Everyone in the development field recognizes that learning is essential to development. But what kind of learning matters most?
For most major development actors, the emphasis is squarely on individual learning. Achieving universal primary education, for instance, is the second Millennium Development Goal, coming just after ending poverty and hunger. Organizations such as the World Bank believe that education is “universally recognized as one of the most fundamental building blocks for human development and poverty reduction,” and that, as DFID puts it, it is “fundamental to everything we do.”
Yet, societies and states must also learn if they are to develop the new institutions, new knowledge, and new capacities that are essential to creating wealth, improving governance, and enhancing resilience. And this larger, macro level learning requires very different types of investments from those individuals need—investments that rarely get prioritized in the development field.
How Societal and State Learning Differs From Individual Learning
State or societal learning differs from individual learning in a number of ways. First, it involves a different type of knowledge. Know-how that enhances how a society operates may be very different than that which helps individuals get ahead. For instance, states need lots of people with strong organizational management skills. Companies, government ministries, and NGOs are not effective without a large group of experienced administrators who know how to run the systems that make their organizations work well. Second, they need knowledge that is group or organization based. Maintaining property rights, adjudicating disputes, and running education systems all depend on institutional knowledge built up over a long time period and which is maintained in a way that is not dependent on individuals. Third, states need to learn from experience to develop new institutions (such as hybrid legal systems) that help them solve collective action problems. This requires learning and cooperation on a society scale that goes well beyond anything done in a classroom. Fourth, states need to find ways to attract and retain knowledge within their borders, something individuals do not have to worry about. This may mean creating incentives for diaspora to return or ensuring that key information is embedded in organizations that are not vulnerable to brain drain. Fifth, states need feedback loops that improve how systems work. Improving policies requires understanding where existing policies do not live up to expectations and what can be done about it.
While enhancing the wellbeing of individuals obviously matters, countries only progress as fast as they can learn on a societal level. The more a society can accumulate knowledge and experience about what works and does not work, the better its institutions will be, and the more able it will be able to enhance governance, productivity, and economic diversification. These, in turn, will enhance resilience and ensure growth is both sustainable and broad-based.
Countries in which individuals see widespread education gains but which fail to progress are likely to end up with frustrated populations, jobless growth, and political instability, as has happened in many Arab countries in recent years. Indeed, one of the main causes of the Arab Spring was that the countries were producing far more university graduates than their economies could employ.
How Do States Learn?
States and societies learn by trying out new ideas and methods, choosing those that work, discarding those that don’t, and spreading the best methods as widely as possible. Success depends on the quality of the encompassing institutions (most importantly the government), organizations actually doing the experimenting (companies, NGOs, and state entities), infrastructure, and feedback loops judging performance.
The best description of this process that I have seen appeared in last year’s China-DAC Study Group report “Economic Transformation and Poverty Reduction: How It Happened in China, Helping It Happen in Africa”:
What makes rapid transformation processes possible? Development as a learning process.
The common features of the transformation process are deeply connected to the fundamental sources of economic growth – ideas, innovation and organisation. This is what is replicable with development-oriented leadership. And these sources of growth are becoming more powerful than ever as knowledge accumulates and disseminates faster than ever before in history, as China’s record shows.
A dynamic learning process takes hold in a country via interactions with new ideas, products and organisational models that are increasingly abundant in the multipolar, connected, global economy of the 21st century. Business models that are found to work locally, become widely replicated and then progressively improved, in an endogenous process of continual upgrading, across the economy – agriculture, industry, infrastructure and services. . . .
The state plays an active role in supplying “hard” and “soft” infrastructure at each stage, generating large externalities which are essential to the growth process. Rising employment and incomes stimulate the local economy and create new jobs. Poverty rates begin to fall dramatically. Intensive feedback mechanisms between the state and the enterprise sector identify what is working and what needs corrective action. Performance, rather than established interests, becomes the reference point for policymaking.
What China’s Experience Teaches
Among the many elements mentioned in the report as “fundamental elements in China’s success in massively reducing poverty and creating a middle-income country” are:
Puts a high priority on policymaking capacity and investment in research and extension capacities in universities and institutes and linking them to ministries and the decision and implementation processes . . .
Attracts talented people to return home to work for their countries . . .
Self-reliance has been a fundamental principle of Chinese strategy. This principle is imbedded deeply in China’s strong ownership of its own development path while absorbing knowledge from a wide range of external actors, including investors and experts, and engaging with bilateral and multilateral policy processes….
Policy development and technical capacities have always been central policy concerns, providing a basis for monitoring and accountability systems at both the central and local government levels….
Significant decentralisation generated bottom-up initiatives that were widely replicated….
The transformation process is intensive in on-going policy testing and adaptation based on evidence. China has created an extensive set of institutional capacities in the hard and soft sciences to enable the analysis of performance, problems and solutions. The experiment-evaluate-scale up success principle is widely applied and rapidly implemented. This has demanded the expansion of higher education and the development of research institutions linked to policy decision making and implementation. World expertise has been sought and attracted through incentive schemes, international partnerships and often via aid programmes.
China’s policy review and adjustment processes, informed by feedback mechanisms and global change, are more important than ever, both domestically and internationally.
Helping Countries Learn
Helping countries learn requires strengthening the institutions that underpin the societal learning process by how their own learning and dissemination of information affects all other institutions within the country. This means a much stronger emphasis on building the knowledge institutions—including business, public administration, and law schools; rule of law institutes (to study/document legal multiplicity and find creative homegrown solutions); universities; teacher training colleges/teacher evaluation institutes; policy think tanks; good governance institutes; technological research centers; independent monitoring organizations, etc.—that promise to have multiplier effects across a whole country.
Building up human capital is essential, but building up the institutions that enable states themselves to analyze their own problems, experiment with possible solutions, formulate responses, and upgrade people wherever necessary is even more valuable. Although government has a large role to play, both as an absorber and disseminator of information, it is really only one part of a much larger network of entities that work together and compete against each other in ways that enhance overall learning.
Thinking of society as an entity in itself—a system or a network or a set of interacting components that must work together effectively to maintain its vibrancy and resilience—makes the development process clearer. This entity must, just like individuals, constantly upgrade itself through learning, adaptation, and incremental enhancement. Nurturing this process is as important—if not more important—as helping individuals improve their wellbeing if countries are to progress.