Toward a new theory and practice of building state capacity

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Guest blog by Archon Fung

I just want to begin by expressing my profound pride about the new book by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock: Building State Capacity: Evidence, Analysis and Action. It is a wonderfully innovative volume that is full of insights about how to do development better.

As many of you know, Building State Capacity is the result of many years of practice, teaching, and research in the area of development. Indeed, it isn’t just a book or a research project, but a whole movement within the field of development and development studies — check out the website “doingdevelopmentdifferently.com” which offers a manifesto on PDIA and has many hundreds of signatories.

The book is about how to build more capable states — governments if you like — in developing countries. This is a topic that is distinctive to the Kennedy School and other public policy schools: their book is not about how to make economies grow, nor how to make democracy work, or even how to improve human develop. Rather, they focus clearly and deliberately on how to make state institutions more capable. They tackle the urgent question of how to make governments in developing countries better at doing the many things that we ask governments to do — deliver services like education and health care, to impose obligations like collecting taxes and keeping the peace, and to make policy and regulation that is based on good evidence and reasoning.

Their book is appropriately ambitious, aiming to break through old mistakes, establish a new paradigm of development practice and offer guidance to public leaders about how to implement that new paradigm. Let’s consider these three objectives in turn.

How do they break the old paradigms of development? What is it that they reject?

First, they aim to reject a two major pillars of common wisdom in current approaches to development. I’ll use my terms rather than their here. First, they seek to reject the teleology that is common in development thinking. A teleology is the notion that things are growing toward a set, fixed point. So, you might think that the telos of an acorn is to become an oak tree. Similarly, we often have it in our heads that the telos of states in developing countries is to become like those in developed ones — that the destiny, in the fullness of time and under favorable conditions — of the government of Burkina Faso is to become like that of the United States or Denmark. Matt, Lant, and Michael reject this view. Instead, like the families in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina every unhappy government of a developing country is unhappy after its own fashion, and must find its own way out and perhaps even its own end point, which may not look at all like the developed states with which we are familiar.

Second, and relatedly, they break with the common wisdom that there are generalizable best practices — say in education, health delivery, anti-corruption, or participation  — much less best practices in the design of whole government institutions. In the attempt to adopt so-called best practices, countries engage in “isomorphic mimicry” so that their organizations assume the form of high-functioning governments with out actually functioning well. In chasing after those forms, governments and the donor and development agencies that offer best practices impose expectations that these governments cannot meet. The government organizations often stagnate or fail under such pressures. Best-practices thus creat “capability traps” that lock developing country states in to failure rather than facilitating their development.

This is a radical proposition. Much of what social science and development studies has been about is using qualitative or quantitative data, or techniques like randomized control trials, to identify best practices that developing country governments might adopt in order to, well, develop.

Whereas many research projects would be content to diagnose this major problem in development practice, this is just the first Act of Building State Capacity. Matt, Lant, and Michael go on to offer a new paradigm that they call Problem-Driven Iterated Adaptation (PDIA). If the intellectual ancestor of the existing paradigm is Max Weber, John Dewey — the most important philosopher of pragmatism and a great philosopher of education — is the progenitor of PDIA.

In reading the book, education is the analogy that came to my mind. Think of a grade school classroom or indeed any MPP/MPAID class. Each student faces different challenges to mastering capabilities like reading, communication, and numeracy. Assignments that are too difficult for any student produce frustration (the capability trap), while those they do not learn from assignments that are too easy (stagnation rather than development). Education requires exercises and problems that fall within each students “proximal zone of development” — each student ought to be challenged just enough to grow their mental muscles.

Poor teachers treat the whole class as if each student were exactly like all the rest (that’s the best practice approach). Effective teachers know that each student is different and they know how to create challenges that fall within each student’s “proximal zone of development.”

In Problem Driven Iterated Adaptation, government organizations ignore the best practice nostrums of development experts from Harvard and the World Bank. Instead, teams in those governments focus on particular problems — say of service delivery, public goods production, regulation, policy-making or other implementation — develop their own solutions to those problems, and seek to “fail forward” by understanding the errors in their own solutions, learning by iterating and adapting. Seeking out and solving problems in this way keeps government organizations in their “proximal zone of development” — building their “state capacity” muscles at an appropriate level of challenge that results in neither stagnation or over-use injuries.

The book is full of examples, showing both the catastrophic failures of the best practice / teleological approaches to development and the successes — from their own development practice, of the PDIA approach.

These paradigm breaking and paradigm making arguments are the book’s conceptual contribution. But understanding PDIA and being able to do PDIA are not the same thing. True to the book’s relentlessly practical orientation, the second part of the book is aimed squarely at development practitioners. It provides a wealth of diagnostic tools — even worksheets — that practitioners can use to begin to understand the most promising points of development intervention in their own contexts, how do marshall the authority and resources they will need to shift their organizations from best-practice approaches to PDIA, and how to begin to implement PDIA for specific challenges they face.

Though not everyone will embrace the PDIA approach, everyone should read this book. It is the clearest articulation — following in the traditions of Dewey, Lindblom, and other skeptics of synoptic public policy and management — of a pragmatic method of development and public management.


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