In 2011 the World Development Report shed some light on the extent of the challenges that drive premature load bearing, a concept discussed in earlier BSC blog posts. Among hundreds of figures presented in the Report was a simple table that showed how long it should take for so-called fragile countries to achieve a “decent” level of governance. To define that “decent” level the author, Lant Pritchett, used the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators and assessed how many years it would take until fragile countries hit the threshold of governance quality of the top 40 percent of the best performing countries, this was a score of 6 on the scale of 0-10.[i] The results of the exercise were somber:
The results suggest that more robust leadership will be instrumental if those countries are to achieve a satisfactory level of governance. If fragile countries were to continue at their current average pace they will not pass the threshold in any foreseeable future. Even in a very optimistic scenario, in which the fragile countries would all at once start improving their institutions at the pace of 20 best performing countries (the likes of Singapore, Taiwan, Denmark, and Canada), it would still take three decades to accomplish. This is the case even though that threshold only denotes a decent level of governance (i.e. not even the level that people in the most developed countries enjoy). Progress, even when rapid, takes place at a very slow, organic pace and even when strong leadership is present it might take a whole generation to bear fruit.
The coherence and effectiveness of engagement with the world’s ‘fragile and conflict-affected states’—beyond ethical imperatives and geo-strategic considerations—turns on answers to two vexing questions. First, on what defensible basis is any given country, at any given historical moment, deemed to be (or not to be) ‘fragile’? Second, if a defining characteristic of state fragility is low levels of capability to implement core responsibilities, how can international agencies best support domestic public organizations to acquire capability?
The first issue may appear to be a methodological one (wherein more and better data would provide a firmer empirical foundation on which to base key decisions) but any determination, especially of marginal cases, must also be grounded in a correspondingly comprehensive theory of change. Similarly, the optimal response to the second issue may appear to be importing technical and rigorously verified (‘best practice’) solutions, but in fact it is more likely to require a qualitatively different strategy, one able to experiment with alternative design specifications and adapt in real time to changing contextual realities (thereby iterating towards customized ‘best fit’ solutions).
In his new paper, Engaging with Fragile and Conflict-Affected States, Michael Woolcock argues that an evolving approach known as Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) could be used to answer the second question. PDIA offers a coherent basis on which to distinguish between different types of development problems, and to help craft a more appropriate match between types of problems and types of solutions. It works by gathering real time input from many actors on the ground in order to continually inform the adaptive planning process.
Work along these lines has already been conducted in the fragile states of Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone, where teams of local researchers have been actively engaged in documenting changes in the nature and extent of conflict as a basis for contributing to a national policy dialogue. Policy debate about these issues would otherwise largely be conducted on an anecdotal basis, but using local researchers to generate local knowledge using local indicators has been central to identifying forms and source of local variation, in crafting a credible basis for reforms, and to enhancing the legitimacy of international actors, whose role in these matters has been to facilitate rather than pre-determine what might be done.
Earlier today, Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, and Frauke de Weijer were on a panel for the Fragility and Aid: What Works? event held by the UNU-WIDER at the Permanent Mission of Germany to the UN. They discussed how even well-meaning attempts to “build capacity” could serve as techniques of persistent failure because of isomorphic mimicry (emphasis on form over function) which allows for continued dysfunction, and premature load bearing (too much too soon) which builds mistrust and cynicism whereby the donor decides on what needs to be done, but the country gets blamed for the failure, setting off a vicious cycle of bad institutions. They also discussed how PDIA might be used in fragile states.