Institutionalising Reforms from Below: When the State Fails to Lead


How important is it to understand the everyday dynamics of village life in order to bring about systematic reforms in education systems failing to deliver quality education? In one of the first village level ethnographies produced under RISE, Susan Watkins and Adam Ashforth (2019) support the growing consensus: very much so. Looking at the context of rural Malawi, where formal channels of accountability that can hold the Ministry of Education accountable for major failures in learning outcomes are non-existent, they find that collaborations between head teachers, members of school management committees, local government officials, and village chiefs can be key to improving the quality of education provision. In a context where the majority fails to pass the primary exam, some do succeed due to collaborations between the parents, village heads, and district government officials.

Informal authority platforms can support reform

In many African contexts, village chiefs or traditional elders continue to command informal authority despite the creation of the modern state. The authors find these traditional authority platforms capable of playing a major role in developing checks on state schools. Most chiefs were highly involved with the local schools and played an important role in resolving conflict, made school visits, engaged with the head teacher and elected school management committee to determine school needs, and mobilized and monitored labour for development activities. They also often encouraged children to go to school and built moral pressure on teachers to perform better. 

The head teacher is key to improving learning within the school

In line with other studies (Levy et al. 2018), they also show that the head teacher of the school is a pivotal figure in determining the success of a school. They find the head teacher playing an important role as a leader, a diplomat, and also a broker who attracts additional resources to the school, thus contributing to the school’s success. They also find that district education officers can greatly support the head teacher.

Social capital and good governance

For over two decades, under the rubric of social capital (Putnam 1993), co-production (Ostrom 1996), and good governance (Tendler 1998), we have come to appreciate the importance of understanding local level dynamics in improving service delivery. It is these local level dynamics that help explain why some communities are better at organising themselves to provide a good that the state is failing to provide; equally, these dynamics are often key to explaining why national level reforms fail to achieve equal success across different regions. Whether it is Tendler’s (1998) study that aimed to explain variation in success of social sector reforms implemented across different regions in Brazil or Mangla’s (2015) paper studying implementation of similar education reforms across two states in India, the explanation for the differing level of success in implementation seems to rest in the density of social networks in each context and the immersion of the local government officials within those networks.

Yet, even today, we fail to fully understand how these reforms from below can be better institutionalised to lead to systematic change with the state system. We also still don't fully understand why some communities are able to harbour or generate these social networks that make local government officials register improvement in delivery of a social service. Can these social networks be generated within communities that lack them? If so, then can external actors, be it the donor agencies, NGOs, or social movements, help generate the required social capital to lead to improvement in learning outcomes in state schools?

The RISE Political Economy of Implementation (PET-I) research component, which is to run between 2019 and 2022, will be looking into these critical questions. Working with Political Economy of Adoption (PET-A), it will have a two-fold emphasis: one, to explain why similar policy reforms have differing levels of success across different regions; two, to study successful cases of bottom-up reforms where local actors succeed in bringing about visible improvement in learning outcomes in state schools. Two considerations shape this dual focus: 

  1. Policy adoption can often just be tokenism

In many of the countries in which RISE research is ongoing, adoption of a policy in itself does not prove the state’s commitment to its implementation. Even the basic promise of access to free primary education is routinely violated. As Watkins and Ashforth show in the case of Malawi, the state has a policy of free primary education with no government-mandated school fees. In reality, however, since the government does not provide enough funds, parents must pay a fee to the school at the beginning of each term, meaning that they also have to contribute to school development. I found exactly the same situation in northern Nigeria where poor parents were asked to pay a fee in state schools despite the policy of free primary education. In such a context, policy is often adopted under pressure of global development actors but the state lacks the political will to implement the reform. Studying the political economy of implementation is thus only meaningful when there is evidence that a particular policy aimed at improving learning outcomes has actually been properly resourced and yet the outcomes across regions are varied.

  1. Some succeed despite the failed system

We have to remember that the puzzle is not just why improving learning outcomes remains such a major challenge in many state education systems; it is equally about how some manage to succeed despite the system failure. As Watkins and Ashforth argue, while statistics on educational quality in Malawi are dire and a majority of the children fail to pass the basic exams, through the efforts of countless parents, teachers, and administrators some students do in fact succeed in passing the critical exams in Grade 8, which permits them to enter secondary school. This ability of some state schools to provide quality education in the context of overall failure and of some children to excel even when studying in weak schools makes it important to look at factors that lead to their success. Much of the existing research looking at community level dynamics in education provision focuses on the role of NGOs in improving educational quality or provision. PET-I will primarily focus on understanding the role of social networks, community dynamics, local elites, and traditional elders as well as NGOs in successfully building pressure from below on improving quality of learning in state schools. Thus, a major focus will be on understanding how the local actors might be able to create an incentive structure (not just an accountability structure) where the principals and teachers in the state school feel motivated to deliver quality education.

Author bios:

RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.