Spotlight on an ESID researcher: Tom Lavers
28 November, 2016
Having done an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, Tom Lavers‘ trajectory took a turn after he spent time travelling in Peru, and working in an orphanage there. On returning to the UK he completed a doctorate in Development Studies, and has worked in research since, primarily focusing on politics and social policy. He recently left his post at the ILO to join the Global Development Institute (GDI) at The University of Manchester, and leads ESID’s project on the political economy of social protection expansion in Africa.
What are your most interesting findings for ESID so far?
Social protection has become a very big thing in Development Studies. There’s quite often an assumption that it’s very donor-driven – global agreements and donor pressure are the reasons these programmes are happening. That’s true to a certain extent, but the case studies that we’ve got show that it’s very closely linked to domestic politics as well. Where programmes have really taken off, where there’s real genuine commitment to them, it’s largely domestic politics that are driving these processes. It’s when domestic politics are what shapes governments’ viewpoints, and make them realise at certain points that social protection could actually be a useful tool to them in terms of the broader things that they’re trying to accomplish. It’s not just donors marching into their office saying,’ right you should be doing this,’ and so they do it.
The really interesting thing is that in different countries, quite different things have made these programmes appealing to politicians. In certain countries it’s been when there are particular political threats that suddenly social protection comes along as a tool that could start to ameliorate these particular problems – demonstrating that the government is taking care of its citizens, for example, as a means of placating political opposition to a degree. In other cases it’s more local MPs campaigning to bring benefits to their communities as part of their electoral strategy. I’m looking at the diverse ways in which the same policy either gets blocked, or there’s an opening for it in different contexts. Frequently, it’s relatively small events; seemingly irrelevant events can set the whole process in motion, and later on can open up space for major changes.
What about in relation to political settlements, specifically?
There are two very broad types of political settlement. There is the dominant party model, where it’s primarily about managing political threats to stability, and potential opposition emerging and the legitimacy of the ruling coalition. Whereas in more competitive environments, it’s mainly driven by more local-level, bottom-up pressures. For example, you get a pilot programme in place and then neighbouring districts start campaigning to get the pilot extended to their district as well. Whether that’s through citizens going to their local MPs, or MPs going to the government, or campaigning in parliament.
Which of the findings from the ESID work on social protection do you think are most relevant to policymaking?
There has been a lot of effort to get global agreements on social protection, but the challenge is then how to take that down to national level, and actually get policies adopted and implemented. Understanding the political process which actually leads to those kinds of commitments in some concrete cases can help you understand the more likely different types of drivers that are going to be more successful than others. It can help donors tailor their advocacy strategies in particular contexts, and help show that certain types of policies are more likely to be viewed positively in different types of political settlements. That kind of information can be quite useful in terms of fine-tuning advocacy strategy – for domestic advocates of social protection as well. NGOs and civil society organisations are also pushing for the expansion of social protection, it’s not just international actors.
What are the main types of social protection that you’ve looked at?
There are two types: one is social assistance and the other is health insurance. Within social assistance there’s a whole scattering of different types of programmes. There are cash transfers, which have a range of different conditions, or not, attached to them. Some of them involve requirements that you send your children to school and to health clinics for regular check-ups in order to qualify. There are others which are more or less unconditional, particularly elderly grants. Ethiopia and Rwanda have gone more towards work requirements – so there’s some element which is relatively unconditional for people who are unable to work, but most people are required to participate in these fairly arduous public works programmes. Usually in rural areas it’s doing terracing or irrigation schemes or something like that – very hard work, labour intensive. But there’s a move towards other forms of work as well. Some are proposing to employ women almost exclusively in creches and those kinds of things.
Then on the health insurance side – and again there’s a mixture of slightly different programmes that have been promoted in different countries – it’s looking particularly at the extension of health insurance beyond the formal sector programmes, where formal workers get X% of their salaries deducted at source, to pay for a health insurance programme on a monthly basis. How to extend those to rural areas? The intention being just to expand one programme to cover everybody in the country, which on the whole hasn’t gone down very well. Particularly because you faced opposition from unions and employers in the formal sector, who probably quite rightly think that they’re going to have to pay for the masses who tend to be poorer. There is likely to be subsidisation across.
The programmes which have been more successful have separated that, for example, in Rwanda, and to some degree in Ethiopia. You’ve got these health insurance schemes that are called community-based health insurance, which again originated, particularly in West Africa, in these very small community-run and managed health insurance schemes. They tend to be very small, have low enrolment and often aren’t terribly financially viable. But there they’ve been government sponsored. So there’s something decentralised about them, but they’re incorporated within the bigger infrastructure, and with government support. There’s a lot of government effort which goes into enrolling people in the programmes in the first place – enrolment rates are one key driver of success. You need to get to some critical level otherwise they’re just not going to be viable. And also in terms of channelling resources into them, subsidising.
If you could change one thing about how development happens, what would it be?
With respect to that project, it would probably be something to do with the common perception within social policy, which is far from exclusive to developing countries, that if people get any external support they are likely to blow it on alcohol, or sit around all day doing nothing. Which is certainly the first instinct of the UK government, but also it’s a common perception in developing countries – either you can’t give money to able-bodied people of working age, or that if you do, you must have these very arduous work requirements to make sure that you control exactly what they’re doing with the money, what they’re doing with their time. It’s particularly within governments, it’s also to a considerable degree evident within many aid agencies as well. So, challenging that perception that people inherently are bad, and make bad choices if given any leeway. I think that’s untrue – for the most part people make good choices when given the chance to do so.
It’s particularly a perception of people that are dependent on the state.
Yes. That you need to interfere in their decision-making. Like I say, it’s pretty dominant in most countries in the world. But yes, changing those perceptions, and moving towards something more based around solidarity, where the first instinct of taxpayers isn’t that if someone’s getting a benefit that they’re wasting your money. That there should be some shared solidarity with your fellow citizens. That when people are in need, there is somehow some support mechanism, without necessarily stigmatising them.
Do you have any ideas around how to change that level of ideology?
Ethiopia is one example, where it certainly hasn’t disappeared, but I think over the implementation of this big programme that they’ve had – it’s now been running for 11 years – some of those perceptions have softened at least. There still are work requirements, but there’s less of this paranoid fear that it’s going to cause a breakdown of the social fabric – there’s a bit more openness to different types of programmes, and different types of policy aspects to it. The conditions and the controlling mechanisms aren’t quite so stringent.
Is that because they’ve seen it working?
I think so. Initially there was fear that, even with the requirements, people would still find a way to slouch around. I think over time, with it operating without any major problems, it’s gradually starting to change some of those perceptions. There isn’t the history of the welfare state in Africa, so the debate’s happening in a slightly different context. Very often there’s an expectation that this might be good in the future, but we’re not ready for it yet. One of the key questions in many of the countries that we’ve been looking at is this question of sequencing. When is it an appropriate time for a low-income country to introduce big social programmes, and for the state to take a leading role in welfare, social protection? In many cases, the expectation is, sort of, once we’re a middle-income country then we’ll start to do things like that. Which is historically closer to the way it happened [in developed countries] in many cases, but there are some good arguments why it might be a good thing for countries to introduce those programmes a bit earlier.
As economies grow, and the economy transforms structurally – even where things are progressing positively – there are inevitably upsides and downsides. Some people do very well, other people don’t. Social protection can be an effective means of managing those processes, and catering to the people who lose out. Whether that’s farmers who suddenly find that they lose their land, or are displaced by an emerging city, it can help support people, help them retrain, help them find alternative livelihoods.
What are you proudest of in your research so far?
I think the research that has had the most impact has been the work I did on agricultural investment in Ethiopia. Particularly following on from the food crisis around 2008, there was this huge wave of agricultural investments, particularly in developing countries, but also in advanced economies. Linked to the food crisis, linked to the fuel crisis, the high energy crisis – investing in biofuels and those kinds of things. Quite speculative investments often, people buying up land or leasing large chunks of land to produce food, biofuels. The first wave of the academic literature on that was very much framing it in terms of these big global drivers, around these food and financial crises, but the research I did was somewhat influential in highlighting the role of the state in these processes – and domestic politics as drivers of levels of investment, the types of investment, the locations that investment took place. And also that the state was transformed within the process of promoting those investments.
Are there any particular areas of research that you’re looking to develop going forward?
At ESID we’ve talked in broad terms about extending the social protection research, to both looking at some additional countries, and some more in-depth work in some of the ones that we’ve already studied. Looking less at high-level policymaking processes, and more in terms of the politics of implementation of some of these programmes. I want to continue the work I’ve been doing on land, and the links between land and state-society relations. Land in many parts of the world, but particularly in Ethiopia and Africa more broadly, it’s a very central means by which individuals relate to the state. Quite a key determinant of that, which has a lot of important political implications. It’s a very interesting area to work in.
Read Tom’s most recent working paper, ‘Understanding elite commitment to social protection: Rwanda’s Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme‘.