My new piece on that FP Blog takes one more look at that 2006 research into Misión Robinson. I’m totally fascinated by that paper, and only wish I’d seen it much sooner. The contrast between its plodding, sober, evidence-based appraisal of Misión Robinson and chavismo’s breathless propaganda lies about it strikes me as all anyone should need to know about the thoroughgoing rot in Venezuela’s public sphere.
At first I thought Juan’s theory was a little hokey, but more I more I think he’s right: the basic problem with our public sphere is that nobody understands the concept of Opportunity Cost. Without a healthy grasp of the fact that different legitimate policy priorities have to compete for the same, finite set of state resources, reasoned debate about public policy really can’t take place.
That new (to me) research on Misión Robinson is a beautiful case in point because, in the original paper, Daniel Ortega and Francisco Rodríguez go there:
One way to evaluate the program’s returns is by comparing our estimated program impacts with the program’s official expenditures. According to the Ministry of Finance, Misión Robinson has received an investment of 80 billion Bolívares (US$50 million). This amount may well substantially understate Robinson expenditures, since it excludes a number of off-budget expenditures on the program. Even if one attributes all of the reduction in illiteracy observed between the first semester of 2003 and the second semester of 2005 to Robinson, the estimated cost would be $536 per pupil who learned to read. In contrast, a recent study by UNESCO of 29 international adult literacy programmes estimated the average cost per successful learner to be $47 in sub-Saharan Africa, $30 in Asia, and $61 in Latin America. Under a more conservative – yet still optimistic – estimate of program success, namely that the total number of people who become literate through the program was only 48,327, then the cost per newly literate person would be much higher, at US$1035.
This, of course, is territory the government steadfastly refuses to cover. Instead, chavismo would have us turn the debate into an idiot controversy pitting good, righteous people who want to teach illiterate adults how to read against a mythical race of strawmen who oppose that for some reason.
Such aggressively dumbed down polemics are all you’re left with when the debate happens in a policy evaluation vacuum. Without systematic evaluation, it’s not possible to think give a serious answer to such basic questions as “was Misión Robinson worth it?”
No explicit targets, no ongoing monitoring, no systematic evaluation - these are the hallmarks of chavista social policy design.
In such circumstances determining how effective a misión is becomes a matter of religious conviction: an automatic extension of political commitments that has only the faintest link with that misión’s performance. Even the religious nomenclature seems designed to take the program out of the realm of cold, calculable Weberian rational bureaucracy and into the sphere of redemption via faith. To measure, to evaluate, to monitor such a program is subvert its essential logic within the chavista cult of personality. Misión Robinson works because Chávez is righteous.
Chávez willed it, after all. And Chávez is good. Whatever he wills is good. Who would want to risk running an evaluation exercise that puts that into question!?