Complexities of multiple stakeholders in developing hydroelectricity in Pakistan

Guest blog by Masood Ul Mulk

I lead a public service organization (nonprofit) working in the northwest border regions of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan, known for its turbulence, delivering development and humanitarian aid. The government presence is thin on the ground and service delivery in the region remains poor. Government policies change rapidly, as individuals and personalities change in government. Institutional culture is weak in the area and policy and implementation revolve around networks and social relationships. Conflict, space allowed to public service organisations, turf issues between civilian and military authorities, conservative culture, tribal values, sectarian divides, all add up to the uncertainty and complexity of working in the region. As practitioners we face the conflicting challenge of, on one hand meeting the needs of the poor and vulnerable communities in an uncertain and complex environment; while on the other hand satisfying policy makers and donors, who because of their training and accountability requirements design policy solutions which are rigid and linear to address these problems with little success.  For us the challenge is explaining to them the complex situation on the ground and the need for an iterative, adaptive and learning approach to address the complexity.  Reading about PDIA, had convinced me that exposure to the course on implementing public policy at Harvard will help me better understand where the policy makers and donors are coming from, and how I should be convincing them to adopt a radically different solution to the intractable problems on the ground which was based on responsiveness, iteration and learning. I also know that if I, a practitioner on the border regions of Pakistan, say this it will carry very little weight, but if I have the Kennedy School to back me up it will be a different proposition altogether. In this sense the course was of immense help to me and to my organization. It clarified concepts and gave me the tools to address such issues in a better way.

Continue reading Complexities of multiple stakeholders in developing hydroelectricity in Pakistan

On being and becoming a “development expert”

written by Michael Woolcock

The Three Stages of Expertise by Simon Wardley

Half-way through my HKS course on ‘Social Institutions and Economic Development’ I host a class, usually timed to be given on the eve of spring break, on what it means to be a “development expert”, especially as it pertains to engaging with social institutions. For better or worse, I now have enough grey hair and professional visibility to often have that awkward title bestowed upon me, but while I like to think I have come to know a little about development processes, and probably know more now than I did 25 years ago, the notion of being deemed a development “expert” is a label I try to wear lightly, if I must wear it at all. In this class, I stress that technical expertise is real, rare, its application deeply necessary and consequential, and for certain kinds of development problems, exactly what you need. For other kinds of development problems, however – and certainly the bulk of those problems associated with building state capability – routinely prioritizing the singular deployment of a narrow form of technical expertise as the optimal solution is itself part of the problem (in the sense articulated in the “Solutions when the solution is the problem” paper I wrote with Lant Pritchett back in 2004). 

These days, my preferred metaphorical, ideal-type juxtaposition is between expertise that fills a space and expertise that creates and protects space; this distinction roughly corresponds to, respectively, Theory X and Y in the management literature (as famously articulated by Douglas McGregor in 1960). I like this distinction expressed in the terms of ‘filling’ versus ‘protecting’ space because it broadly reflects the different skills and sensibilities that, to me, are so readily on display in development decision-making – whether in the board room, the online seminar, the policy forum, the diplomatic table, or the village meeting hall. The space-fillers primarily perceive their job, and their kindred colleagues’ job, as one of “controlling” (empirically, epistemologically, managerially) the extraneous “noisy” factors intruding on the space they’ve carefully “identified” so that, into this space, their particular, somewhere-verified “solution” can be deftly but decisively inserted. It’s what Atul Gawande calls the savior doctor model, in which one provides “a definitive intervention at a critical moment… with a clear, calculable, frequently transformative outcome.” I’ve checked the key indicators (‘vital signs’), asked my go-to questions, diligently eliminated various possibilities; I’ve scanned the decision-tree as I understand it, and determined that the highest-probability solution to this problem is X. The faster and more “cleanly” I can do this, the more genuinely ‘expert’ (and efficient and effective) I believe myself to be. Providing such decisive input into this space is emotionally thrilling; it vindicates all my years of elite education and hard work, pays me real money, yields the tantalizing allure of future successes at grander scales with higher stakes, and bestows upon me tangible professional accolades and high social status. Like nature, I abhor a vacuum, so I’ve confidently stepped in where the “less rigorous” fear to tread. I’m trained and socialized to think counterfactually, so I can’t help but indulge my vainglorious ceteris paribus fantasy that, but for my presence at that moment, things would have turned out so differently… Heck, I’ve changed history!

Continue reading On being and becoming a “development expert”

It’s about the P’s

Problem Construction, Perception, Process, People and Projection

Guest blog written by Cynthia Steinhauser

Over the course of 12 months, I was pursuing my public policy executive certificate through HBS when I came across the IPP program designed by Professor Matt Andrews and his amazing cadre of peers. The timing couldn’t have been better as my organization was working on a new initiative to create a one-stop shop for innovation in development services from three previously “siloed” departments. Our team is focused on one major task – to rethink our development services program and create an integrated, efficient process that results in a positive experience for our customers. I saw this program as an opportunity to assist with this effort. 

As someone with over 25 years working in local government, I often assist in strategic planning efforts for new initiatives or to “reset” existing programs to help get them back on track. I was usually brought in because something wasn’t working and had reached some type of impasse.  It was often my belief that many failed for one primary reason, they did not have a clear path forward i.e. a solid strategic plan. All it would take was the right person to shepherd them through a process to develop a plan that had a clear vision, mission, goals, objectives, assigned tasks, identified resources and a well-defined timeline. Once a plan was in place to hold people accountable, all would be good. While I have many examples of success using this approach, there are also examples of failures. However, when you work in the public eye, you don’t like to talk about “failures” because on face value they seem just that – a failure that taught us nothing and did so at the expense of taxpayers.  However, as PDIA (Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation) has taught us, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, I believe that is exactly where PDIA can be most useful and have some of the greatest impact (but that is for another blog). This blog is about my entire IPP learning journey.

Continue reading It’s about the P’s

Can PDIA approaches help to enhance the development of Institutional Strategies in Multilateral Organizations

Guest blog written by Francisco Castro-y-Ortíz

I work for a multilateral development organization—the Inter-American Development Bank—and am a citizen from a Latin-American Middle-Income Country (MIC). Because of this background, the main economic problem I am most concerned about relates to my own country—Mexico—and the Latin-American and Caribbean region (LAC) as a whole. It is about low average growth rates—for more than two decades already. Low growth matters in LAC because it increases the risks of regression, particularly to poverty and other human-development and sustainability metrics. Such an outcome may erase the hard-earned development gains of the last two decades. Furthermore, the problem of low growth is today being amplified significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic which, if not addressed, may have devastating economic consequences on both growth and sustainable human development.

The problem of low growth and its consequences lies at the heart of multilateral organizations’ Institutional Strategies (IS) working in the LAC region. Some of them will be considering updating them because of high-level managerial changes (tenure periods are expiring), or because of the adverse exogenous shock and economic consequences of the pandemic, or both. As I learned in the 2020 Leading Economic Growth course, following the steps of a Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach may decisively help to enhance the formulation and update of the IS of multilateral organizations. 

For instance, let us begin with the first steps, constructing and deconstructing the problem to develop a clear problem narrative and “provoke reflection, mobilize attention and promote targeted and context-sensitive engagement”. In the case of LAC, the region has experienced low growth rates since the 1980s consistently. Despite being acknowledged as a “middle income region”, LAC has been stuck in that stage for decades. In addition, if the numerous exogenous and internal shocks that the region has experienced, are factored in, the low growth problem becomes critical because the region does not have enough fiscal space to confront the crises adequately. Consequently, living standards recede, per-capita income decreases, infrastructure and productivity get eroded. 

Continue reading Can PDIA approaches help to enhance the development of Institutional Strategies in Multilateral Organizations

Introducing The PDIA in Practice Series

written by Matt Andrews

We have a small team in Pretoria this week for the second year of PDIA work with the Collaborative African Budget Initiative (CABRI). The work with CABRI will see us working with 6 more African countries on public financial management reform problems.

This experience will increase the number of teams that we have directly worked with, over multiple month engagements, to over 50 in the last 9 years. We have also engaged with two to three times this number of teams in our online work during this time.

All of this has been in the name of experimenting with a new way to do development that we believe is needed in the face of complex and context specific challenges, and when the goal of engagement is both to build local capability ‘to do’ new things and to actually do those new things.

As many of you  know, this approach is called problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA), and involves engaging local agents in identifying their problems, encouraging these agents to determine where they have entry points to start tackling these problems, supporting these agents to nominate ideas to experiment with in these entry point areas, helping the agents try and test the ideas out in the field, facilitating learning from this experience, and mobilizing the agents to try their ideas again. And again. And again.

Through the many experiments over the last decade, we have been PDIA’ing PDIA itself, to develop practical and replicable methods and processes. To put it mildly, we are thrilled and excited at where all of this work has led. We have seen a new method of engaging that is emerging in countries across the developing world, where local officials are being mobilized to address challenges that have eluded them for ages: in arenas as varied as public financial management, private sector development, judicial reform, health care and education, and more. Teams working across domains have made progress in addressing their problems and building their own capabilities ‘to do’ what is needed to run their countries more effectively.

In this process, we at BSC have settled on a number of methods of engaging, and tools to work with. The work with CABRI employs most of these tools in a structured engagement we call the ‘PDIA Sandwich’. This ‘sandwich’ involves convening multiple teams in a time-bound PDIA exercise that:

  1. begins with a framing workshop where problems are identified and ‘next steps’ determined,
  2. the teams then move to rapid action and learning phase which we call the action-push period, where the teams take their ‘next steps’ and stop regularly to learn about their experience, iterating repeatedly for months, and
  3. draws the teams together in a final workshop at which results and lessons are shared and the teams are encouraged to employ their learnings independently in their home countries.

We honed the ‘sandwich approach’ in our past work in Albania and Sri Lanka, and saw it work well to structure the CABRI PDIA engagement last year. As noted, this approach is one of the methods we employ to help users use PDIA in practical ways (the others include things like our black belt team interactions, online modalities, and various course offerings). All these methods combine tools and processes that have emerged from our own practice of experiments in the last decade—including things like the problem construction and deconstruction process, change space analysis, push period iteration, PDIA check-in methods, and more.

We have tried and tested these tools across the globe and seen so many variations in so many places (see our small set of fishbone diagrams from teams representing places as varied as Mozambique, Albania, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Honduras, and Liberia).

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 9.44.34 PM

We are now releasing ‘PDIA in Practice’ notes that describe the engagements we have learned from, where PDIA tools and ideas emerged from, and how these ideas have taken shape. Here is the first of these notes. It recounts a short story of the first PDIA experiment we conducted in Mozambique in 2009, and the ‘adaptation window’ idea and practice it inspired. A longer working paper on the experience is also available.

We will be producing more of these notes (and some with supporting working papers) in the coming weeks, and by fall we will also have a Dynamic PDIA Glossary that helps those interested to navigate the many ideas and tools that are now in play. Our final goal in this next period is to also release a PDIA Toolkit, where various tools are presented in practical and useable ways for anyone wanting to use them in their work.

We are excited about these new developments, and committed to democratizing management know-how across the world: making this available for everyone to use as they try to build capability and solve the world’s problems.

A final word: Our thanks and admiration go out to all the friends and colleagues and brave and caring development practitioners we have worked with in the last decade—including our local coaches in Mozambique, Albania, Sri Lanka, the CABRI coaches and CABRI country team members. You guys are the real difference makers in this development odyssey, and we are convinced that the legacy of your work will be amazing!




We recently ran a PDIA course on climate change adaptation. Why?

written by Tim O’Brien


Leader of farming cooperative in central Sri Lanka that diversified into ginger production as drought increasingly hurt rice cultivation.

If you live in a developed country, odds are that you think about climate change as something that will harm future generations — your children or your grandchildren perhaps. But if you live in a poor country, chances are much higher that you think of climate change as a source of problems that are affecting you and your family today. Climate change may not be the most important problem for you if you live in a developing country, but odds are that it is making your problems worse.

The climate is changing globally, but vulnerabilities are faced locally, usually in ways that exacerbate existing development challenges. For most poor farmers, when and how the rain falls matters a great deal. But climate change is tending to affect seasonal patterns on which many farmers rely, paradoxically increasing the frequency and severity of both droughts and floods, often in the same places. In many poor cities, climate change is increasing water scarcity, flooding, landslides and overall risk of extreme weather events. For people without electricity in tropical countries, heat waves are increasingly deadly events. For communities that depend on fishing as a means of both income and food, ocean acidification is both an economic and health issue. For countries with weak infrastructure, limited budgets and undiversified economies, macroeconomic vulnerability to weather shocks continues to grow more severe. Continue reading We recently ran a PDIA course on climate change adaptation. Why?

Best Practice is a Pipe Dream: The AK47 vs M16 debate and development practice

written by Lant Pritchett

At a recent holiday party I was discussing organizations and innovations with a friend of mine who teaches at the Harvard Business School about organizations and is a professor and student about technology and history.  I told him I was thinking about the lessons for the development “best practice” mantra from the AK47 versus M16 debate.  Naturally, he brought out his own versions of both for comparison, the early Colt AR-15 developed for the US Air Force (which became the M16) and an East German produced AK-47.


Development practice can learn from the AK47.  It is far and away the most widely available and used assault rifle in the world.  This is in spite of the fact that it is easy to argue that the M16 is the “best practice” assault rifle.  A key question for armies is whether in practice it is better to adopt the weapon to the soldiers you have or train the soldiers you have to the weapon you want.  The fundamental AK47 design principle is simplicity which leads to robustness in operation and effective use even by poorly trained combatants in actual combat conditions.  In contrast, the M16 is a better weapon on many dimensions—including accuracy–but only works well when used and cared for by highly trained and capable soldiers.

One important criterion for any weapon is accuracy.  In the 1980s the US military compared the AK47 versus the M16 for accuracy at various distances in proving ground conditions that isolated pure weapon accuracy.  The following chart shows the single shot probabilities of hitting a standard silhouette target at various distances in proving ground conditions.  It would be easy to use this chart to argue that the M16 is a “best practice” weapon as at middle to long distances the single shot hit probability is 20 percent higher.

Figure 1:  At proving ground conditions the AK47 is a less accurate weapon than the M16A1 at distances above 200 yards

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-2-11-05-pmSource:  Table 4.3, Weaver 1990.

The study though also estimates the probability of hitting a target when there are aiming errors of an actual user of the weapon.  In “rifle qualifying” conditions the shooter is under no time or other stress in shooting and knows the distance to target and hence ideal conditions for shooter to demonstrate high capacity.  In “worst field experience” conditions the shooter is under high or combat-like stress, although obviously these data are from simulations of stress as it is impossible to collect reliable data from actual combat.

It is obvious in Figure 2 that over most of range at which assault rifles are used in combat essentially all of the likelihood of missing the target comes from shooter performance and almost none from the intrinsic accuracy of the weapon.  The M16 maintains a proving ground conditions hit probability of 98 percent out to 400 yards but at 400 yards even a trained marksman in zero stress conditions has only a 35 percent chance and under stress this is only 7 percent.

Figure 2:  The intrinsic accuracy of the weapon as assessed on the proving is not a significant constraint to shooter accuracy under high stress conditions of shooting


Source:  Table 4.2, Weaver 1990.

At 200 yards we can decompose the difference from the ideal conditions of “best practice”–the M16 on the proving ground has 100 percent hit probability—and the contribution of a less accurate weapon, user capacity even in ideal conditions, and user performance under stress.  The AK47 is 99 percent accurate, but in in rifle qualifying conditions the hit probability is only 64 percent with the M16 and in stressed situations only 12 percent with the M16.  So if a shooter misses with an AK47 at 200 yards in combat conditions it is almost certainly due to the user and not the weapon. As the author puts it (it what appears to be military use of irony) while there are demonstrable differences in weapon accuracy they are not really an issue in actual use conditions by actual soldiers:

It is not unusual for differences to be found in the intrinsic, technical performance of different weapons measured at a proving ground.  It is almost certain that these differences will not have any operational significance.  It is true, however that the differences in the…rifles shown…are large enough to be a concern to a championship caliber, competition shooter.

Figure 3:  Decomposing the probability of a miss into that due to weapon accuracy (M16 vs AK47), user capacity in ideal conditions, and operational stress


Source:  Figure 2 above, Weaver 1990.

The AK-47’s limitations in intrinsic accuracy appear to be a technological trade-off and an irremediable consequence of the commitment to design simplicity and operational robustness   The design of the weapon has very loose tolerances which means that the gun can be abused in a variety of ways and not properly maintained and yet still fire with high reliability but this does limit accuracy (although the design successor to the AK-47, the currently adopted AK-74 did address accuracy issues).  But a weapon that fires always has higher combat effectiveness than a weapon that doesn’t.

While many would argue that the M16 in the hands of a highly trained professional soldier is a superior weapon, this does require training and adapting the soldier and his practices to the weapon.  The entire philosophy of the AK-47 is to design and adapt the weapon to soldiers who likely have little or no formal education and who are expected to be conscripted and put into battle with little training.  While it is impossible to separate out geopolitics from weapon choice, estimates are that 106 countries’ military or special forces use the AK-47—not to mention its widespread use by informal armed groups—which is a testament to its being adapted to the needs and capabilities of the user.

Application of ideas to basic education in Africa

Now it might seem odd, or even insensitive, to use the analogy of weapon choice to discuss development practice, but the relative importance of (a) latest “best practice” technology or program design or policy versus (b) user capacity versus (c) actual user performance under real world stress as avenues for performance improvement arises again and again in multiple contexts.  There is a powerful, often overwhelming, temptation for experts from developed countries to market the latest of what they know and do as “best practice” in their own conditions without adequate consideration of whether this is actually addressing actual performance in context.

The latest Service Delivery Indicators data that the World Bank has created for several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa illustrate these same issues in basic education.

The first issue is “user capacity in ideal conditions”—that is, do teachers actually know the material they are supposed to teach?  The grade 4 teachers were administered questions from the grade 4 curriculum.  On average only 12.7 percent of teachers scored above 80 percent correct (and this is biased upward by Kenya’s 34 percent as four of six countries’ teachers were at 10 percent or below).  In Mozambique only 65 percent of mathematics teachers could do double digit subtraction with whole numbers (e.g. 86-55) and only 39 percent do subtraction with decimals—and less than 1 percent of teachers scored above 80 percent.

Figure 4:  Teachers in many African countries do not master the material they are intended to teach—only 13 percent of grade 4 teachers score above 80 percent on the grade 4 subject matter


Source:  Filmer (2015) at  RISE conference.

A comparison of the STEP assessment with the PIAAC assessment of literacy in the OPECD found that the typical tertiary graduate in Ghana or Kenya has lower literacy proficiency then the typical OECD adult who did not finish high school.  A comparison of the performance on TIMSS items finds that teachers in African countries like Malawi and Zambia score about the same as grade 7 and 8 students in typical OECD countries like Belgium.

So, even in ideal conditions in which teachers were present and operating at their maximum capacity their performance would be limited by the fact that they themselves do not fully master the subject matters at the level they are intended to teach it.

The second issue is the performance under “operational stress”—which includes both the stresses of life that might lead teachers to not even reach school on any given day as well as the administrative and other stresses that might lead teachers to do less than their ideal capacity.  The Service Delivery Indicators measure actual time teaching versus the deficits due to absence from the school and lack of presence in the classroom when at the school.  The finding is that while the “ideal” teaching/learning time per day is five and a half hours students are actually only exposed to about 3 hours a day of teaching/learning time on average.  In Mozambique the learning time was only an hour and forty minutes a day rather than the official (notional) instructional time of four hours and seventeen minutes.

On top of this pure absence the question is whether under the actual pressure and stress of classrooms even the teaching/learning time is spent at the maximum of the teacher’s subject matter and pedagogical practice capacity.

Figure 5:  Actual teaching/learning time is reduced dramatically by teacher absence from school and classroom


Source:  Filmer (2015) at RISE conference

The “global best practice” versus performance priority mismatch

The range in public sector organizational performance and outcomes across the countries of the world is vast in nearly every domain—education, health, policing, tax collection, environmental regulation (and yes, military).  In some very simple “logistical” tasks there has been convergence (e.g. vaccination rates and vaccination efficacy are very high even in many very low capability countries) but the gap in more “implementation intensive” tasks is enormous.  Measures of early grade child mastery of reading range from almost universal—only 1 percent of Philippine 3rd graders cannot read a single word of linked text whereas 70 percent of Ugandan 3rd graders cannot read at all.

This means that in high performing systems the research questions are pushed to the frontiers of “best practice” both in technology and the applied research of management and operations.  There is no research or application of knowledge in improving performance in tasks that are done well and routinely in actual operational conditions by most or nearly all service providers.  That is taken for granted and not a subject of active interest.  There is research interest in improving the frontier of possibility and interest in practical research into how to increase the capacity of the typical service provider and their performance under actual stressed conditions—but in high performing systems these are both aimed at expanding the frontier of actual and achieved practice in the more difficult tasks.  This learning may be completely irrelevant to what is the priority in low performing systems.  Worse, attempts to transplant “best practice” in technology or organizations or capacity building that is a mismatch for actual capacity or cannot be implemented in the current conditions may lead to distracting national elites from their own conditions and priorities.

What are the lessons of the “best practice” successes of the Finnish schooling system for  Pakistan or Indonesia or Peru?  What are the lessons of  Norway’s “best practice” oil revenue stabilization fund for Nigeria or South Sudan?  What are the lessons of OECD “best practice” for budget and public financial management for Uganda or Nepal?  I am confident there are interesting and relevant lessons to learn, but the experience of the AK-47 should give some pause as to whether a globally relevant “best practice” isn’t a pipe dream.

Figure 6:  Potential mismatch of global “best practice” and research performance priorities in low performance systems.


The New Global Goals Spell the End of Kinky Development

written by Lant Pritchett

The UN’s post-2015 “Sustainable Development Goals” (or “Global Goals”) debuted to decidedly mixed reviews. Phyllis Pomerantz points out that with 169 targets “if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Bill Easterly refers to the SDG as “senseless, dreamy, garbled,” Lord Mark Malloch Brown’s called them “higgedly-piggedly,” Charles Kenny describes them as “a mess.” Duncan Green was in early (2012) with “bah humbug.” Homi Kharas, in contrast, expects “great things.”

I think the SDGs are both worthless and yet worth it. My perhaps perverse view is that the SDGs are terrific because they will have no impact. The choices for a post-2015 UN development agenda were: (a) a “more of the same” extension of the MDG approach, (b) nothing, and (c) something like the SDGs. While one can debate whether the SDGs are slightly better than nothing or slightly worse than nothing, my argument is that even if the SDGs are worth nothing they are still far better than the MDGs.

The feature that many like about the MDGs, their focus, made them worse than nothing because they were focused on an agenda that was too narrow, too biased, and too kinky to be a global development agenda and this focus distorted development action and assistance.

MDGs too narrow and biased

Table 1 comparing the MDGs with priorities named by developing-country citizens shows the MDG domains were too narrow (excluding entire high-priority domains like energy and transport infrastructure, social protection, or good governance), had too narrow agenda even within those domains it named (schooling without learning, just a few diseases), and were biased toward rich-country and global hyper-elite concerns.

Table 1: The MDGs were narrow and biased compared to the expressed priorities of developing countries in the UN’s own “My World” survey

In connection with the preparation of the SDGs, the UN ran “My World,” a global survey that allowed people online (and with some other outreach to cell and paper surveys) to choose 6 of 16 possible issues as “most important for you and your family.” The process was obviously not representative and was potentially biased in a number of ways, but, unlike the MDGs, it allowed over 5.7 million people from low- and medium-HDI (human development indicator) countries to participate. Moreover, as part of a UN process, one would think the biases would be pro-MDG.

A comparison of these survey rankings (again, such as they are) against the official MDG goals, targets, and indicators shows just how narrow and biased the MDGs were. “Good education” is the most commonly named priority. While there is an MDG for education it lists only primary school completion, doesn’t happen to mention that education be “good,” or include anything about secondary or tertiary education.

“Better healthcare” is number 1, and health gets three goals but they are focused on specific ages, diseases, and conditions and never mention either “healthcare” or “better” for most disease conditions (see below).

The survey lists neither “economic growth” or “poverty” as possible priorities but “better job opportunities” is the number 3 named priority but, strangely, is subsumed in the MDGs as a target under the goal “Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” without a numeric goal or target.

An honest and responsive government is the number 4 priority and merits only a vague mention in the MDGs.

Priorities 5, 6, 7, and 9 (among low-HDI country respondents) are infrastructure related — energy, transport, clean water and sanitation, and phone and internet access. Energy and transport are completely absent from the MDGs and water and sanitation are subsumed under “environmental sustainability” (as opposed to being important in their own right) and, more strangely still, phone and internet without a target bur have indicators under “global partnership for development.” As Leo (2013) shows representative survey results suggest that infrastructure is a large priority in Africa and Latin America.

The only target for goal 3 of promoting gender equality and empowering women was equalizing enrollments in primary and secondary school — nothing about sexual violence and domestic violence, nothing about property rights, nothing about discrimination.

The MDGs were too narrow a definition of development, with entire domains important to developing countries’ citizens like energy, transport, good governance and political freedoms, crime and violence, and social protection left out entirely. Even within the domains with an MDG like education, health and gender these were interpreted far too narrowly.

Too kinky

Kinky development is “defining development down” by setting a low bar for a goal and then claiming that reaching this arbitrary low bar is a priority. I call this “kinky” because a targeted project/program/intervention/policy that pushes everybody just up to a low bar level would produce a “kink” in the distribution of well-being at low bar level.

Table 2 shows the MDG targets were such low bar goals they were near being accomplished in the largest developing countries by the time MDGs started.

Table 2: The status of the MDGs before they started in most of the 20 largest developing countries—the targets were already mostly met because they were narrow and kinky

The top 20 most populous developing countries in Table 1 have 4.6 billion of the roughly 6 billion people in the developing world. Table 1 shows where these countries were on the MDGs roughly when (or just after) they started (as best data allows).

This table illustrates that the problem with the MDGs is not that they are not worthy goals but that the goals were too low to constitute a development agenda as they affected too few people.

Take access to an improved water source where the goal was to halve the proportion of people without access to safe water. In Pakistan in 2000, 88 percent of people were already using an improved source in 2000. This means improvements in water that benefitted only 6 percent of the people would be sufficient to meet the target. But only 28 percent of people in Pakistan in 2000 used water piped into their premise, which is a goal for nearly everyone and widely considered part of development but not included in the low-bar MDG. Too low bar.

Take gender. The target is just about equality of enrollment in primary and secondary school. In 10 of 17 countries with data this was already over 90 percent in 2000. But in Colombia where girls are more likely to be in primary and secondary school than boys, the DHS survey reports 44 percent of ever-married women have suffered from domestic violence by their spouse partner. The goal for “promoting gender equality and empowering women” is achieved without any mention of domestic violence? Too low bar.

Take education. All countries have many goals for education but the MDG had the narrow and low-bar goal just completing primary schooling — nothing about learning in primary school (or elsewhere), nothing about secondary, nothing about school to work transitions and training, nothing about higher education, nothing about research and knowledge creation — just completing primary school. As table 2 shows only 4 of these 20 countries had gross primary enrollment rates below 95 percent before the MDG started. Too low bar.

Take health. Besides the goal on infant mortality, the MDGs named HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria (Goal 6) and maternal health (Goal 5). These are obviously important and priority areas. But how narrow are these goals as a portion of (non-child) health? For this we only have data for 2005 but these diseases were less than 10 percent of all burden of disease in all but five countries and less than 5 percent in 11 countries. Three goals for health and nothing about access to health care? Too low bar.

What is the problem with development goals that are narrow, biased and kinky?

First, there is no line. A fundamental principle of Marshall’s Principles was that “nature doesn’t jump” and that is right: there is no non-linear jump in human well-being as these arbitrary low-bar thresholds are crossed. Nothing special happens to a child’s knowledge or capabilities at the end of primary school. Those more than 2 standard deviations below a norm of weight for age the WHO defines as “malnourished” but no one imagines that there is a dramatic difference between those at 2.1 and 1.9. There is no line at the poverty line — no one has ever held an “I am over $1.25 a day” party. Focusing on low-bar goals explicitly dismisses peoples’ legitimate aspirations for good education, better healthcare, higher incomes, better infrastructure as not “priority” without any rationale or justification for a cut off at a low bar.

The second problem is the MDG agenda is too narrow, biased, and kinky to be the development agenda of a democratically elected government. Democratic governments need the median voter and hence nearly all democracies have an agenda aimed at not just “the poor” but their broad middle class. This cannot be the MDGs. Take Indonesia, which made a democratic transition in 1999. The MDG on education could be part of, but not the main focus of its education agenda as primary completion was already at 95 percent. HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and maternal mortality could be part of its health agenda — but that covered only 6.4 percent of its burden of disease. Access to improved water could be part of its infrastructure agenda, but 78 percent were already there. Equalizing enrollment could be part of a gender agenda, but rates were nearly equal already. By 2000 “dollar a day” poverty was already down to 29.4 percent (after spiking during the crisis) so that could not be their economic agenda — even though 67.1 percent were under the “two dollar a day” standard. As seen in Table 2 only for the very poorest of African countries could the MDGs broadly appeal as an agenda for the median voter.

Third, there is a fundamental contradiction between narrow, biased, kinky MDGs and the Paris Declaration that aid should be based on partner-country priorities. You cannot dictate both process and outcome: “countries should set their own priorities and these priorities should be the MDGs.” In nearly all developing countries, governments were increasingly saying to representatives of development assistance agencies: “Do you want to talk about our national agenda or the MDGs?” If one wants to maintain support for development assistance it has to have the support of the developing countries.

If a “mess” of “senseless, dreamy, garbled” “higgledy-piggledy” SDGs with “no priorities” are the price to pay to get rid of the focused but narrow, biased, and kinky MDGs and onto explicit goals, widely shared among citizens of developing countries, for economic growth (8.1) and higher poverty lines (1.2), learning in education goals (4.1), addressing systemic service delivery issues in healthcare and financing, access to energy (7.1) and expressing high-bar ideals rather than defining development down to low-bar goals then I am all for it — even if I don’t expect great things.

A new era for development – the future or already reality?

Guest blog by Arnaldo Pellini

Michael Woolcock, the Lead Social Development Specialist at the World Bank, gave the keynote speech at the International Conference on Best Development Practices and Policies organized by the State Ministry of National Development Planning (BAPPENAS) on August, 19-20 in Jakarta. He is one of the leading voices in the debate around new ways for approaching development problems and designing development interventions that are more flexible and context specific. He is the co-author of a well-known paper that presents an alternative approach, the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation.

Here are some of the key insights I took from Michael Woolcock on a new era for development:

  • We are entering a new era of development which we can be called Development 2.0. Development 1.0 was concerned with technocratic reforms required to provide access to basic services such as education and health. Most countries (certainly middle income countries) have achieved that and have the infrastructures in place: policies, schools, health centers, textbooks, etc. Development 2.0 is about the state capability to make those systems work, providing good quality public services to citizens. For example, schools have been built, teachers are trained, national policies on salary and curricula are in place. So, why is it that some schools perform well and other do not perform well? Those are the questions that we need to research and answer in Development 2.0.
  • Development 2.0 is about multiple (and localized) solutions to development problems. A traditional approach in development is to find smart or best practices and scale them up through nation-wide policies. That approach has had mixed results. Development 2.0 is more about mapping out where public services work well and why as well as where service do not work well and why. Smart practice can still emerge but they can be interpreted to provide a variety of policy responses. This will require moving from the technocratic evidence and knowledge central to Development 1.0, to a more multidisciplinary approach to research and multiple types of evidence that can inform policy decisions aimed at improving service delivery.
  • Multiple sources of evidence help to deal with diversity of development problems. The new evidence generated by various types of research methods and various types of knowledge (eg, community knowledge) will produce maps of variations in service quality and delivery, which can suggest the need for multiple solutions or interventions and to draw as much as possible on local knowledge, initiatives, and various forms of capital (eg budget, social capital, human capital, etc.).
  • Development 2.0 is an era where variation and uncertainty have to be accepted and embraced. It is an era where one-size-fits-all solutions will struggle to succeed and where context specific, technically sound and politically feasible solutions can have a greater chance of success.
  • We, development practitioners and researchers have to learn to become more modest about the extent of what we can learn and, especially, what we can suggest. We can map where bureaucracies struggle and contribute with ideas that can help segments or units of the bureaucracy to provide the services that citizen expect from them. We should avoid the temptation to suggest the solution having mapped with our work only small bits of complex political and institutional realities.

At the end of the meeting I remembered the review written by Malcolm Gladwell about the biography of Albert O. Hirschman, The Gift of Doubt: ‘The economist Albert O. Hirschman […] was a “planner,” the kind of economist who conceives of grand infrastructure projects and bold schemes. But his eye was drawn to the many ways in which plans did not turn out the way they were supposed to—to unintended consequences and perverse outcomes and the puzzling fact that the shortest line between two points is often a dead end. He understood the power of failure and had the gift of doubt.’

Development 2.0 is already here. It seems to me that we should all make use of the same gift of doubt if we are to contribute to progress and innovation in building state capabilities.