The recent EA podcast on charter cities made me think about this question--these are just my very rudimentary thoughts on the subject.

The problems that governments in developing countries face are quite fundamental. I’ll use Tamil Nadu (a state in India) as an example, as that’s where my parents are from. Corruption is rampant at all levels of government, even for village leaders elected democratically. The government often ignores problems until they become too dire, such as neglecting the management of watersheds until there was a drought.

I also don’t think this is an isolated thing. I’m not able to find quantitative data on this subject, but from what I’ve read, these general patterns appear to be common throughout developing countries. There are pockets of great governance from some motivated individuals but that appears to be in the minority. This summer, I’ll be doing COVID coordination work with a country in South America and another in Africa, so I’ll get a more first-hand view.

There appear to be three sources of bad governance:

  • Apathy (i.e. not doing a job one knows one should do)
  • Malice (i.e. stealing money, corruption)
  • Ignorance (i.e. not knowing one should do the job)

Each of these sources would have different solutions.

Or one could look at it through a different lens:

  • A people problem
    • Solution: research into better recruitment strategies
  • A culture/incentives problem (i.e. people get corrupted)
    • Solution: modify culture/incentives using behavioral science

I’ve looked into some academic literature on this subject, but I haven’t found papers that try to isolate the cause. There’s an EA problem profile on improving institutional decision-making, but it seems to focus on prediction calibration and rationality techniques. I’d appreciate any thoughts or resources on the subject.




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Thanks for your post. I'm from a developing country and, after living some months in Europe, I couldn't stop thinking about this subject. Things like "why don't they have any holes in the streets pavement?"; it evoked me Cixin Liu's Dark Forest, when humans first meet the "droplet and are astonished by its perfect flatness.

Let me add some non-structured remarks:

  • I think your "three sources of bad governance" are still too vague to be useful; moreover, they're not totally endemic to developing/poor countries (and even among them, it works in very different ways), and they seem to relate with bad governance (and outcomes) in a feedback loop. I think a good path is to compare many different societies and how they've dealt with those problems, like Acemoglu & Robinson's Why Nations Fail. Focusing on culture (something really hard to change) and how those societies fulfill positions (which ends up depending too much on culture, education and politics) seems to be a better start.
  • I think you've mentioned what seems to me the real problem: developing countries governments (exception: China) are less capable of engaging in long-term planning, particularly to address uncertain risks / outcomes. Some really bad feedback loops explain that: politics (they plan for the next election), urgencies (after you've paid for disaster relief, social security, debt and compulsory spending...) and, of course, culture (there's a beautiful Brazilian samba Felicidade ("Happiness"), with a verse like "we work the whole year for this brief moment, the carnival"). This reflects in education (which usually only pays-off years after reforms are implemented), macroeconomics (higher interest rates), infrastructure (Brazil adopted an annual social discount rate of 10% for infrastructure projects; and, like the example of the pavement, low-quality infrastructure and maintenance is usual), catastrophe prevention, etc.
  • One of the challenges of proposing a reform is how it affects the current status quo; for instance, think of political reform and pension legislation. I wonder if proposing reforms to be implemented years later, so leaving the current status quo unaffected, isn't usually more successful, and if it has been tried in these countries.
  • I think geography is underrated: development concentrates in clusters (it's easier to develop if your neighbor does it, too), and, though almost no one talks about it, seems to be highly correlated with climate (though this might be partly explained by culture + this neighbor effect, but the correlation remains even in the same country). I really hope Sachs's new book casts some light on that. (These spreadsheets I found by googling; I checked only a little bit of the data, so be careful with them)
  • I wonder if someone has ever made anonymous interviews with junior and senior civil officers (and maybe businessmen, too) from these countries about this subject. I'd really like to read it.
  • I think the idea of charter cities is that "it's so hard to change these current inadequate equilibria that we better start anew somewhere else". A micro-revolution. It might work out great in the long-term, for some places - but I don't think it would solve

Hi. I actually anecdotally admire the Indian government for upgrading itself toward greater national welfare efficiently. The reason is sound leadership (exemplification of great standards and willingness to advance solutions beneficial to the public). For example, India's higher government officials were making long-hours group phone calls with their subordinates, respectfully publicly shaming them for not inputting (correct) data (C. K. Prahalad, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, p. 93), thus making sure the local officials uphold standards. Nandan Nilekani gave every resident a unique ID (not collecting data on caste, etc.) within years, more efficiently than leading private tech giants. This greatly facilitated cash transfers and internal work migration. Anecdotally, I also know that an emerging country's government may be about the size of large economy's communication department with that region.. I heard a developing country pride itself in finishing work five years ago that a UN intern could have easily kept up to date with little effort. Another country suggested their residents could truly benefit from a website an intern could have built. I recommended that an easy-share platform between countries and UN ESCAP departments is built, so that interns can stop doing busy/no work and help. That is not possible. A person in emerging economy's government must escalate their request in their national government; this national representative must send the request to a high UN representative; and the high UN representative must let the request progress down the UN hierarchy. So, no website is built.

The solution may be funding competent people to do work for emerging economies' governments, setting high standards and sharing relevant skills. Since officially, this may be a problem, finding and financing skilled and honest friends/helpers to developing countries' officials may work. The higher the officials the larger the sound-standard-setting effect. Showing the public that efficiency and wellbeing increases would increase trust and strengthen the sound governance standards.

In terms of the resources, I recommend Customs modernization initiatives: case studies. Especially, read the Outcomes and Lessons Learned (pp. 28-31) for Ghana. Making a government more efficient may also come with relevant knowledge and competence brought from outside.

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