The thousands of miles that separate Guinea from the United States and COVID 19 were overcome by technology to enable us to attend this public policy implementation training at the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School. When the opening bell rang in June, I knew I was about to embark on a new adventure that would not only change my life, but also end the suffering of so many young people in my country, Guinea.
Economic development is predicated under the assumption that it is possible to lift people out of poverty, which is the reason that attracted so many people to the field (myself included). Countries that managed to succeed end up with a diversified and sophisticated product mix. More importantly, these economies are change-ready, and will constantly find new products and services to use themselves and exchange with the world. In the 10-week LEG program at Harvard, great care is paid to identify with precision the mechanics of economic growth and what can be done to ignite and accelerate growth in each locality. There’s a lot to be learned, although much in the form of open questions and try-it-yourself methods.
When I began the Leading Economic Growth program, my goal was really driven by a desire to understand how we could have a more equitable distribution of investment and jobs throughout my community. As we really begin to dig into issues of economic complexity, I discovered that our issue was much larger than just ensuring an equitable distribution of jobs. We really needed to focus on driving overall investment to the community as a first step and then ensure that those opportunities were experienced across the City. You can see this shift in thinking occur as you look at the fishbone exercises I completed over the course of the program.
As I studied the issue and thought through our challenges, I began to really see the binding constraints that are impacting our efforts. While marketing and promotion of the City is an easy first step that should be encouraged, it is increasingly difficult to convince new large-scale businesses to open in certain areas of the city. Business consolidations and web technology have eliminated many of the traditional neighborhood serving businesses and left low-income alternatives in their place. Because the high-skilled jobs are in other areas of the city that lack public transportation, these communities do not get the benefit of growing know how through a formal corporate environment and rely on individual operators in a less formal environment that impacts wages and know how. Low human capital is also a challenge for our underserved areas in that the high school graduation rate for minority (particularly African-American) students lags significantly behind their white counterparts. This suggests that they will not be prepared for the incoming jobs of the future if we do not begin to take steps to address this problem.
Since marketing/promotion of the City has been an identified area of need that could be easily implemented, I was very interested in working on a CINDE like approach to our marketing challenges that would engage partners at the city, chamber(s) of commerce and the business community. By utilizing this model, the entities could focus on specific targets within an industry and spend time and effort on marketing to those businesses and building relationships. We have already begun having those conversations with the chamber of commerce, and have developed a perception survey that was sent out to over 100 site selectors to gauge their impressions of Fort Worth, and why we may not be seeing as many recruitment opportunities as we would like to see. Following the survey, both the city and chamber will begin to look at how we can develop a more comprehensive and proactive pitch campaign utilizing additional feedback from our local business community.
As I mentioned, identifying the true binding constraint on our growth was also a key part of the course that I focused on during the program. Fort Worth completed an economic development strategic plan three years ago that comprised over 200 recommendations or policy reforms to be undertaken by various organizations across the city. While we have made progress on many of the recommendations, that has not resulted in significant new business attraction/investment or new job creation. The recommendations and polices we have pursued do not seem to have identified the real binding constraint of why we are not attracting more development opportunities. In particular, one challenge that was highlighted in my fishbone diagram, is that we do not have the resources in place to accomplish some of the more primary tasks we need to complete as identified by the plan. In looking at how we could improve our efforts, we will need to drill down to what is our true binding constraint and focus our efforts there as additional resources are not likely in the near future. It will be imperative to pare back a lot of the recommendations going forward and focus on what is truly making an impact on our community.
A final insight from the course that was very illuminating was on the concept of the city’s identity and sense of “us”. Fort Worth, while being the 13th largest city in the U.S., describes itself as being a large city that maintains a small-town feel. We pride ourselves on our western heritage by embracing slogans like “The City of Cowboys & Culture” which is part of our identity and make up the sense of what makes us Fort Worthians. However, that sense of “us” does suggest a community that is not very diverse or progressive to those not from Texas, and can be a significant challenge when trying to attract new investment from other parts of the country. Younger residents of the city have a much different perception of the city and how it needs to promote itself. While they still have pride in the “maverick” spirit of the city, younger residents are more aligned and interested in the progressive neighborhoods, artists, creatives and entrepreneurs that make up the community. In addition, our minority residents often do not see themselves reflected in the perception of “us” that is promoted nationally and should have better representation. In considering enhanced marketing efforts and promoting the city in order to deal with the growth challenge, we will have to balance keeping some semblance of what makes the city what it is, while promoting the opportunities it can provide and what it could be in the future.
Given that my growth challenge is specifically about investment and equity, I was really intrigued by the efforts of bringing inclusion to the forefront of our growth strategies and would like to explore this in more depth in the future. In looking at models like the Brookings Metro Indicators or OCED, setting metrics on wage growth, poverty rates and job growth in underserved areas, seem to be efforts that should be pursued at the city, state and national level. The big question will be how to balance growth while also tackling inequity. As Dr. Hausmann so eloquently put it during our closing session, the problems we face may be clear, but the proposed solutions may not give a full answer to the problems due to our assumptions and beliefs about the nature of the world. We need to look outside of assigning blame and focus on addressing the overall problems of inequality. How can cities/regions/countries truly galvanize support across multiple entities and expand cooperation in order to focus on addressing the problem of inequality? This will likely be the defining issue of economic growth over the next few decades.
This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. 65 Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in May 2021. These are their learning journey stories.
My key learning from the Leading Economic Growth course is how to effectively define a challenge / problem using the 5-whys technique and not use the solution to define the problem. For instance, the definition of my first economic problem was lack of transportation infrastructure in Nigeria, however, I discovered that that definition was narrow and did not identify the main problem of why transportation infrastructure was lacking. Using the 5-whys technique, I was able to redirect my challenge to tackling high rates of poverty and low growth rate among Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), the binding constraint, concentrating on transportation infrastructure. If poverty and growth rate are addressed, transportation facilities will improve.
According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, the level of poverty in Nigeria is currently about 40% of the total population, 83 million people, with MSMEs contributing a large portion of that figure. MSMEs are a primary source of jobs, accounting for about 96% of businesses and 84% employment (PWC, June 2020). However, the economic climate faces challenges of poor infrastructure, unfriendly business environment, high incidence of informal sector, etc., which adversely affects the MSME sector. More specifically, the current COVID-19 pandemic has impacted negatively on the sector, which has affected household livelihoods across the country.
The HKS Implementing Public Policy Executive Program appealed to me because I was looking for an alternative to planning and control styled approaches which I had learnt, known and practised for most of my career and considering the challenging problems I faced daily at the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, I needed a capacity upgrade. The IPP has been a significant deviation from many the other Executive Programs at the HKS I have attended: it underpinned learning by doing; its iterative and group learning dynamics was useful in debating broad-based, cross-multidisciplinary applications and experiences that were very useful in exploring how I applied session insights to real-time problems. My most profound learnings were in the areas of understanding complexity and the importance of construction and deconstruction process. The Fishbone Diagram took on a whole new meaning!
My Implementation Challenge was to design, develop and gain consensus on National Poverty Eradication and Social Protection Plan. My problem was to tackle the complex challenge of lifting 100 Million multi-dimensionally poor Nigerians out of extreme poverty in a decade. My Core Team was a Federal Government inaugurated Poverty Eradication and Social Protection Technical Working Group.
When I registered for the course my conception of public policy was the public definition – a course of action developed by a government in response to public problems. However, I was pleasantly surprised when the course began. I realised that public policy is not only for government but for all citizens that want to make a positive impact in society.
I came into the course with a goal to developing a policy that will help to reduce the level of poverty in the Nigeria. Nigeria is one of the most resourced countries in the world, in terms of human and endowments, yet with a high poverty rate of over 40.1 percent of total population being classified as poor in 2019 (National Bureau of Statistics). This translates to over 82.9 million Nigerians estimated to live below the poverty line. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, the figure is projected to have increased astronomically especially among Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), due to production slowdown, movement restriction and lockdown which resulted in supply chain disruption.
To address this challenge I knew I wanted to focus on infrastructure however, I was not sure of where to begin. I avoided focusing on capacity building and access to finance as they have been done numerous times and failed to reduce the level of poverty. The government, corporate institutions and individuals have spent resources training entrepreneurs and linking them to funds to start or expand their businesses. However, the cost of doing business has consumed a large portion of the funds. The Nigerian society is plagued with poor infrastructure such as erratic power and water supply and poor transportation facilities which affects the productivity and profits of MSMEs. As a result, I identified the need to address infrastructure.
I work for a multilateral development organization—the Inter-American Development Bank—and am a citizen from a Latin-American Middle-Income Country (MIC). Because of this background, the main economic problem I am most concerned about relates to my own country—Mexico—and the Latin-American and Caribbean region (LAC) as a whole. It is about low average growth rates—for more than two decades already. Low growth matters in LAC because it increases the risks of regression, particularly to poverty and other human-development and sustainability metrics. Such an outcome may erase the hard-earned development gains of the last two decades. Furthermore, the problem of low growth is today being amplified significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic which, if not addressed, may have devastating economic consequences on both growth and sustainable human development.
The problem of low growth and its consequences lies at the heart of multilateral organizations’ Institutional Strategies (IS) working in the LAC region. Some of them will be considering updating them because of high-level managerial changes (tenure periods are expiring), or because of the adverse exogenous shock and economic consequences of the pandemic, or both. As I learned in the 2020 Leading Economic Growth course, following the steps of a Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach may decisively help to enhance the formulation and update of the IS of multilateral organizations.
For instance, let us begin with the first steps, constructing and deconstructing the problem to develop a clear problem narrative and “provoke reflection, mobilize attention and promote targeted and context-sensitive engagement”. In the case of LAC, the region has experienced low growth rates since the 1980s consistently. Despite being acknowledged as a “middle income region”, LAC has been stuck in that stage for decades. In addition, if the numerous exogenous and internal shocks that the region has experienced, are factored in, the low growth problem becomes critical because the region does not have enough fiscal space to confront the crises adequately. Consequently, living standards recede, per-capita income decreases, infrastructure and productivity get eroded.
LEG helped me demystify something very important: Economy is not only a science of accounting, finance, taxes and interest. Over the years, I was curious about economic theories and some approaches, reading and studying phenomena of leadership, change, growth, politics and development in some countries. I tried to find out why, as some countries did long jumps and others were or are stuck in the middle of their own problems and poverty, for years.
Not to mention the fact that more inclusive, democratic , with best governance, ethics and better education systems, countries are in a better “shape”, with prosperous economies, than others.
For this reason, I enrolled this course, with my country in mind and the great discrepancy between the wealth of natural resources and the poverty of the people, above all, poverty of primary goods, basic needs, essentials to life, and also lack of knowledge, education, and culture in the broadest sense.
At the beginning of the course, I feared that the challenge would supplant my area of knowledge – clinical psychology and management – but I was positively surprised by the approach, because during the 10 weeks Professors showed me how economics is really a social science, valuing the right people, in the right places, complex relationships and the importance of connectivity between people, valuing knowledge as the essence for economic growth.
In other words, this course, opened for me a world of opportunity to get different perspectives, learning deep insights, to know how and where to research and connect all “letters”, meaningful knowledge to make better decisions, identifying problems, knowing who should be envolved, framework, remove obstacles, implement programs and plans and make it all work.
I learnt a broad range of theories, mainly the importance of “productive knowledge”, the analogy or Theory of Scrabble that articulates so well, the valuable understanding that production (both private and public goods) requires many “letters” provided by the markets (consonants) and also needs “letters” provided by the state (vowels), and to write “long letters”, e.g. how important it is to articulate and connect letters so we can evolve to develop economies, as presented by Professor Ricardo Hausmann.
This makes clear how important is the interdisciplinarity approach, to understand problems and how can we find ways to remove biding constraints.
I also understand now that some problems are complementary and not necessarily binding, and what we need to understand is how to use problems driven approaches, problem driven sequences and take into consideration authority, acceptance, and ability.
II: My Progress and Insights
Professor Matt Andrews was very effective in helping me understand how important is Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) as an approach which rests on core principles: local solutions for local Problems (not copy paste of others; pushing problem Driven positive deviance (learn from what we have already achieved trying to get better); try, learn, Iterate, Adapt; and scale through diffusion. That is so usefull, not only for public management or decisions but also for private sector and even for some moments and important decisions in life.
I’ve made some interesting choices in my life. They may not always have been the best decisions for my own long-term prospects, but without fail, they have taken me on journeys of discovery and growth. Always stemming from my over-riding desire to “fix” things, to contribute, to make a difference, to bring about positive change in areas that matter to me, these have not been easy pathways to tread. But, along the way, I have met amazing fellow-travellers who care deeply, who are driven by purpose, who – twee as it may sound – make the world a better place through their thoughts, words and actions.
Given the opportunity last year to coordinate a “War Room” in the Western Cape, South Africa, brought the interesting experience of testing Problem Driven Iterative Adaptive (PDIA) methodology.
Tasked with addressing five problem statements, seen to be important in unlocking economic growth in the Province, we brought together teams of senior officials to work differently. Since this was a six-month pilot, limited resources were put behind the work. This was a real challenge: the approach was new and nothing like it had been tried before; none of us understood how PDIA worked; the hierarchical nature of the bureaucracy was stifling, with deeply-rooted animosities between some of the representatives of two different spheres of government involved; and the contestation amongst a newly elected group of politicians had not yet settled to any degree of comfort.
Cautiously setting out on this road, I met my first fellow-traveller, Professor Matt Andrews. In the way of guides on every pioneering journey, with generosity of spirit and complete commitment to the adventure and its success, he opened his map, shared his wisdom, talked us through each step, gave us a hand to climb over the hurdles, walked with us out of the valleys.
I have worked in a government environment on previous projects, and willingly admit to non-existent patience with unnecessary bureaucracy, delays, obfuscation and failure to grasp opportunities that present, and that could significantly improve the lives of the very people government is meant to serve. My country is deeply wounded, suffering the consequences of a devastatingly destructive past that twenty-six years post-democracy has not addressed. That makes me angry. And while people have individual responsibility to use opportunities presented, ultimately it is government that must provide the enabling environment that makes those opportunities available.
So I approached this challenge with great excitement. Was this a way in which we could support personal and professional development for capable government officials, encourage them to really understand their problems, deliver relevant actions that would have real impact?
My country suffered from the Ebola crisis six years ago, experienced negative growth rates and is yet to attain pre-Ebola growth rates. It is in the midst of the recovery process that the current Corona pandemic has struck. There is a general scale down in economic activities, rise in employment, and risks of food insecurity in vulnerable households. This is coupled with existing challenges in human capital development and infrastructure. The introduction of movement and social distancing restrictions in a bid to ‘flattening the curve’ has exacerbated already existing multi-dimensional poverty and social protection issues. Despite some financial support from International Finance Institutions, and donations from the private sector, the economic impact of COVID-19 on our import-driven economy, which we have spent the last couple of years struggling to diversify, would be long-lasting.
Yes, there is a lot of data, albeit high-level projections of the economic impact of COVID-19. The forecasts produced with technical support from the IMF, saw original GDP growth projections for 2020 being revised downwards from 4.2% to -2.2%; Balance of payments worsening from $30.2 million to -$301.3 million; and domestic revenue falling by about 15%. Resources are being diverted towards the health response and the Quick Action Economic Response Programme.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that the implementation of the country’s Medium-Term National Development Plan has slowed down. There is a need to re-evaluate current progress and re-strategise our approach to growth and development to help catch up and accelerate growth, especially for the delivery of His Excellency the President’s Human Capital Development Priority Portfolio. It is within this context and aim to contribute to Post-COVID growth that I enrolled on the Leading Economic Growth Course.
One of the first things I learnt from this course is that the challenge of addressing economic growth and making sure it leads to development is not a complicated but complex problem. Like every country, mine comes with its history, experience, governance styles, natural resource endowments, institutions and humans. As humans, we are already complex beings. Bringing all our knowledge, skills, technology, and other production capabilities together are also complex. The interconnections across the ecosystem are numerous, and so are the possible outcomes. Country experiences and positions are continually evolving. Sometimes it is just not easy to determine what would ‘make the monkeys jump’.