A few weeks ago, Vice President Kamala Harris, and other top officials, including Samantha Power, Administrator of the United States Agency of International Development, and former professor at Harvard University, attended the inauguration of Xiomara Castro as the first female President of Honduras in its 200 years of independence. According to several sources, including the New York Times, this is a clear statement of the U.S. foreign policy on strengthening its ties within the Northern Triangle of Central America, and represents a good opportunity to pave the way in tackling complex challenges in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Can the private sector help to deliver on this cause? How?
Vice President Harris launched “a Call to Action to the Private Sector” last year to join government efforts to increase economic opportunities within the region and “address the root causes of migration” to the United States. Twelve companies and organizations such as Bancolombia, Microsoft, Mastercard, the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, among others joined this effort back in May 2021. Recently, seven new partners have joined including Grupo Mariposa, Cargill, PepsiCo, and CARE International, and all together “have invested more than 1.2 billion dollars.” Although this is a promising initiative supported by the nonprofit Partners for Central America, the major challenge now is how to deliver on this promise, allow for stakeholder engagement, and give agency to local communities. Finding the right approach or blending of approaches will be crucial for the implementation of this strategy.
The first question we need to ask ourselves is how much do we know about the problem and how different do stakeholders frame it? Then, how do we get high levels of legitimacy among local communities and sustain it across time? How can we overcome countries’ binding constraints, in Honduras for example, its low ease of doing business? Since there are a lot of unknowns and ambiguities, a good way to start these conversations is by engaging and building trust with key stakeholders in each country. Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) can be a useful methodology to complement current efforts. PDIA is a “learning by doing” approach that empowers stakeholders to breakdown problems, identify potential solutions, iterate, and build capabilities while learning throughout the process. PDIA poses a unique and effective approach to development, borrowing ideas from both private and public sector initiatives and experiences around the world.
This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.
I’ve started my PDIA journey 6 months ago, interested in gaining a deeper learning about alternative approaches to tackle a wicked (ill-defined, multi-sourced, technically complex and politically sensitive) problem in the context of large institutional divergence (weak rules, strong social norms), lack of state capacity, declining interpersonal trust and confidence in government, gradually leading to social decohesion and violence – all boosted by the presence of transnational crime in several societal domains.
Our challenge was to help The Office of the Presidency of Government of Honduras in improving transparency and accountability in country public sector, targeting a reduction of 20% on corruption victimization measured by the “control of corruption” indicator of MCC BSC Honduras FY2021. This reduction was instrumental to qualify Honduras to apply for a second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) award starting in 2021, estimated in USD 255 millions.
We at the Building State Capability program (BSC) have been working directly with governments for over a decade now; focused on helping agents in those governments build their capability to deliver for citizens and society.
We are not consultants. We do not write purely academic papers, offer technical advice, or work in other traditional consultant ways. Rather, we ask the authorizers we are working with in the governments to nominate problems they care about and appoint their own teams to work on those problems. We then work with the teams regularly (often weekly) to learn their way through their problems, to new, locally defined solutions. The teams do the work, gain from the learning, and achieve the progress. This is how they grow their capability and make progress in improving delivery to their citizens and society.
The methodology we employ is called Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). It is a simple management approach that helps organizations solve specific complex problems and build their capability to solve other complex problems in the process.
Some people ask if we are like delivery units. The answer is no.
The energy sector in Honduras has a history of inefficiency. Financial and energy losses have festered for decades. Various reforms and interventions (often supported by external agents, like this World Bank project) have not solved the problem.
In November 2018 a new unit in the President’s Office helped to mobilize a team of officials to take a fresh look at the problem and address it using the PDIA method—where the focus is on working relentlessly to understand the problem in new ways and to then tackle the problem in a pragmatic, step-by-step manner.
The team initially identified that their problem was to come up with a rapid strategy to liberalize the nation’s energy company. This was largely because an externally inspired law had set the country on a path towards liberalization years ago and officials were wanting to make progress on this path. They believed that the liberalization solution in other countries would solve the problems in Honduras.