Sunday, October 1, 2006

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Does America have a social policy deficit?

I just noticed that Francis Fukuyama sorta joined the blogosphere -- he's occasionally posting over at The American Interest's blog.

In this post from last month, he issues a provocative question that remains relevant:

What is it that leaders like Iran’s Ahmedinejad, Hezbollah’s Nasrullah, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez have in common that vastly increases their local appeal? Anti-Americanism and an aggressive foreign policy are of course components. But what has really allowed them to win elections and cement their support is their ability to promise, and to a certain extent deliver on, social policy—things like education, health, and other social services, particularly for the poor. Hugo Chavez has opened clinics in poor barrios throughout Venezuela staffed with Cuban doctors; Hezbollah has offered a complete line of social services for years and is now in the business of using Iranian money to rebuild homes in the devastated south of Lebanon. Hamas in Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Evo Morales in Bolivia all have active social agendas. Organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas do not merely lobby the government to provide social services; they run schools and clinics directly while out of power.

The United States and the political groups that it tends to support around the world, by contrast, have almost nothing to offer in this regard. Washington stresses democracy and human rights—that is, procedural safeguards that institutionalize popular sovereignty and limited government—as well as free trade, with its promise of economic growth. This is a good agenda in line with American values, and it has worked well in Eastern Europe, East Asia, and elsewhere. But it tends to appeal to middle-class, educated constituents. In those parts of the developing world that suffer from deep social cleavages and inequalities, free elections and free trade have relatively little resonance for the great majority of the population that is poor....

Washington has lots of advice to give developing countries on economic policy, in terms of deregulation, privatization, reduction of tariff barriers, and the like. But there is no equivalent of the “Washington Consensus” on how to help Bolivia or Pakistan or Egypt improve its primary education system, or how to get health services delivered more efficiently in poor neighborhoods.

The United States and its liberal democratic friends around the world need to start thinking seriously about a social agenda that will appeal to the poor if they are ever to compete successfully with the Islamists and populists of the world. This is not a call for a return to the old social democratic agenda of the 1950s and 60s.... But all governments have to provide social services, and it is important to figure out how to do this well rather than poorly.

I do think Frank is overstating the problem here. First, it shouldn't be that shocking that local leaders have the ability to craft social policies that resonate better in the short run than the United States.

Second, all you have to do is read Bill Easterly to become immediately wary of anything that smacks of a "Wasington Consensus" on health and education in the developing world. I'm pretty confident that such an animal does not exist.

Third, and most important, the one element that would belong in anything resembling a Washington Consensus on social development would be an intensive focus on educating women and providing them with greater health choices. How many conservative societies in the developing world are going to be truly receptive to that kind of program?

Finally, one of the few Bush administration policy innovations that does get kudos across the ideological spectrum is the Millennium Challenge Corporation. No one pays attention to it, however. Why? Well, it's been a bit slow in dispensng aid, and, oh, yes, there's Iraq.

That's the thing about big foreign policy screw-ups -- unfortunately, all the soft power in the world can't erase them.

posted by Dan on 10.01.06 at 11:04 PM


Fukuyama trends toward being right on this issue. From a post of mine from March:

"We tend to approach the debate on democratization in the Middle East with a focus on constitutional or technical requirements of democratic regimes (free elections, rule of law), and the policies supporting these challenges (civil society projects, security sector reform). The ultimate hope, because of the role of Islam, is that secular politics will take precedence over religion. This approach is full of good intentions. But it is unlikely to be sufficient, even in the long run, because effective democratic state- and nation-building comes only through involvement of mass movements in a continuously negotiated settlement of the social question. The approach is willfully blind to the fact that secularization in the West itself is skin-deep because the fundamental societal compromises between growth and state provisions mirror widely shared religious ethics.

The upshot of this is that policies in support of Middle East democratization cannot expect to directly produce secular regimes. Western policy-makers should aim to support processes which will fuse state institutions with ethical conceptualizations of the good society that are representative of the populations. This also means embracing those Islamic movements that provide social services – because they hold the key to producing legitimate state projects in the region."

posted by: henrik on 10.01.06 at 11:04 PM [permalink]


I think Fukuyama is pretty off-base on this one. He clearly knows little about US assistance policy.

Money for privatization, democratization, etc is a drop in the bucket compared to what the US (not to mention the WB and other donors) spend on social sector programs in developing countries. I don't have the figures in front of me, butI would estimate 60-70% of development assistance goes into health care, education and social policy in most countries where USAID has missions. Of the remaining 30 or so percent, probably half goes to environmental issues, with the remaining 15% is spent on democratization, free trade and privatization. These amounts obviously vary country to country, but I've worked with USAID in more than a dozen countries and this seems to pretty consistent.

The MCC is only considered an innovation in the academic/think tank community. In the development community it is not highly regarded. The fundamental concept (conditionality - we give you money for good behavior) is not exactly new. The idea that countries then get to determine how that money is spent is also hardly novel. Moreover, it is staffed heavily by former USAID officers, who brought their experience, but also their baggage with them. As a result, it has not been an engine for innovation in the field.

We don't need a Washington Consensus on social issues. There is a much more practical problem: US foreign assistance policy is a complete mess. There are several competing agencies USAID, MCC, PEPFAR, State all fighting over turf and resources. As a result, in some countries, there can be 3-4 separate US government agencies trying to implement very similar programs.

Rice's efforts to establish a central director of foreign assistance, while well-intended, appear to have empowered the State dept to take over US assistance. That might sound good to those who argue that US assistance should be directly tied to US policy goals, but experience clearly demonstrates that it leads to bad development outcomes. It leads to short-term political favors that undermine long-term goals of improving people's lives. US assistance should reflect our core values, but be somewhat insulated from the day-to-day quid pro quo of diplomacy.

Straightening out the bureaucratic mess in DC will probably go a lot further in improving the delivery of US assistance than coming up with some new social policy framework.

posted by: SteveinVT on 10.01.06 at 11:04 PM [permalink]

Aren't DD and FF in agreement here? Both of you seem to think there is no Washington consensus on aid.

posted by: bkl on 10.01.06 at 11:04 PM [permalink]

If we could develope a domestic social policy that works we might be able to export it.

posted by: Babar on 10.01.06 at 11:04 PM [permalink]

US social policy is so dysfunctional that yes, we do have a social policy. Example -- government spending on health care that equals the UK's National Health Service spending as a proportion of GDP, but only covers 42 percent of the population instead of something like 85 percent. And private health care provision that is just as dysfunctional and profligate. When it is getting to the point that US companies are outsourcing to other developed economies like Canada in order to avoid health care costs, you see the consequences.

There is one area where the US shines, however -- senior citizens -- among whom the poverty rate is far below the national average (rather than far above the national average as is the case in many other countries). The current Social Security system is far stronger than anyone gives it credit for, and its augmentation with a raft of tax policies such as IRAs, 401(k)s and so on helps to further cement the condition of seniors in this country. We throw this arrangement of policies away at our peril -- every alternative to Social Security so far mooted would cost more and deliver lower benefits. Even if the growth rate in Social Security benefits needs to be scaled back, it's still better as a secure, basic cash benefit than any alternative out there, here or abroad. It provides a basic safety net and gives people the cash security to take greater and ultimately more rewarding risks with their private investments.

posted by: DB on 10.01.06 at 11:04 PM [permalink]

It seems to me that Fukayama is being inconsistent in that post. He talks about what organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas do, but then he says, "But there is no equivalent of the 'Washington Consensus' on how to help Bolivia or Pakistan or Egypt improve its primary education system..."

But Hezbollah doesn't sit around trying to figure out how to "help [Lebanon] to improve its primary education system." Nor does it offer "programs." It just opens up schools or clinics or whatever.

posted by: David Nieporent on 10.01.06 at 11:04 PM [permalink]

Ooops -- typo in the very first line of my previous post. Should say, ". . . .yes, American does have a social policy deficit." Though I suspect that's how most people already read it anyway.

posted by: DB on 10.01.06 at 11:04 PM [permalink]

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