Covid-19 and the Developmental State

Posted in: Covid-19, Health, State, Sustainable development

Edited by James Copestake and Fariba Alamgir

In a rapidly evolving situation, we asked a group of scholars what light they thought the covid-19 pandemic is throwing on variation in the capability of the state to act in the public interest in different countries. Here’s what  Stephan Haggard, Yixian SunElsje Fourie, Ben Radley  and Blessings Chinsinga said.

Stephan Haggard, University of California San Diego

I will consider the response of two countries—China and Korea—to start a discussion. Among the East Asian cases, it is often thought that China responded to covid-19 with the greatest alacrity, in part because of the forcefulness of the lockdown in Wuhan once it was ultimately implemented. Centralization of power, an encompassing party, and the ability of the party to mobilize and surveil were seen as pluses. In fact, this presumption is being challenged by outstanding reporting showing weaknesses in the early-warning system. The central government had established a reporting mechanism through which doctors and hospitals could directly transmit information on disease outbreak to health authorities in Beijing. However, local political authorities—apparently motivated by their own performance evaluations as well as fear of panic—inserted themselves into this process and screened judgments made by medical professionals; doctors were even summoned and forced to recant social media posts. The result was a fatal delay in awareness of the disease before the central government stepped in. Skepticism about the quality of data coming out of China is now increasing again because of the central government’s reputational concerns. In my view, China’s record will ultimately be judged as mixed.

In South Korea—a democracy—the government responded strongly in part because it had an adverse experience with MERS in 2012; it was the most seriously-affected country outside the Middle East. As a result, however, South Korea changed a number of laws governing access to phone and credit card data for public health purposes. Directly relevant to the developmental state concept, the country quickly centralized crisis response and rolled out a comprehensive strategy for containment. Within a week of the first case, the government also reached out to the local pharmaceutical sectors to incentivize development of testing capability. Korea did benefit—as China did—from the concentration of cases in a limited number of locations (particularly Taegu). But that concentration was itself the result of a strategy that focused on containment through extensive testing, quarantine where appropriate, and invasive monitoring of the movement of cases, down to the individual patient. This invasive monitoring would probably be impossible in the US.

A brief word on the United States. The fact that the political system is federal has had advantages and disadvantages. The response of the central government was slow, with mixed messaging about the seriousness of the virus; that alone is proving deadly, because once containment became impossible the only choice was costly mitigation. Like many countries, the administration created a centralized task force, but there is increasing evidence that the advice of scientists had to break through resistance from Trump himself before messaging became more coherent. In the meantime, states varied widely in their responses, with states like California and Washington responding with alacrity to shut down spread, while the deep South—Trump states—and more unequal areas still slow in changing behavior. Federalism means that a consideration of the response needs to go state-by-state; we are about to see explosive growth in cases in those parts of the country that failed to act quickly. The need for stronger, more centralized crisis response mechanisms will clearly be part of the post-COVID19 political landscape in the US.

Yixian Sun, University of Bath

The covid-19 pandemic reminds us of the critical role of the state in mobilizing resources to tackle a crisis. While many observers attribute China’s experience to its authoritarian rule, this was not a sufficient condition, rather the key success factor is state capacity to coordinate different actors across all levels of society for policy implementation. For example, once the Chinese government decided to lockdown Wuhan, on Jan 23rd, it mobilized resources across the whole country to support the region. Meanwhile, all other provinces soon introduced strict movement restrictions, with scrutiny and campaigns down to the community level. Such state capacity could also explain other successful cases, such as Korea and Taiwan, despite their slightly different approaches.

Elsje Fourie, University of Maastricht

 Covid-19 is indeed reinforcing how different the effects of seemingly uniform global threats can be from country to country. This has rightly put the spotlight back on the state. We should be careful not to see all variation in Coronavirus deaths as a result of state strategy or even capacity, because relatively little is still known about the virus, its epidemiology and its effects on different populations.  Nevertheless, only states (almost by definition) have the tools and mandates to enact measures that can stem the virus, although of course cooperation between and across them will also be crucial. This has laid bare the weakness of ideologies—perhaps both on the left and on the right—that have overlooked their role as indispensable providers of public goods.

Blessings Chinsinga, University of Malawi

The actions taken by different states to deal with the covid-19 pandemic brings into question the very notion of public interest. Given disparate or differentiated needs of various segments of the population arising from their social standing in society, especially in middle and low income level countries, the measures taken should not and cannot homogenize public interest. The blanket measures being implemented, such as lockdowns, are marginalizing the less privileged sections of society. This invariably creates some fundamental tensions between what states are projecting as ‘public interest’ and individual rights and freedoms. Some of the measures, especially fiscal and monetary ones, are essentially populist which characteristically fragile economies cannot effectively support, but these regimes have appropriated the pandemic as an opportunity to shore up their faltering legitimacy.

How will the covid-19 experience affect public perception of state capability and their tolerance of how ‘robustly’ governments make use of digital technology in the exercise of power, including at the expense of private data protection rights?

Elsje Fourie

The crisis will also affect public perception of state capability to serve the public interest, including in the global South. Many seem to be responding to the crisis by accepting—and in some cases demanding—stronger state intervention. In my home country of South Africa, for example, the decision to institute one of the world’s strictest lockdowns has been described as “a rare moment of national unity”.

In the face of these trends, I worry that we might be confusing strong state power with smart state power. China seems to be the model that many have in mind, particularly in Africa where the country’s recent provision of medical equipment has built on its already-considerable soft power. This is ironic, given the Chinese leadership’s highly-damaging initial response to the virus. The longer that lockdowns go on and the more forcefully they are imposed, the more likely they are to backfire on states that cannot draw on vast reservoirs of public trust and legitimacy (as South Africa’s use of rubber bullets against shoppers demonstrated recently).

It would make more sense in this crisis to look to countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore for examples of effective statecraft, even if their specific strategies come too late for countries like South Africa and are beyond the capacity of countries like India. These former ‘developmental states’ have used transparent public information campaigns, targeted interventions, and specialised national agencies to combat the spread of Covid-19. The developmental state of the late 20th century was not built in times of prosperity and stability but rather developed through experimentation and state learning in periods of great uncertainty and resource constraints. Some interesting examples of developmentalism might therefore also emerge in the global South in the face of this common threat.

In considering the question of ‘smart’ statecraft, the question of surveillance technologies and other digital infringements on privacy inevitably arises. This is a delicate and difficult question that forces members of every society to wrestle with their relationship to government, as well as the trade-offs they are willing to make between personal freedoms and immediate physical security. The willingness of many publics to acquiesce to measures to contain Covid-19 that would have been highly contested even three months ago—such as the ‘immunity passports’ being considered in the UK and Germany—should not be simply written off as naïve. At the same time, the publics of many former developmental states such as Taiwan and South Korea have come to expect far greater levels of accountability and transparency from their governments than during their developmentalist heydays. It would be concerning to see these hard-won gains sacrificed in the service of permanent, amorphous crisis. Thus the developmental states offer us both a journey into national unity and a journey beyond it. States’ forays into the increased collection, processing and use of our personal data should have clear expiration dates, be accompanied by public debate, and not be normalised.

Yixian Sun

In countries where the tide was quickly turned (e.g. China) I think people might become more willing to accept strong government control over society. My fear is that this change will leave less space for the important contribution of civil society to sustainable development. Meanwhile, in liberal democracies, public opinion on state capability might become further polarized as supporters of the incumbent become more willing to accept state interventions, while supporters of the opposition keep criticizing the abuse of state power.

The role of digitalized forms of government in this depends both on political culture and pre-existing regulatory frameworks. The failure of Europe and the US to use digital data to identify infected cases and introduce targeted quarantine at an early stage of the outbreak can partially be attributed to their strict regulations on personal data protection. Given that this issue has not become a more prominent subject of public debate in this crisis, I doubt that public opinion on data protection will shift dramatically in countries that already have strict regulations on data protection. However, in countries where regulations remain weak, the current crisis is likely to delay or prevent potential reforms to strengthen regulations.

Blessings Chinsinga

In countries like Malawi, the capability of the state to act in the public interest was already in serious doubt due to systemic corruption, executive arrogance and impunity. While the people still look up to the discredited state to protect them against covid-19, there is a great deal of fatalism and resignation especially in view of the devastating impact it is having in Western countries which are widely taken as benchmarks for progress and modernity in almost all facets of life. There is, however, a very strong feeling that the apparent devastating impact of covid-19 shall ignite a forceful discourse about the countries’ abilities to fend for themselves in times of adversity including having a functioning public sector that can provide some semblance of protection and safety. Covid-19 could thus provide an opportunity to reinvest in the faltering public sectors in these countries.

What is the Covid-19 revealing about global convergence and prospects for enhanced international cooperation?

Ben Radley, London School of Economics

An increasingly popular view in development studies is that 21st century convergence and the ‘rise of the South’ challenge the intellectual and moral relevance of the historic North-South binary underlying the discipline. Yet by throwing new light on the continued existence of many of the old development challenges and constraints faced by the global South that are distinct from or more acute than those faced in the North, Covid-19 highlights its relevance more than ever.

Two of these constraints relate to financing and industrial capacity, both key prerequisites of an effective state response to the pandemic. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, low- and middle-income country (LMIC) governments have been hit by a triple whammy: record capital outflows, a steep fall in demand for primary commodity exports, and increased demand for imports of the medical equipment and supplies required to confront the virus. This has, in turn, exacerbated already strained LMIC balance of payments positions, depleting scarce foreign exchange reserves and threatening to drive inflation. Under immense strain already, 85 LMIC governments have approached the IMF for emergency assistance in recent weeks, and Zambia and Ecuador are on the brink of default.

By contrast, high-income country (HIC) governments are better financed to begin with, have been the beneficiaries of most of the LMIC capital outflows, have more diversified and domestically-oriented economies, and are better medically equipped to respond. Where HIC governments do face medical provisioning shortages, they have been quick to direct their manufacturing sectors to fill these gaps and ban exports of critical medical supplies. LMIC states, then, might not be able to access these critical supplies at all.

Variation in state and industrial capabilities have long sustained and reproduced North-South inequalities and inequities. In a post-covid-19 world, it seems increasingly difficult to maintain a position that this historically rooted bifurcation is an outdated remnant of the past. On the contrary, the divergence has never felt stronger.

Yixian Sun 

The COVID-19 also casts doubts on the existing global governance system and reveals many obstacles to international cooperation in a time of crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been at the centre of the storm since January such that many people blame the organization for not preventing the global outbreak of the virus. But the criticisms that the WHO has received simply prove the very challenges facing any multilateral institution attempting to ensure coordination and cooperation among different nation states. Moreover, the tensions and even a “blame war” between China and the US during this crisis reminds us that politics never disappear, even in such  an unprecedented crisis in human history, and such political struggles may prevent states from achieving the level of cooperation necessary to save more lives. While we still hope that countries will better collaborate with each other in this crisis, the experience in the past two months already suggests that our governance system needs a fundamental reform to cope with any crises on a global scale.

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Posted in: Covid-19, Health, State, Sustainable development


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  • Below is a response to the three questions we asked from Santosh Mehrotra from JNU in Delhi, which narrowly missed the copy deadline for the blog... and offers a strong India perspective - thank you, Santosh!

    1. China, South Korea, Europe, the USA and beyond… What new light (if any) do you think Covid-19 is throwing on variation in the capability of the state to act in the public interest in different countries?
    The simple and rather obvious truth is that the capability of the state has been shown to be seriously wanting in much of Europe (with the exception of Germany) and the USA, while the Asian response has been far superior (Korea, China, in particular). The latter followed a strategy of 'suppression', while the UK and the USA were following a 'strategy' (if one can call it that) of 'Business as Usual (BAU)' ...or letting 'a herd immunity' develop (until the UK abandoned it...though too late...but the delay is costing it very dear). I was in Switzerland from 11-15th March at a research advisory meeting of the Swiss National Research Foundation, and I was the only one in the country wearing a mask. On those dates, a country of 9 million already had over 900 cases, but people were going skiing as though 'God was in his heaven and all was well with the world'. When I landed in India on the 15th, Delhi airport was totally deserted: all flights had been banned. My temperature was taken at Delhi airport; I had to fill out a health form in duplicate. The state then followed up with me by phone whether I had any symptoms; they came to visit me at home to check on me. I was already in self quarantine at home. BUT Zurich airport AND Amsterdam airports, which I had seen on 14th, were teeming with people; no one was wearing masks, life was hunky dory, it seemed. The results are there for all to see: look at the league tables of countries, with number of cases. All of Europe is way up there; has high COVID morbidity and mortality cases compared to most LMICs.
    2. How do you think this will affect public perception of state capability to serve the public interest, particularly in low and middle income countries?
    The public perception of state capability in India, under Modi (a popular, populist leader) is very high. He has the biggest parliamentary majority in the lower house of Parliament in 30 years, even though the party won only 39% of the votes polled (65% voted of 800 million voters). This is the anomaly created by a stupid 'first past the post' system, inherited from the anomaly in a vast, diverse, federal country. Be that as it may, as COVID erupted, he first mobilized a popular voluntary 'curfew' nationwide on Sunday 22 March, before imposing an actual lockdown nationwide in a country of 1.34 billion suddenly at 4 hours notice on the 24th of March for 21 days. This was bizarre; by contrast South Africa also announced a 21 day nationwide lockdown, but allowed a 4 day notice...In India the bureaucracy and states were unprepared, and it caused sudden chaos. A country and an informal sector that runs on the strength of migrant labour from different parts of the country (cross state migration is huge), suddenly was faced with no work and no pay; but with railways, buses, airlines not operating, migrants started walking back to their rural homes to other states...ALL OVER THE COUNTRY. They were attacked by police, sometimes looted, died of exhaustion. Four days after this chaos began, the central government announced a package of relief measures hurriedly...but the damage had already been done, and continues. 22 migrants walking back died ...due to road accidents, or exhaustion...or disease, when the deaths due to COVID were 29. The state has a social assistance system that is grossly inadequate and fragmented; a social insurance system that covers 10% of the workforce. Not surprising, it coped poorly. The economy had already been reeling from a slowdown to 5% growth in the last quarter; unemployment had trebled between 2012 and 2018 from 2.2% to an all-time high of 6.1%, with youth open unemployment rising from 6 to 18% over the same period. The COVID exogenous shock will now slow the FY21 (Apr 20 to March 21) GDP growth to under all time ever low...not seen since colonial times. India faces very testing times ahead.
    3. How is the Covid-19 experience likely to affect political tolerance of how ‘robustly’ different governments make use of digital technology in the exercise of power, including at the expense of private data protection rights?
    India has 1 billion mobile phones. For a month now, if you make a call, it does not go thru until you hear a 1 min lecture, which begins with a man coughing, on the symptoms of COVID, what to watch out, who to call if you have awareness was already very very high. By contrast, Europe and the US was clearly nonchalant, to say the least.

    • Preparation in Peace Time enables to win battles in War Time
      Aruna Sharma
      Practitioner Development Economist
      Ex-Secretary Government of India

      The recent Financial Packages to combat the distress caused due to lock down of COVID 19, focused on direct benefit transfer to the Jan Dhan Accounts, SHG women accounts and enhancement in MGNREGA wages with enabler to work in their own field. However, it will suffer from two accounts, one same individual may corner double benefits and the real needy may be left out. State of Madhya Pradesh went for SAMAGRA a common household data base with account details and other parameters.
      In shutdown one issue need to be addressed is ensuring correct targeting to provide food, money to the most vulnerable in the country, be it daily wage earners, construction workers, farm laborers and unorganized sector workers.
      If it is ‘to leave nobody behind’ in pursuit of ensuring immediate relief, then a state requires a comprehensive and continuously updated database of individuals and households within its jurisdiction. Consolidation of this data can also assist in overcoming silo-based fragmentation in state delivery of anti-poverty programmes and services. Thus, need is to resort to common household data base and transfer the benefits to the identified groups based on this data to avoid duplication and cornering of benefits by few. Samagra was developed to facilitate integrated monitoring and management of all major government-to-people (G2P) cash transfers in the state, and (more radically) to support a paradigm shift from a demand-led to an entitlement-based approach to benefit delivery. Samagra is a unified population monitoring system based on continuous recording of household level demographic events, linked both to operational records of participation in diverse G2P programmes and to financial accounts provided by designated financial institutions operating within a five-kilometre radius of each household. Does the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana address or expedite relief? That is a question to analyse as good intentions should have immediate impact under lock down crisis. The PM Garib Kalyan Package has a provision of top up of existing schemes with RS170000lac package. One is insurance of front line health workers including ASHA, is more of confidence building but not of immediate relief in terms of regular supply of medicines, testing kits and equipments. The GK Anna Yojana to give extra 5kg per month of food grains for next three months along with a kg of pulse per person, will need to have the SAMAGRA kind of data base to enable individual to draw from any PDS irrespective of family drawing from another location. Opening to all is good move, but regular quality supply is a must to ensure that most vulnerable are not left out in the process. The peace time well developed DBT (Direct Benefit Transfer ) of welfare schemes since 2012 has enabled to transfer the cash as early disbursement of farmer Kisan Saman Nidhhi of Rs2000, NSAP the social protection pension an exgratia to put more money with them and Jan Dhan Account of women to get Rs500/month for three months is laudable.

      The daily wagers will get covered in the household data base. The common household data base does have details of source of earning. These vulnerable groups with relief would have prevented distress return of migrant labour. Gas cylinder for three months free of cost is relief of saving on fuel to some extent. The funds to be tapped are construction workers welfare fund and district mineral fund is targeted to specific groups and infrastructure activity respectively. Thus, that relief in terms of compensating loss of wage is welcome.

      The success is in detailing, thus in absolute numbers the numbers may look big but then important is to ensure no one is left behind. That is possible only by resorting to common household data base. 8 states in the country have adopted this model. The others for the crisis can immediately switch to household wise is available in MGNREGA for 10 crore of households in India. The software of SAMAGRA (made by NIC) can be superimposed and disbursement done to the vulnerable. Once crisis is over SAMAGRA model using SECC data base can be fine tuned and SOP for updation maintained to effectively handle crisis.
      It is need at national level to ask state governments to adopt the SAMAGRA model of having common household data base as it enables to identify those left out for some reasons and enables shift from welfare to entitlement.
      Another important document is District Disaster Plan that is supposed to have list of essential services, during clamp down what all is to be operative. How to control hoarding and manage the crowd would have been a natural drill. The complete failure of these documents understood required multiple orders in stages to be issued. Whether for mines, steel, transport, medical shops, essential goods – it was a patch order based on problem arising every day instead of resorting to well laid out disaster handling plan during peace time.
      Nothing is lost yet, just two point soulution, it can be gained by using MGNREGA data as base and superimpose SAMAGRA on it. The Disaster mitigation plan be opened and reread, it has solutions of place for shelter, food supply, essential commodities handling during close down like curfew or now lock down, hospital and medical details. Visit back the basic principles of administration. Revisit plan in peace to handle the war against COVID 19.

  • India with 1.3billion population and with lots of non-resident Indians visiting their relations, the student population studying abroad being also large-it was a ready platform for spread of the COVID19. After miss out of early screening from January 2020, the state in mid March went for complete lockdown. The number of cases is still very very low and so are the deaths. That did enabled to stall further spread. However, as it was sudden, it did take some time to settle the system of ensuring essential supplies. The migrant labour was caught unaware and decided to walk to their villages miles away, but highlight of the issue, ensured arrangement of either special transport or camps for their stay , food and care.
    However, COVID 19 should be lesson learnt to go to basics by ensuring paradigm shift to each of the country to have Common Household Data Base, so that benefits can be directed in such sudden distress by identifying different potential groups. The entitlement comes up as data base is common and not in silos. Social protection new groups emerge at such time of distress that need immediate attention. Common Household Data Base is the answer. Another important need is to strengthen the district/local body mitigation updated plan. India used both these tools. This enables to immediately ensure chain for essential supplies, medical care. COVID 19 is being battled well in India. The life and livelihood is the balance that is being stuck with gradual opening up of the lockdown.

  • The global problem with the Corona virus emphases two distinctions related to roles of state and private institutions. They are the distinction between individualistic and collectivistic cultures of governance and the distinction between private and public goods. Lessons that the state and international efforts to control the spread of the virus teach us should be learned, but not overgeneralised.
    Controlling the spread of the virus emphasises collective interests common to the East Asian developmental states: emphasising individual freedom makes such control difficult. This is why not just autocratic but also democratic collectivist states of East Asia have done exceptionally well in terms of the protection of their citizens. All East Asian states are far below the global average in terms of virus fatalities per population. Thinking of the collective good and assuming that individual good follows from that makes sense in the control of the spread of the virus. What we should learn from this is that there are issue areas where the individualistic Western way is not effective even for individuals. At the same time, we should keep in mind that there are plenty of issue areas where collectivist thinking does not work even for the collective. Journalists that consider collective good at the expense of the individual benefit, may not be effective guardians of the rights of subjects of authorities.
    Controlling the spread of the pandemic also emphasises the importance of public sector efforts at the production of public goods that are not reduced by their consumption and cannot be denied from anyone. If the control is good and the disease dies down, even the ones not practicing social distancing can benefit from the situation. If we now compare with other states, developmental states most of which have an abundance of public resources, we can easily see that they are better at protecting their citizens. By protecting their bus drivers and nurses they prevent the spread of the disease for all. But this does not directly benefit the protector as the benefit is public and cannot be owned by the producers of the public good, or denied from those who did not help produce it. Yet, using the state for the production of public goods means that the state is an efficient instrument of the wellbeing of citizens. Pretending that the public universities should simply produce partisan profits and aim at attracting external income, or that knowledge (which is a public good) should only be produced to paying customers, is clearly wrong. Wherever the produce is indivisible and nonexcludable, there is a rationale for the public sector mentality of service rather than the mentality of the maximization of private profit. In the crisis we may realise that profit maximising care homes may not be a good idea, just as we can see that profit maximising universities are not a good idea. Yet, we should not exaggerate this: market logic does function well in the production of shoes, cars and haircuts.