The MacGyver Principle

MacGyverToday we continue with the theme of continuity in program implementation. Last time I explained continuity in terms of Duplos. Today we’ll come at the same idea from an different angle.

Members of my generation don’t need to have actually watched MacGyver to know about the show’s trope of assembling creative contraptions out of odds and ends in order to get out of a tricky situation. Indeed, it has even become a verb, as in “to MacGyver something.”

While thinking about program design and implementation after my time in the field, I thought about expressing one of my dissertation’s arguments as “The MacGyver principle”: make what you need out of what you have (if you Google the phrase you’ll find many others have already used it, and with several different meanings; but many are along the same lines as this post). No jack to lift fallen debris and set people free? Use a fire hose as a makeshift hydraulic. No sealant for the leaking tank of acid? Use bars of chocolate.

I thought that might be a little too much pop-culture for my committee, and also felt weird writing about a show I’d never seen. But this is a blog, not the dissertation, and now that I’m done with the dissertation I had time to watch the first three episodes. Its fun to try explaining things different ways, so I figured I’d try this and see how it sticks.

So we’re back to thinking of a program as a machine made up of multiple parts. In terms of building something, the options are to make something from scratch or to recombine what we already have. The MacGyver principle says to use the stuff you have.

In the case of cash transfers in Brazil, my dissertation argues (without any fun pop culture references) that it made more sense for President Lula (2003-2010) to combine the programs he inherited from the previous president (Cardoso) than to try to make something brand new. Much of 2003 was spent trying to make a new program, The Food Card, that ran into a long list of problems. Towards the end of 2003 they shifted to the now well-known Bolsa Famlia, which combined The Food Card with three programs from Cardoso.

Another interesting detail is that Bolsa Familia distributes the money through Caixa, a publicly-owned bank that had been around for years. So, again, it’s repurposing something that was already there. Banks are good at moving money from party A to party B. We often don’t think of them in terms of carrying out social programs, but by using Caixa to do that meant the Ministry of Social Development could focus on processing applications (See p. 4-5, 18 of Bolsa Familia, Its Design, Its Impacts, and Possibilities for the Future, and great overview of the program).

Similarly, delegating the task of collecting applications to municipal governments again meant using a resource that was already there instead of recreating it.