Download the new PDIA book for free

written by Salimah Samji

We are delighted to inform you that our PDIA book entitled, “Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action” was just published by Oxford University Press. The book presents an evidence-based analysis of development failures and explains how capability traps emerge and persist. It is not just a critique, it also offers a way of doing things differently. It provides you with the tools you need to personalize and apply these new ideas to your own context.

Here is a review written by Francis Fukuyama

“Building State Capability provides anyone interested in promoting development with practical advice on how to proceed—not by copying imported theoretical models, but through an iterative learning process that takes into account the messy reality of the society in question. The authors draw on their collective years of real-world experience as well as abundant data and get to what is truly the essence of the development problem.”

In keeping with our commitment to provide free resources to help diffuse our PDIA approach to practitioners around the world, we have enabled an open access title under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). We hope you find the book useful and that it helps create a PDIA community of change that shares, learns and grows together. Visit the book webpage to download your free copy. Please share your thoughts on social media using the hashtag #PDIABook

Listen to what the authors have to say about the book:


Doing Development Differently: Day 2 Summary

Yesterday was the last day of Doing Development Differently (#differentdev). A group of about 40 development professionals from around the world met to discuss positive cases where development initiatives (call them projects, interventions, activities or whatever) have led to real results and impact. It was another full day with two DDD Exchange Sessions, a PDIA example and another wind tunnel meeting. View the storify to see all the content, including videos, tweets, photos and blogs (Duncan Green, Alan Hudson).

We are delighted to share the rest of 7:30 presentations.

You can also watch Matt Andrews closing remarks below. Stay tuned for the upcoming Manifesto from the workshop!

Doing Development Differently: Day 1 Summary

Today was the first day of Doing Development Differently (#differentdev). It was a full day with two DDD Exchange Sessions, a design thinking session and a wind tunnel meeting. View the storify to see all the content, including videos, tweets and photos.

When we designed this workshop, we wanted to maximize the opportunity to hear from as many people as possible. Specifically, we wanted

  • to show that it is possible to do development differently;
  • the participants to discern key principles and cross-cutting modalities or tools;
  • to explore whether we could promote a vibrant Community of Practice for those trying to do development differently.

To facilitate this, we asked our presenters to prepare a 7:30 minute talk —with no powerpoints or visual accompaniments. The talk had to address the following questions:

  1. What problem were you trying to solve?
  2. How had you/your organization/others addressed this problem in the past?
  3. What did you do?
  4. How did you manage the politics of your work?
  5. How did you ensure learning in the process?

We are delighted to share the first set of 7:30 presentations: Michael Woolcock, Zack Brisson, Tim Williamson, and Kay Winning. Here are some key principles that cut across all the presenters:

  • Humility: We don’t know the answers
  • Articulate principles that can scale
  • Donors role: broker, convenor, facilitator, adviser
  • Understand context: listening, relationships and personal networks are central
  • Need feet on-the-ground to support the process
  • Create space for local solutions and local ownership
  • Embrace and navigate politics: work with what you have
  • Building and sustaining broad coalitions: middle/low level bureaucrats, many stakeholders at all levels
  • Iterative messy process: one that evolves over time, problems change, solutions change
  • Built-in rapid cycles of learning
  • Refine problem definition: focus on what really needs to be solved
  • Take advantage of windows of opportunity (shocks, critical junctures, etc)
  • Adaptability: thinking strategically but building on flexibility

Follow #differentdev and storify for live coverage of Day 2.

Doing Development Differently 2014

Last October, we hosted a one-day workshop entitled, Untying Development: Promoting Governance and Government with Impact. The day brought together different voices to discuss the challenge of creating a governance agenda that focuses on solving country-specific problems, involves local people through flexible and context-fitted processes, and emphasizes learning in the reform process.

We are proud to announce a two-day follow up workshop entitled, Doing Development Differently to be held on October 22-23, 2014 at the Harvard Kennedy School. This event is an opportunity to share practical lessons and insights, country experience, and to experiment first hand with selected methodologies and design thinking.The aim of the event is to start to build a shared community of practice, and to crystallize what we are learning about what doing development differently really looks like in practice. This event is co-hosted with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), with funding from the Governance Partnership Facility.

Follow #differentdev on Twitter for live coverage.

This is PFM

The acronym PFM stands for Public Financial Management: But what does public financial management really mean?

Matt Andrews, Marco Cangiano, Neil Cole, Paolo de Renzio, Philipp Krause, and Renaud Seligmann have published a new paper on demystifying the concept of public financial management (PFM), drawing on their experiences as specialists in different contexts and with different views (from academia, the multilateral and bilateral development agencies, think tanks, government, and civil society). This paper provides an entry point for discussion on the constituent elements of PFM systems, how and why PFM reforms have emerged, and points to gaps for future attention. You can read it here.


Common Core Math: when the how undermines the what

written by Salimah Samji

Without the how, the what remains fiction — often compelling fiction. Development is littered with examples of projects/reforms that have failed because no one systematically thought through how the project/reform would actually be implemented given the local capacity and context. The common assumption is that if you design a technically sound project then implementation will magically happen by itself. Others believe that implementation happens by edict. The reality is that the mundane, while ordinary, banal and boring, can be the key to getting things done in development.

Elizabeth Green in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine makes a similar argument about the Common Core math standards — the new math, in the absence of new teaching, will lead to failure. The traditional approach to teaching math which involves memorizing lists of rules, does not work. It turns out, we already know this and attempts to find better ways to teach math can be traced back to the 1800s, with the most recent efforts in the 1960s and 1980s.

The key problem is numeracy – the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read. Green’s research finds that America ranks in the bottom 5 of 20 countries in numeracy (a 2012 study comparing 16-65 year olds), and on national tests, approximately 67% of 4th and 8th graders are not proficient in math. Clearly all the past attempts of trying to teach “new math” have failed. In order for the latest version of new math to be successful, the teachers need to fully understand the new standards. They need training and support. In practice however, “training is still weak and infrequent, and principals — who are no more skilled at math than their teachers — remain unprepared to offer support. Textbooks, once again, have received only surface adjustments.”

Japan, has been very successful in implementing a similar approach to the Common Core. Green highlights that the teachers depend on jugyokenkyu or lesson study to perfect their teaching skills. This process includes planning a lesson, teaching it in front of an audience of students and other teachers, followed by a discussion of what worked — experiential learning with very tight feedback loops. The best discussions the Japanese teachers had were the most microscopic, minute-by-minute recollections of what had occurred, with commentary … essentially, the mundane!

Changing standards alone is not enough to create or sustain change. There is a need to address the existing delivery infrastructure, to build capacity and to allow for local experimentation, learning, iteration and adaptation. This is a process which takes time and cannot be done overnight, but it has the greatest chance of success.

If you are interested in learning more, read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). You can also watch our BSC video series.

Helping REAL Capacity Emerge in Rwanda using PDIA

written by Matt Andrews

What do you do if your government has been pursuing reforms for years, with apparent success, but your economy is still not growing? What do you do if the constraint seems to be the limited capacity of government organizations? What do you do if this capacity remains stubbornly low even after years of public sector reforms sponsored by outside partners and based on promising best practice ideas of fly-in-fly-out specialists?

A recent case study of work suported by the Africa Governance Initiative suggests an approach to just such a situation, faced by Rwanda in 2010. The approach is simple.

  1. Force your own people to look at festering problems in an up-close-and-personal manner, focusing on ‘why’ the problems persist instead of ‘what’ easy solutions outsiders might propose for the problems.
  2. Swarm the problems with new ideas emerging from those inside your government and from trusted outsiders committed to spending time adapting and translating their ideas to your context (instead of one-size-fits-all solutions coming from short-stay outsiders).
  3. Experiment in a step-by-step manner, actively, with the ideas, trying them out and seeing what works, why and with what kinds of nips and tucks.
  4. Learn. Yes, simply learn. Let people reflect on what they have done and absorb what made the difference and what they take from the experiences to carry to other tasks.

This is what I understand the Strategic Capacity Building Initiative (SCBI) was and is about. It is an approach to doing development that seems to have yielded some dynamic results in a relatively short period. The results are substantive, procedural, organizational, and personal. Farmer incomes are up after some of the experiments in the ‘pilot sites initiative’, for instance. The Energy Investment Unit has emerged as the focal point of a new process to increase energy generation and drive energy costs down. Perhaps more important, to me at least, is the fact that talented civil servants have done things they probably never dreamed they could. In my own language, they have become more adaptive—realizing that you can make a difference if you purposefully address real problems you face in an active, experiential and iterative manner. These young policy entrepreneurs and implementers will be in Rwanda for years to come, and hopefully long after SCBI ceases to exist as a program. They are the real success and legacy of the program.

I find this story line appealing. It tells of an approach to development that reflects the principles of problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA). This SCBI approach is full of common sense but is also oddly revolutionary because it is such a contrast to the way development is commonly done (and, it seems, was done in some of these areas in Rwanda previously). The case shows that a locally problem driven, adaptive process works in complex developing country reform contexts and for this reason should be of interest to anyone working in development.

Not all is rosy and sweet in the story, however, which is true in all narratives on change and real functional reform—including all development narratives I think reflect the general principles of PDIA. There are a number of reflections on how hard it is to develop a real problem driven approach and allow flexibility in finding and fitting new solutions. The case notes that high level leaders demanded results particularly rapidly in some instances, for example, and this led to hurried action, mistakes and tension. The case suggests that this can be overcome with some common-sense ideas, like getting political authorizers to prioritize and ask policy people how long something will take and then agree on realistic time frames. In this respect, it also comments on the importance of focusing attention on a few key issues for deep dive attention rather than a slew of issues that ultimately only get a shallow look. As one Permanent Secretary notes, “Trying to do everything at the same time doesn’t work.” (Seems basic, doesn’t it, but this kind of mundane observation is one I see overlooked across the development agenda).

There are also hints at the importance of getting collaborative relationships right—with high-level authorizers and development partners engaging patiently and yet also expectantly with those in the policy and reform trenches. It seems there are real rewards when those at the top give those in the middle and even lower down the organization some structured space to prove their value. (Again, this seems basic, noting that ‘people’ really matter; but it is a vital observation in development where I thinking ‘policy’ is often seen as more important than people.) The importance of political coalitions and teams, incorporating outsiders and insiders, is also implicit and explicit and a vital take-away for those designing reforms and interventions. These coalitions and teams allowed natural coordination across boundaries (without having to change rigid organizational rules) and cross fertilization that is vital for the emergence of creative new policy ideas.

Beyond these ideas I was perhaps most struck by the lesson that this work is only achieved if people stick to it. It proved challenging and even uncomfortable to force politicians to prioritize, for instance, but this did not lead to the program falling apart. Instead, as the case notes, the SCBI team exerted “push back” on the system and made sure the prioritization was done. It proved hard to get the right people as well, but the SCBI team pivoted around this issue to get at least some of the right people and build on what they had. It proved tough to get disparate distributed agencies to work together and to even understand the importance of linkages, but the challenge was met with more determination. It was hard to take people through the uncomfortable process of problem analysis, where they interrogated existing processes to look for gaps (without jumping to quick but unlikely to work solutions). But the gap analyses went on nonetheless.

The literature on organizational change has a really academic term to describe the quality I think helped the SCBI reformers to stick to their guns when things got tough. It is ‘grit’ and it is vital for effective reform and change. It is the intangible thing that I think the SCBI story is really all about. It helped to keep the reforms going in the starting months that seemed slow and difficult, and it was what kept the growing SCBI team motivated when the actions they were taking were hard and constantly questioned as time consuming, demanding, politically uncomfortable, and (maybe even) downright impossible. Grit is what helps reformers turn setbacks into lessons, and what keeps reformers looking for the ‘right’ people needed to make something happen. It keeps people engaged in capacity building experiences that take time, personal sacrifice, and political capital. It is the magic ingredient behind real capacity building and change and is the one thing I hope other readers see in this case study, even with the other great practical ideas and embedded advice. The SCBI design and strategy was great, but it was the gritty commitment to make it work that really seems to have made the difference.

The lesson: Cultivate grit, don’t overlook it, as it is the key to capacity building success.