As with all public policy work, education policies are demanding. Policy workers need to ‘know’ a lot—about the problems they are addressing, the people who need to be engaged, the promises they can make in response, the context they are working in, and the processes they will follow to implement. Most policy workers answer questions about such issues within the structures of plan and control processes used to devise budgets and projects. These structures limit their knowledge gathering, organization and sense-making activities to up-front planning activities, and even though sophisticated tools like Theories of Change suggest planners ‘know’ all that is needed for policy success, they often do not. Policies are often fraught with ‘unknowns’ that cannot be captured in passive planning processes and thus repeatedly undermine even the best laid plans. Through a novel strategy that asks how much one knows about the answers to 25 essential policy questions, and an application to recent education policy interventions in Mozambique, this paper shows that it is possible to get real about unknowns in policy work. Just recognizing these unknowns exist—and understanding why they do and what kind of challenge they pose to policy workers—can help promote a more modest and realistic approach to doing complex policy work.
In March 2021, the Confederation of African Football’s President, Patrice Motsepe, insisted that “An African team must win the World Cup in the near future.” This visionary statement is infused with hope—not just for an African World Cup victory but for a fuller future in which African men’s soccer competes with world soccer’s elite. This paper asks if there is any chance of this happening. It suggests a simple method to assess how a country competes as both a ‘participant’ and a ‘rival’ and uses this method to examine how Africa’s top countries compete in world soccer. This analysis points to a gap between such countries and the world’s best, which has grown in recent decades—even though some African countries do compete more over time. The paper concludes by suggesting that Africa’s hope of winning the World Cup is not impossible but demands more active work, focused particularly on ensuring top African countries compete with more high-quality competition more often. The conclusion also suggests that the research approach might be relevant beyond a study of African soccer. It could particularly help shed light on how well African countries compete (as participants and rivals) in the world economy.
Governments across the world regularly pursue reforms that achieve less than was originally expected or is needed to make the state function better. The limits to reform success are often obvious in even the early days of reform, where gaps and weaknesses manifest. Many governments have no mechanisms built into their reform processes to see these gaps and weaknesses, however, and persist with predefined reform plans instead of adapting designs to close the gaps and address weaknesses. One antidote to this challenge is to create reflection points where reformers scrutinize their progress to identify weaknesses, reflect on these weaknesses, and adapt their next steps to address the weaknesses. In the spirit of John Kingdon’s work on ‘policy windows’, we call these reflection points ‘adaptation windows’—moments where reformers acknowledge problems in their reforms, adapt reforms to address such, and mobilize support for this adaptation. This paper discusses an effort to open an adaptation window for reformers to ‘see’ and then respond to public financial management (PFM) reform gaps and weaknesses in Mozambique. The paper details why and how this work was pursued, and also reflects on results of the government’s reflection at the adaptation window.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a rising middle-income region, and its citizens rightly expect quality public services. Yet too often they experience disappointment: students attending local schools are insufficiently prepared for the 21st century economy, and those needing health care too often find that public clinics have no doctors or medicines. Few in positions of authority are held accountable for such shortcomings. This situation both undermines the potential for improvement and heightens people’s unhappiness with the delivery system.
Although dissatisfaction with education and health services is widespread in the MENA region, local successes do exist and offer inspiration. At the Kufor Quod Girls’ Secondary School in the rural West Bank, for example, Ms. Abla Habayeb, the school’s principal, provides her teachers with daily encouragement and support, and she involves community members, parents, and teachers in decisions about improving the school. Teachers, students, and the community then reciprocate that commitment. Thus, amid the surrounding poverty and instability, Kufor Quod girls excel in national tests. Similarly, in some poor villages in Jordan and Morocco, the leaders of schools and clinics are reaching out to the community, inspiring citizens’ trust and engagement through transparent and inclusive decision making and the delivery of excellent services.
Learning from such local successes is vital because there are no blueprints for solving service quality problems. Countries around the world are striving to improve education and health care quality. But simply modernizing school and hospital facilities and training staff are no longer sufficient. Delivering quality services requires motivated staff. And staff motivation arises in turn from values and accountability, which are grounded in the wider political, administrative, and social rules, practices, and relationships. Providing high-quality services is hard; the World Bank itself has struggled to ensure that its projects enhance incentives in country systems to achieve better learning and health outcomes.
We argue that because of the complex circumstances found in MENA countries, it is necessary to build on evidence of local successes and positive trends at the level of institutions, performance, and citizens’ trust and engagement. We hope that this report and its recommendations will help citizens, civil servants, policy makers, and donors alike jointly identify and build on the present foundation to improve the delivery of social services, shifting the cycle of performance into a virtuous gear. An improved cycle of performance is what those living in the MENA countries deserve and what would enable them to fulfill their hopes and dreams for the future.