The Illusion of Development

 

Development
Faculty ResearchersMatt Andrews, Associate Professor; Lant Pritchett, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Harvard Kennedy SchoolPaper Title Looking Like a State: Technique of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation
Coauthor Michael Woolcock, World Bank

Development is a process whereby countries find and fit solutions that work to solve problems in their contexts. The development community often ignores this, however, promoting best practice solutions with no process of identifying problems (to see if the solutions are even wanted) or finding and fitting new practices (to ensure that the solutions are practically possible and politically feasible).

This is what Harvard Kennedy School’s Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock of the World Bank argue in their paper “Looking Like a State: Technique of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation.”

They assert that many developing countries are trying to emulate solutions that came into being only recently in developed countries. These attempts ignore the fact that all those solutions came about through a process in the developed countries. Best-practice solutions can work in tackling problems that have a universal technical solution, for instance, but they fail for complex problems in which politics is involved, capacity constraints are severe, and even the nature of the problem is unclear. For these problems there is a genuine need to constantly reinvent the wheel (or at least to fit the wheel in a dramatically different way).

The development process does not promote such reinvention, however, partly because of what is called isomorphic mimicry: the tendency many organizations have to adopt best practices in order to appear legitimate, even if the practices do not offer better functionality. Often they are beyond the capability of developing countries, with the result that they exist in form but not in function. This is a successful strategy for persistent failure.

“What we want to say to the international organizations is, ‘you can’t bypass the process,’” says Andrews. “Developed countries became developed through a process, and it’s naive to think that you can just forget about that process and just introduce solutions for other places. That doesn’t work. And so what you have is a lot of very good ideas being tried over and over again that may well be the right solutions, but without the process through which they actually emerge within the context as something that functions properly given the local conditions.”

The authors propose a new approach to development that emphasizes the process rather than the solution. Called Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (pdia), this approach starts with a rigorous focus on locally felt problems, calls for step-by-step experimentation to find and fit solutions, emphasizes immediate feedback and learning from the process, and notes the need to work with groups rather than individual agents, who cannot ensure the diffusion of development solutions. The authors argue that this is how many functional development solutions actually emerge, and they aim to prove it in research currently under way through the Center for International Development’s Building State Capability program.


— by Jenny Li Fowler

Best-practice solutions can work in tackling problems that have a universal technical solution, for instance, but they fail for complex problems in which politics is involved, capacity constraints are severe, and even the nature of the problem is unclear.


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