Impact and Implementation of Evidence Based Policies

Chris Blattman noted that economists lack evidences on important policies. That’s true for foreign aid programs, which Chris mentioned. But defined broadly, policy making in poor countries can source evidences from elsewhere. NBER alone supplies 20 policy-relevant papers each week. And so does the World Bank, which recently studied its own economy:

About 49 percent of the World Bank’s policy reports … have the stated objective of informing the public debate or influencing the development community. … About 13 percent of policy reports were downloaded at least 250 times while more than 31 percent of policy reports are never downloaded. Almost 87 percent of policy reports were never cited.

In an ideal world, policy makers would read more and adjust their economies to the models we already know thanks to the decades of thorough research. This is not happening because policy makers are managers, not researchers with well-defined problems. And, as Russell Ackoff said, managers do not solve problems they manage messes.

Governments have their own limits of the messes they can deal with. Economists in research, on the contrary, simplify messes to tractable models. Let’s take one of the most powerful ideas in development: structural changes. Illustrated by Dani Rodrik:

McMillan and Rodrik - 2011 - Globalization, Structural Change and Productivity Growth
McMillan and Rodrik – 2011 – Globalization, Structural Change and Productivity Growth

The negative slope of the fitted values says that people moved from more productive to less productive industries over time. Which, of course, is a bad structural change. We can blame politics for this or whatever, but it’s hard to separate politics and, say, incompetence.

Emerging (and not so emerging) economies love the idea of employment growing in productive sectors. Even reports on sub-Saharan Africa regularly refer to knowledge economies and high-value-added industries. But in the end, many nations have something like that picture. (Oh, those messes.)

Did economists learn to manage messes better than public officials? Well, that’s what development economics is trying to accomplish. While it doesn’t include “general equilibrium effects” (the key takeaway from Daron Acemoglu), the baseline for judging the effectiveness of assessment programs is way below this and other criticisms. The baseline is eventually the intuition of a local public official—and policies that he would otherwise enact, if there were no evidence based programs.

Instead, these assessment programs provide simple tools for clear objectives. NGOs and local governments can expect something specific.

What about big evidence based policies? They require capacity building. At the extreme, look at the healthcare reform in the United States. Before anything happened, the Affordable Care Act already contained 1,000 pages. Implementation was difficult. Could a government in Central Africa implement a comparable reform, even having abundant evidences on healthcare in the US or at home?

Economists start to ignore the problem of implementation as the potential impact of their insights increases. The connection is not direct, but if you simplify a complex problem, you get a solution for the simplified problem. Someone else must complete the solution, and that becomes the problem.

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