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CGD recently posted my working paper, The Illusion of Equality, co-authored by Martina Viarengo. The motivations behind the paper go back to when I was a kid. When people were coming to our house, my mother would put us five children to work trying to clean up because “company” was coming. And when company was there, we were put on our best behavior (or out of sight). I remember asking my mom one time (out of laziness not sincerity): “But, Mom, don’t we want these people to know how we really live and what we are really like?” My mom’s quick reply: “You think I want people to know I have a son like you? Get to work.”

This is my mom, the post-modernist, giving me an early-childhood lesson in how multivalent reality really is, with contextual representations of the self contingent on social relationships, with segmented spheres of discourse, each sphere with its own standards of what is “appropriate” and “relevant.”

A similar multivalency of reality is depicted in the movie The Name of the Disease, made in conjunction with researchers from the Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) who were looking into health care services in Rajasthan, India. (See it here on YouTube.) The movie was an exercise in illuminating how widely varying perspectives on the health system were, and how hard it was to get at the “truth” of the matter. There is one scene in which a woman who lives next door to a health facility—which during the interview is completely locked even though it is a day and time is should be open—is interviewed. Her first response to the interviewers is that the clinic is open frequently and that she often goes there. In less than five minutes of follow-up questions, during which the woman realizes the interviewer doesn’t just want the accepted story, the story is completely reversed as the woman says the clinic really is rarely open, and even when it is she doesn’t go there; instead, she seeks out traditional help for minor health issues and travels to a private facility in town for major health problems.

The disease no one wants to name is the complete rot in the public-sector health care system, the de jure design of which the district health officer interviewed in the move blithely trots out for “company,” explaining to what he supposes are unsuspecting outsiders the official story. The subsequent paper, building on a randomized evaluation designed to improve attendance of health care workers to local clinics in Rajasthan is aptly named Putting a Band-aid on a Corpse.

Any of us who have worked in a large organization know first-hand the difference between our view as “street-level bureaucrats” and what we put on paper to “feed the beast.” Yet in so many policy discussions, the description of how people wish the system worked, how it is said to work in front of company (including of course all donors), or, less delicately, what is digested from what is fed to the beast, is somehow taken as the “reality” and the basis for discourse about policy alternatives. This distortion of perspective has been described brilliantly by James Scott in Seeing Like a State and its effect on donor discourse examined in The Anti-Politics Machine of James Ferguson.

"The Illusion of Equality" examines how this clash in perspectives affects discussions about equality. We use education as an example, in part because equality in schooling is an important goal in its own right and in part because, unlike so many other activities of government in which documenting the output of specific facilities is so difficult (and made difficult, at least in part, to sustain the illusion), there is at least a concrete measure of at least one dimension of how well schools do: what skills children actually have (adjusting as best as possible for other child and household correlates of performance).

We show that the notion that public-sector control of schools leads, through the uniformity of treatment across schools in the de jure inputs and processes, to greater equality in the quality of schools is an illusion. We compare public to private schools across an array of countries. In some countries, particularly those with weak governance where the de facto has become completely decoupled from the official story, the variance in school quality is much larger in the public sector than the private sector—in part because essentially all of the worst schools are in the public sector. At the same time, there are countries where there is much more equality in adjusted learning achievement across public schools than there is across private schools.

There is no harm is being nice to company. But when putting on appearances is too successful, people believe it. Problems that go unspoken go unaddressed, and the disease is never named. In weak governance environments, the proclaimed goals, internal reports, and focus on narrow “controllable” inputs and compliance with bureaucratic process can maintain an illusion of success and an illusion of equality. This illusion prevents the consideration of non-traditional, bottom-up innovations that shift relationships of power and control that are perhaps needed to address the depths of the problems that citizens really face rather than illusion states maintain.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.