Public programmes are designed on assumptions – nice, tidy, convenient assumptions. Then they hit the real world and very little goes as planned. The culprit, some philosophically inclined would argue, is human behaviour. After all, human beings are impossible to predict. They can react in ways entirely unexpected and fairly baffling – until you dig deeper.
We found this happening in one of the most commonplace and straightforward of public programmes: textbook provision to schools. In 2008, the Government of Sierra Leone implemented a scheme that delivered textbooks to primary schools: one core set of textbooks for each student. The government was interested in establishing the relationship between textbook provision and learning outcomes, so implementation was done using a randomized trial. The school sample was randomly divided into a treatment group (books) and a control group (no books).
The first puzzle came when we found no impact on student performance. This was disappointing but not entirely unexpected. At least one other study, in Kenya, found similar results (at least for most students).
What was more odd, at least to the researchers, was what had happened to the books. In many treatment schools, textbooks had not been distributed to students; instead they were being stored on school premises. On our follow-up visits we found storage rooms filled with textbooks, while in classrooms students were still sharing, three or four children to a textbook. What’s more, students in treatment schools were not being allowed to take textbooks home.
What were the headteachers thinking, keeping textbooks from students who clearly needed them? Why did they let them gather dust? We explored several theories and carefully analyzed the correlates of book storage. We asked teachers if they thought the books were useful; they did. We asked students if they already had books at home; they didn’t. It turns out that headteachers who had high uncertainty about government transfers of textbooks were significantly more likely to store them: We measured this uncertainty by whether or not the headteacher knew how many textbooks were allocated to the school the previous year by the government.
Once we took this underlying uncertainty into account, the storing behaviour started to make sense. Think of consumption theory: if there is uncertainty about future transfers then current transfers are seen as a one-time (or transitory) shock. If this is the case, the impact of current transfers on current consumption (defined as intensive use of textbooks by students) will be limited. This is because when there is uncertainty, headteachers have incentives to store part of the current transfers in order to smooth consumption over time, particularly for things, such as textbooks, that depreciate quickly when used. Remember the permanent income hypothesis? This is a permanent public input hypothesis.
Taking uncertainty into explicit consideration makes the seemingly irrational, rational. Clearly, headteachers in this context are acting as forward-thinking agents who – in the classic spirit of homo-economicus – are deciding how to respond to the public programme based on their resources, constraints and expectations.
And these results illustrate what this decision-making looks like when prevailing expectations around government largess and reliability are bleak. And why wouldn’t they be bleak? Our survey data shows that in 2009, 17% of headteachers and 36% of classroom teachers reported not receiving their full pay in the past year. In Zambia, the unpredictability of government transfers to line ministries was well documented a decade ago. Anecdotal evidence tells us this is widespread.
This smoothing behaviour isn’t unique to textbooks. In a project providing grants to schools in Gambia, schools “were directed to use the grant towards some aspect of the school development that relates directly to teaching and learning”. Yet a quarter of schools reported that their biggest expenditure was on infrastructure (i.e. durable inputs rather than fast-depreciating learning materials).
Is this ill-informed decision-making, or are school committees trying to convert the books into goods that can be consumed well into the future?
When programme goals are subverted by beneficiaries (or intermediate agents, as in this case), it is common to blame low capacity, myopic decision-making, lack of information, human error, corruption or increasingly (and more charitably) the poverty-induced burden on mental bandwidth. But what we find here is rational behaviour.
Our modest argument is that public provision of inputs that depreciate quickly when used, such as textbooks, will be fully consumed only if agents have expectations of replenishment. Hence, for public programmes that are designed as recurring transfers, there is a need to establish a reputation of consistent delivery and to reliably communicate the timing of the next transfer. Otherwise, uncertainty can easily wreak havoc on the nice, tidy and convenient assumptions underlying the programme design.
Published in collaboration with the World Bank Blog.
Author: Shwetlena Sabarwal is an economist at the Education Global Practice of the World Bank. David Evans is a senior economist in the Chief Economist’s Office for the Africa Region of the World Bank.
Image: Malian pupils study during a French language class during a French language lesson in Mali’s capital Bamako. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly.