The first and most fundamental step in addressing any policy challenge in any society is to accurately define the problem. This is because a nuanced understanding of the constraints at play will already give any policymaker a general sense of the range of interventions that could potentially address these constraints.
While in theory, having a problem-driven approach to policy challenges seems obvious, we do not always see it in practice in Nigeria. Instead, it is also quite common to see policymakers use solution-driven approaches, which of course often lead to suboptimal outcomes.
Let’s take a simple example to see these two contrasting approaches to illustrate this point.
Assume that a Northern state is snuggling with low student enrolment in primary and junior secondary schools. In a problem-driven approach, policymakers would not jump to any potential solutions and would instead try to understand the challenge better. In this approach, they would start by asking some basic questions: what are the differential enrolment rates in different parts of the state? What are the returns on education in the state? If the economic incentives are there for people to send their kids to school, what are some of the other constraints at play? Is it because parents do not know about the economic returns on education? Or because of norms around sending their kids or wards to school? Or are available schools located far away from where people live, making accessibility the key constraint? If multiple constraints are at play at the same time, which ones are the most fundamental ones?
Different answers to such questions would lead to a very different set of potential policy options. Say, for instance, the low enrolment rates were primarily due to a lack of accessibility. In this case, policymakers might want to focus on infrastructure/transport-based solutions (i.e building schools in areas with out schools or providing transport). If on the other hand, access wasn’t really an issue and parents simply did not want to send their kids to school, then the policy options would be very different (i.e essentially aim ing to target beliefs about schooling).
A wildly different (and incorrect) approach would be to start with a solution without trying to understand the problem in detail. Going with the same challenge of low primary and junior secondary school enrolment, assume that parents did not want to send their kids to school because of incorrect beliefs about economic returns on education. If the state simply decides to build more schools in this scenario, the high school enrolment rate will likely remain stagnant, and we might see a lot of newly built empty schools.
Such solution-driven approaches to policy problems might even create more problems due to unintended consequences. Say, for instance, that now the state is struggling with poor learning outcomes of kids enrolled in schools. Again, agnostic to the constraints at play, the state now decides to allocate more non-earmarked resources to its ministry of education or primary education board where capital isn’t really the constraint. To add complexity to the matter, the ministry of education or the primary education board does not have the capacity to absorb this additional inflow of capital because of capacity constraints. At the same time, the ministry of education or the primary education board needs to show that on paper they are using this additional money well without any understanding of the binding constraints at play.
The result? The ministry of education or primary education board tries to do several different things without any coherent strategy and partners with contractors for construction without having the capacity for proper procurement and oversight. This not only leads to stagnant learning outcomes but also to additional waste of resources (e.g, by fostering wrong procurement practices within the ministry of education or primary education board) making the problem more complex in the next round of the reform.
On the face of it, it might be obvious that for policy interventions to work, they need to be problem-driven and not solution-driven. At the same time, it is also quite common to see solution-driven approaches across Nigeria’s 36 states. This is because defining the problem in good detail is a long and hard process. It requires asking the right questions and answering them in a systematic way while being open to any solution that it might point towards within the realm of political and administrative feasibility.
In the policy world, we often need quick solutions, which can make it hard to fully understand the problem. Sometimes, there is a particular temptation to be solution-driven (e.g at a surface level, who would have an issue with the state-building more schools?).
However, the only way to really solve policy problems is with a deep understanding of the constraints at play. Solving policy challenges in the absence of such an understanding is like shooting an arrow in the dark.