also ‘doing it right’. Unfortunately, development experts spend all their energies debating what are the ‘right things to do’ in order to achieve development and they do not seem to worry about how to ‘do them right’. The debate about implementation aspects of policies and programmes is conspicuously missing from the prestigious journals in development economics. There seems to be a presumption among development economists that good policies, programmes and projects will self-implement. Consequently, intense debates among economists take place about the design of policies and programmes but hardly any on their implementation aspects. In the language of economists, implementation is assumed away, or taken as a given.
As someone whose job was to review the performance of 80 departments of the Government of India, I can say with confidence that I hardly came across a really bad policy or programme. Invariably, the failure to deliver results could be traced to bad implementation. It is common knowledge that similar government programmes work well in some States and not so well in other States. Take the Right to Services (RTS) policy, implemented by around 17 States. First, if it is such a great idea (which it is), then why have only 17 States been able to implement it? Second, why is the implementation of this policy far more effective in Karnataka than in other States of the Indian Union? Also, why is Karnataka the only State which has obtained an ISO 9001 quality certification for its implementation? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind. It is the ability and capacity to implement policies that explains these differences more than anything else. To paraphrase Alexander Pope:
For forms of schemes let fools contest Whatever is best implemented is best
IN today’s information age, implementation ability has become one of the key determinants of a nation’s competitive advantage. Today, it has become much easier to search for best practices in any area. For example, if you are interested in devising a programme for Oral Re-hydration Therapy (ORT) to reduce infant mortality from diarrhoea, and if you Google it, you will get close to three lakh hits. On most major policy issues of the day, international development organisations, universities, and think-tanks have tool kits and approach papers. Thus, figuring out the ‘right’ thing to do is becoming increasingly easier. The race among nations, however, will not necessarily be won by figuring out the right policies and programmes. Rather, by ensuring their effective implementation.
The crisis of arrested development in India is not due to lack of ideas but because of lack of effective implementation. Thus, there is need for an Implementation Commission and not another think-tank in place of the Planning Commission. In fact, we should have a moratorium on new ideas till the backlog of unimplemented good ideas from innumerable commissions and committees has been reduced significantly.
The writer is former Secretary to the Government of India, Performance Management Division, Cabinet Secretariat