Premature load bearing: a fresh look at the WDR 2011

Guest blog written by Paul von Chamier

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:

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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. 

Continue reading Premature load bearing: a fresh look at the WDR 2011

How did China Create “Directed Improvisation”?

written by Lant Pritchett

Yuen-Yuen Ang, a Professor of Political Science at University of Michigan came to speak at Harvard the other day and I was lucky enough to hear her presentation.  Her most recent book is How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, which is an original and insightful take on what is perhaps the biggest development puzzle of my lifetime:  how did China escape from long-term stagnation and political chaos into the fastest and longest and most poverty reducing burst of economic growth in the history of humankind?

Her framing of the fundamental problem is the conventional wisdom is that good institutions lead to greater wealth through higher levels of productivity and that greater wealth leads to better institutions.  This obviously leads to a “chicken and egg” problem (metaphorically, this is not about real chickens (or cash)).  Her unconventional insight is that this means the first challenge of development is to harness ‘weak/wrong/bad’ institutions to create markets.  Continue reading How did China Create “Directed Improvisation”?

Making the case for case studies in development practice

Written by Michael Woolcock

The frequency and sophistication with which case studies are deployed by social scientists has greatly expanded in recent years. The goal now is not merely to document or describe, but to diagnose, explain, interpret, and inform a basis for action. Professional schools across the disciplines – from medicine and engineering to business and public policy – now routinely use ‘the case method’ not only to teach but to generate practical knowledge.

World Bank staff have been active contributors to and beneficiaries of these trends, especially as the role of institutions and governance has gained prominence in efforts to enhance development effectiveness. When complex places, processes, people and projects come together, they inherently yield a diverse range of outcomes. Mapping this variation with survey data and then explaining how it varies using targeted case studies can yield uniquely instructive insights for development policy and practice.

This twin approach forms the empirical foundations of a forthcoming report on public service delivery in the Middle East and North Africa region, and will be a central component of the new Global Delivery Initiative (which will focus on explaining and improving the quality of implementation systems).

Rather than seeking universal ‘best practice’ responses as a basis for policy advice, analysts use case studies to learn from ‘natural’ (or sometime overtly experimental) sources of intra-country variation. Everyone can agree in the abstract that context and high quality institutions matter for development, and that one size doesn’t fit all, but these truisms aren’t much help when trying to provide specific advice in response to a specific problem in a specific place, such as stemming urban violence in Rio de Janeiro or promoting more effective antenatal services for women in Cairo. Case studies are emerging as a useful strategy for eliciting not just uplifting success stories, but as unique data collection tools that can guide policy and practice by helping domestic actors adjust in real time as they seek solutions to emerging problems.

The recently completed ‘Institutions Taking Root’ (ITR) study is an exemplary instance of this new approach to discerning what works, and how success happens, in development. In places that initially seemed unlikely venues for successful development, the ITR team began from the premise that someone, somewhere, somehow had probably figured out how to make real gains where others had not.

In contexts ranging from rural electrification in Lao PDR to basic and secondary education in The Gambia, researchers sought out islands of success in seas of seeming failure, defining success as positive outcomes which were measurable, legitimate and durable (i.e., robust despite exogenous shocks or changes in political leadership). An institution was considered to have achieved results if it exhibited sustained, measurable improvements in key agency outputs and outcomes, doing so across prevailing social cleavages (e.g., rural-urban, between ethnic groups, etc.).

Having identified such outcomes, researchers sought to test hypotheses examining the institution’s interaction with its context, and the organization’s inner workings. This procedure was followed in each of the case studies to guide and standardize data collection, thereby making systematic comparison of the cases possible. Interviews and focus groups were conducted both outside-in (focusing on external stakeholders and constituents first before moving onto officials) and bottom-up (beginning with frontline service providers before moving to agency management and political leaders) to ensure that typically less dominant viewpoints were represented.

One memorable example from the ITR describes the ministry of public works in Lao. Most such ministries, especially in poor countries, have strong imperatives to focus on building new roads rather than maintaining existing ones: new roads look impressive, provide officials with elaborate opening ceremonies and flattering media coverage, and most have an immediately large economic impact.

Fixing old roads, by contrast, is boring, time-consuming and devoid of political pay-off, no matter how necessary. But in Lao, the minister of public works had managed to shape a broad public consensus on the moral, economic and political importance of keeping roads in good repair. Deploying a memorable slogan, he travelled the country reminding villagers and elites alike that “Making children is easy and fun; raising children is hard and costly!” In this way, he argued, roads were like people: they should be cared for if they are to make a lasting contribution to Lao society. No matter their level of education, everyone in Lao understood the minister’s analogy; his unique but explicit leadership on this issue enabled him to secure political credit for an important issue that is usually overlooked.

Is this then “the answer” for raising the profile of road maintenance in developing countries everywhere? Readers will doubtless have their own views, but I think it is an answer, demonstrating how a particular team of people found a way to solve a tough but widespread problem. As such, it can hopefully be a source of inspiration and ideas for others elsewhere seeking to find their own solutions.

(Read more posts about this report here)

This post previously appeared on the World Bank blog.

BSC Video 11: Learn Iterate Adapt

Organizations have multiple objectives. In public organizations, the search for legitimacy often clashes with the search for functionality. This is mainly because rewards are geared around form and not function. In this video, Matt Andrews, talks about how you can get both legitimacy and functionality at the same time. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read It’s All About MeE: Using Structured Experiential Learning (‘e’) to Crawl the Design Space, 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 10: Specifying the Design Space

The design space of actual development projects is complex, granular, and nuanced. In this video, Lant Pritchett, uses a simple example of a design space for teacher training to illustrate this point. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read It’s All About MeE: Using Structured Experiential Learning (‘e’) to Crawl the Design Space.

PDIA and Obamacare

written by Matt Andrews

Governments often face unenviable tasks that border on the impossible, given particularly thorny political and administrative complexities. Commentators typically deride governments when they fail in their initial attempts to address such tasks. They pen new laws that are less than many had hoped for, and call public agencies inefficient (or worse) when new roll-out mechanisms go slowly or fall apart altogether. Recent experience with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in the United States is an obvious case in point. No one seems to have an appetite for the struggles government is enduring as it tries to implement this law. We want new websites that perform miracles the first time around, and insurance reforms that solve coverage problems without rocking too many boats. The more we see government muddling in ACA execution the more we criticize it and question the President’s leadership.

This criticism reflects a view on how governments should work that is common in the world of international development, where I do most of my work. Such view reflects a belief in what I call solution and leader driven change (sldc), which holds that policy and reform solutions will work ‘if they are well planned and implemented with strong leadership from the top’. When development initiatives run into trouble, in places as diverse as Argentina, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, sldc believers typically bemoan the lack of leadership and the uselessness of government. They seem to feel that a leader should be able to do all things when armed with a good solution. Any sign of muddling in the process of making or executing change is a sign of a bad solution, weak leadership, or a flailing administration. Success comes from having the right solution at the start and just executing it properly.

This view is extremely problematic. I say this so emphatically because I find exactly the opposite storyline in most of my research examining successful government policies and reforms. The experiences I look at are diverse, ranging from civil rights reform in the United States to growth policies in South Korea and decentralization in Rwanda. Even though these experiences vary a lot, they all involved policy changes that most commentators would call successful—manifesting in more equitable service access, improved economic performance, better public sector performance, and more. I find more commonalities across the cases as well, related to the way they emerged.

Primarily, evidence suggests that these successes seldom (if ever) came about through a clean process where a leader introduced a solution and just forced implementation by edict. Rather, change was spurred by the recognition (by a group of agents) that a problem existed that warranted change; but no one knew exactly what to do. Solutions emerged over time, through many iterative experiments that provided lessons about what could be done and allowed reformers to build support and capability to do more. I call such experimentation ‘purposive muddling’ and see it fitting into an overall process of problem driven iterative adaptation (pdia) that seems more likely to characterize successful change than solution and leader driven change.

I even see purposive muddling and pdia in the story of NASA’s successful lunar missions, which some media outlets portray as a solution and leader driven change initiative (where technical experts simply did what President Kennedy told them to). In fact, the mission involved many agents (and two presidents) and emerged over a number of years; through experimentation that often looked like it was delivering more failure than success. The experimentation looked like purposive muddling that often required more budget than had been provided and required creative administrative solutions that would probably be questioned today. It spawned sad deaths on the launch pad and the messy dismissal of a legendary administrator, but also ultimately led to a number of humans doing the impossible and stepping on the lunar surface.

I believe that governments are still capable of doing great (and impossible) things, and finding solutions to our most complex problems and challenges—like those evident in the health care domain. But they will never do this in a clean, solution driven process that many commentators seem to believe in. Complex policy changes and reforms like those associated with the Affordable Care Act demand messy processes of purposive muddling. These processes can deliver great results if there is space to learn and iterate (which I wonder about with health reform in the USA). We should be grateful whenever political and administrative leaders in government recognize this, and continue to muddle despite the derision their muddling attracts. The governments we should really deride are those that don’t muddle, because they are probably side stepping the complex and demanding problems their citizens face.

This blog post also appeared in the Washington Monthly.

BSC Video 9: Constructing Problems to Drive Change

Problems are key to driving change. In this video, Matt Andrews, uses two examples about HIV in Pakistan, to illustrate how constructing local problems using data can be used to mobilize stakeholders to search for solutions that ultimately drive change. 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).

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.