Stuti Khemani is a Senior Economist in the Development Research Group of the World Bank. She joined through the Young Professionals Program after obtaining a PhD in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her area of research is the political economy of public policy choices, and institutional reforms for development. Her work is published in leading economics and political science journals, such as the American Economic Journal, Journal of Development Economics and American Political Science Review. She is the lead author of the Policy Research ReportMaking Politics Work for Development: Harnessing Transparency and Citizen Engagement. She is currently examining how policy actors can design governance and transparency interventions to build state capacity and strengthen behavioral norms in the public sector. Her research and advisory work spans a diverse range of countries, including Benin, China, India, the Philippines, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda.
Public health systems that are capable of disease surveillance and action to prevent and manage outbreaks require trustworthy community-embedded public health workers who are empowered to undertake their tasks as professionals. Economic theory on incentives and norms of agents tasked with performing activities that society cares about yield direct implications for how to recruit and manage frontline health workers to promote trustworthiness and professionalism. This paper provides novel evidence from a survey of public health workers in Bihar, India's poorest state, that supports the insights of economic theory and taken together yields ideas that can immediately be put to work in policy responses to the COVID-19 crisis. These ideas address problems of governance and trust that have bedeviled health policymakers. Managing the current and preventing future pandemics requires going beyond technical health policies to the political institutions that shape incentives and norms of health workers tasked with implementing those policies.
Policy Research Working Paper (Forthcoming in Economica)
Economic theory of public bureaucracies as complex organizations predicts that bureaucratic productivity can be shaped by the selection of different types of agents, beyond their incentives. This theory applies to the institutions of local government in the developing world, where nationally appointed bureaucrats and locally elected politicians together manage the implementation of public policies and the delivery of services. Yet, there is no evidence on whether (which) selection traits of these bureaucrats and politicians matter for the productivity of local bureaucracies. This paper addresses the empirical gap by gathering rich data in an institutional context of district governments in Uganda, which is typical of the local state in poor countries. The paper measures traits such as the integrity, altruism, personality, and public service motivation of bureaucrats and politicians. It finds robust evidence that higher integrity among locally elected politicians is associated with substantively better delivery of public health services by district bureaucracies. Together with the theory, this evidence suggests that policy makers seeking to build local state capacity in poor countries should take political selection seriously.
Synthesizing the vanguard of economics research on the functioning of political markets, this report distills implications for policy and future research. It shows how political engagement—the processes through which citizens select and sanction the leaders who wield power in government—is fundamental to understanding and solving government failures to pursue good public policies. The confluence of political engagement with transparency can be a driving force for countries to transition toward better-functioning public sector institutions, starting from their own initial and contextual conditions. But good outcomes are far from guaranteed, with many risks of unhealthy political engagement by citizens and repressive responses by leaders. To harness the potential of these forces, the report offers ideas for policy actors to target transparency to improve citizens’ ability to hold leaders accountable for the public goods needed for development.
A “meta” problem facing not only impact evaluation work but all development policy dialogue is perverse behavior in the public sector to not pursue evidence-based, technically sound policies. Politics and governance come between statistically significant research results and real impact in the world. We confront these problems in a policy research report that has been described as having transformational implications for the business of international development assistance.
Debate is needed over what is the nature of a public good; what is the role of the state and government in addressing market failures and persistent inequality, over and above volunteerism and charitable giving? Education and health for all children can serve as a crucial and tangible hook for that debate. A new research report on politics and governance, about which I’ve previously blogged, would suggest that citizens’ political engagement should center on this debate.
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