Tales (and Tells) of a Development Amateur

written by Lant Pritchett

Nina Munk’s new book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty is a great read.  The book itself has been reviewed by development luminaries Bill Easterly, Angus Deaton, and Duncan Green and is on various “Best Book of 2013” lists.

One of my children required extremely complicated heart surgery as a young child and has had regular care since.  This has exposed me to the difference among doctors between heart surgeons and cardiologists.  Both are doctors, but the nature of their activity makes everything else about them different. Heart surgeons focus on discrete and dramatic interventions (surgery) in which the outcome is under their exclusive control (the patient is anesthetized) and the time of their engagement is measured in hours (the procedure) or at most days (discharge from the hospital).  Cardiologists in contrast focus on sustained interventions (medication, cardiovascular conditioning, weight loss, blood pressure) in which the outcomes are primarily under patient control (e.g. compliance, exercise, diet) and the relevant time span of impact is decades not years.  In my experience this leads heart surgeons and cardiologists, by self-selection and training, to have very different personalities and approaches. In considering surgeons to operate on our child, we were told that one surgeon had the best hands in the world (he had constructed a four chambered heart from a two-chambered heart) but was insufferably arrogant and impossible to deal with and universally disliked.  We chose him.

There is a similar analogy among economists.  While all economists might share some commonalities from selection and training there are huge differences across the sub-specialties of the discipline.   The clan called “open-economy macro-economists” deal with crises in which interventions are dramatic, dependent on decisions of few people, and in which outcomes are measured in days and weeks and two quarters is a long horizon.  In contrast the clan called “development economists” typically deal with chronic problems which rarely have discrete interventions, societies (not outsiders) are primarily determinative of outcomes, and in which a decade is the short-run, not the long-run.

There are two main points.

The most obvious that emerges from The Idealist is that Jeff Sachs’ professional training and early policy engagements were entirely as an open-economy macro-economist, which perhaps was practiced in developing country settings (e.g. Bolivia), but was not itself development economics.  He has attempted to remake himself late in professional life (in his forties) from open-economy macro-economist to development economist.  But Nina Munk’s book could have easily been subtitled: “Tales (and Tells) of a Development Amateur.”  Some poker players have obvious “tells” that reveal them as new to (or just bad at) the game.  Similarly, an obvious “tell” of a development amateur is saying any of the following:

  • “It’s easy.”
  • “We can do this quickly.”
  • “We have a solution for every problem.”

The broader—and vastly more important—point than anything about Jeff Sachs is that this book reveals that many development debates and plans and practices have suffered from an inadequate analytical basis.  Sometimes heart surgery is necessary: once a country is in hyper-inflation (like Bolivia in 1986) then a discrete, rapid, technocratic intervention like an orthodox shock really can fix the specific problem of runaway inflation—and perhaps there really is no other way. There cannot be a debate about whether “shock therapy” is good or bad any more than there could be a useful debate about whether using penicillin was good or bad: for the right conditions and in the right dosages: good, and for the wrong conditions and wrong dosages: bad. The sophistication needed is a correct diagnosis of what are the analytical types of problems in the world that are “surgery-like” and which are “exercise-diet-weight loss like.”

In our work on building state capability we have developed an analytical typology of tasks/activities based on four characteristics of the underlying nature of the task that produces five types of activities.  This is not about “sectors” as traditionally understood (like “education” or “infrastructure”) as activities of each of our analytical types exist in most sectors.

An overly broad-brush characterization of development, but which I feel still gives some insight, is that where problems really were “policy” or “logistics” then “development” succeeded (and perhaps even development assistance helped in that success).  As Charles Kenny puts it, things really are Getting Better.  There has been an amazing improvement in health status (firstly and particularly–but not exclusively–in infectious disease conditions amenable to logistical interventions like immunizations), there has been amazing expansion in years of schooling, there has been a widespread defeat of chronic inflation and exchange rate disequilibria.

In contrast, where the problems faced are “implementation intensive” or “wicked hard” there has been much less progress.  Ambulatory curative care in the public sector is often (though not always) extremely weak.  While kids are in school they are often (though not always) learning very little.  While inflation has been stabilized, sustained inclusive growth has often (though not always) been weak.

This is in part, we argue, because the expansion of “the solution” treated all problems as either “policy” or “logistics”, both of which led to “Seeing Like a State” and/or a “Tyranny of Experts”.  The Idealist is a good account of what happens when a “logistical” approach—which may work for bed nets—is stretched in Procrustean fashion to fit “implementation intensive” tasks which require organizational capability and “wicked hard” problems like income generation. If interested in learning more, read Folk and the Formula: Fact and Fiction in Development.

BSC Video 8: What is PDIA?

Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) is an approach we have developed to help escape capability traps. PDIA rests on four core principles:

  • Local Solutions for Local Problems: Transitioning from promoting solutions (pre-determined by external experts) to allowing the local nomination and articulation of concrete problems to be solved.
  • Pushing Problem Driven Positive Deviance: Creating environments within and across organizations that encourage experimentation and positive deviance, accompanied by enhanced accountability for performance in problem solving.
  • Try, Learn, Iterate, Adapt: Promoting active experiential (and experimental) learning with evidence-driven feedback built into regular management and project decision making, in ways that allow for real-time adaptation.
  • Scale through Diffusion: Engaging champions across sectors and organizations who ensure reforms are viable, legitimate and relevant.

In this video, Lant Pritchett, provides an overview of PDIA core principles: problem solving; authorizing positive deviation; iterating and adapting; and scaling practices through diffusion. We believe that success builds institutions and not vice versa. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation and Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA).

BSC Video 7: Understanding your Authorizing Environment

In the systems we operate within, who identifies problems? who identifies solutions? and how do these people mobilize the ones who have power and authority?  In our research we find that leadership is about multi-agent groups and not single-agent autocrats.

In this video, Matt Andrews, contrasts examples of anti-corruption reforms in Malawi and Botswana to illustrate that authority is cultivated, built in groups, and not around individuals. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Who Really Leads Development? and Limits of Institutional Reform.

BSC Video 6: Understanding your Eco-system

The process of building state capability involves people, who are the ultimate complex phenomena; embedded within organizations, which are complex; and organizations are embedded in rules systems (e.g. institutions, cultures, norms), which are themselves complex. In this video, Michael Woolcock, highlights the fact that reforms do not take place in a vacuum. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) and Limits of Institutional Reform.

BSC Video 5: Typology of Tasks by Capability Intensity needed for Implementation

It is important when thinking about building state capability, to first ask, what is the “type of problem” you are trying to solve? In this video, Lant Pritchett, provides a framework to determine the capability required for implementing development projects. He begins by asking whether your task is transaction intensive, followed by whether it is locally discretionary, to better understand if the nature of the task is logistics or implementation intensive. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

BSC Video 4: Capability for Policy Implementation

Policy implementation requires agents of organizations who are responsible for implementation, to do the right thing, at the right time, and in the right place. In this video, Lant Pritchett, uses an example of delivering the mail and issuing driver’s licenses to illustrate this point. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more about the examples used in this video, read Letter Grading Government Efficiency, and Obtaining a Drivers License in India: An Experimental Approach to Studying Corruption.

BSC Video 3: Form ≠ Function

Development involves change, and change always happens within a context. The focus in development however, is on transplanting successes and adopting ambitious “best practice” modes of governance and public administration, which emphasize form (what organizations look like) and not function (what they actually do). This often provides the financing and legitimacy which allows continued dysfunction, while potentially crowding out space for local initiatives.

In this video, Matt Andrews, uses an example of internal audit reform in Burkina Faso to illustrate that when context is taken into consideration when introducing a reform, it functions even though it might take on a different form. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation and Limits of Institutional Reform.

BSC Video 2: Capability Trapped in a Big Stuck

In many nations today, the state has little capability to carry out basic functions like security, regulation or even core service delivery (health, education, water, etc). Enhancing this capability, especially in fragile states, is a long-term task. In this video, Lant Pritchett uses the example of Haiti and India to highlight administrative capability trapped in a big stuck. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation and Is India a Flailing State?: Detours on the Four Lane Highway to Modernization.

BSC Video 1: Development as Four Fold Transformation

In order to better understand and respond to implementation failure, it is instructive to start with a big picture summary of what we think most people believe “development” to be. In this introduction video, Michael Woolcock discusses how a society undergoes a four fold transformation in its functional capacity to manage its economy, polity (political systems represent the aggregate preferences of citizens), society (rights and opportunities are extended to all social groups) and public administration (organizations function according to meritocratic standards and professional norms), becoming “developed” over time. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation.

New Year, New Logo

Happy New Year!

Building State Capability is the Center for International Development at Harvard University’s newest program. Since the inception, the team has published 13 UNU-WIDER working papers and made over 50 presentations around the globe.

As we head into the second year, we are pleased to share our new logo with you – see below. The logo captures some of our key considerations:

  • Building metaphor: Building state capability is a complex task which takes time and effort.
  • Blocks of diverse shapes and sizes: There are a multitude of tools that you can use. No one size fits all.
  • Gaps in the sphere: Local context is paramount. You never start with a clean slate.
  • Builders both inside and outside: You need multi-agent leadership at various levels.

BSC Logo