Government is not a team. It is a loose confederation of warring tribes.
Sir Humphrey Appleby
The critics of the global aid architecture tend to focus a great deal of our ammunition on donors, and this fulfils a useful function. Donors do many things wrong collectively and individually; on the grand scale of their ambitions and in the minute details of specific programmes. They also have far more power than the average developing country Government and so are under less pressure to reform their practices. Of course, small and large NGOs are fodder for criticism concerning their venality and uselessness or their bizarre programmes in others while Governments come under a great deal of fire for their more exuberant violations of the social contract to which they are supposedly held.
In general criticism of Government tends to be of its role as a political entity. Equally worthy of thought is the functioning of Government as a bureaucratic structure. Iâ€™ve worked in civil services in a few countries now for varying stretches of time, and have deep reservations as to whether their structure in low-income countries is best suited to get the most out of any development expenditure, let alone aid.
I should make it clear that I believe that strong Government is central to the possibility of organised development (i.e. any process of economic transition that is managed to occur rapidly). This isnâ€™t a universally accepted view, but my own inclination to look at historical development processes suggests that Governments are often central to development, whether through the affirmation and enforcement of property rights (as De Soto argues) or through active industrial policy (Chang). Their attempts do not always work, but the potential is there, provided they identify and execute their most appropriate role. The analysis that follows is a questioning of whether or not current structures help or hinder this.
Letâ€™s leave aside for a moment the question of whether a particular Government is as an entity developmental or not. Weâ€™ll imagine a well-functioning democracy with a stable political base, capable of making difficult decisions but not so stable as to be a de facto autocracy. In a low-income African country, how would you structure this Governmentâ€™s bureaucracy? Think about it for a moment, while I sketch what most developing country Finance Ministries actually look like, focusing on the policy side.
The Ministry is overseen as a political creature by the Minister of Finance; its technocratic brain is a Secretary to the Treasury. The political and technocratic masters of the Finance ministry oversee a bureaucracy that normally comprises of these elements: a budget department; an accountant generalâ€™s office, which manages the process of Government spending; a department for external finance; a tax and revenues department, which deals with the policy of taxation while collection is undertaken by a separate agency. Most countries will have some kind of macro-economic monitoring department. All will also have a national planning and strategy section. These are the departments that create Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) and their successor documents. In some cases these will be a department in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning; in others it will be a separate Ministry of Economic Planning.
Instinctively, most of this seems to make sense. After all, itâ€™s how most developed country Treasuries will be organised, though substituting the External Finance department with a foreign assistance department of some description, and with the addition of some further policy arms and perhaps a slightly finer sub-division of responsibilities. Yet, those of us who have spent significant stretches of time inside these developing bureaucracies quickly realise that this structure does not work.