About the Author

Matt Andrews is Senior Lecturer in Public Policy. His research focuses on public sector reform, particularly budgeting and financial management reform, and participatory governance in developing and transitional governments. Recent articles focus on forging a theoretical understanding of the nontechnical factors influencing success in reform processes. Specific emphasis lies on the informal institutional context of reform, as well as leadership structures within government-wide networks. This research developed out of his work in the provincial government of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa and more recently from his tenure as a Public Sector Specialist working in the Europe and Central Asia Region of the World Bank. He brings this experience to courses on public management and development. He holds a BCom (Hons) degree from the University of Natal, Durban (South Africa), an MSc from the University of London, and a PhD in Public Administration from the Maxwell School, Syracuse University.

Publisher's Book Description

Institutional reforms are common across the globe. Think of efforts to build new governments in Afghanistan and Iraq; or decades worth of interventions intended to improve fiscal management, reduce corruption or introduce efficient public sector service delivery in African countries. These reforms often have limited results, however. They lead to new laws that are not properly implemented, and new organizations that have poor capacities and fail to function as needed. In this book, Matt Andrews explains why reform results are frequently limited and suggests ways to overcome these limits. 

In the first half of the book, Andrews argues that reforms fail to make governments better when they are introduced as signals to gain short-term support--from donors and others. Reforms as signals introduce unrealistic best practices that do not fit developing country contexts and are not considered relevant by implementing agents. The result is a set of new forms that do not function properly. Andrews uses examples to prove this point, ranging from efforts to introduce fiscal rules in Argentina to reforms aimed at international accounting standard adoption in many African countries, and anti corruption interventions in Malawi and Uganda. 

In the second half of the book, Andrews notes that there are instances where reforms are not being introduced as signals, and are having more of an impact on government effectiveness. Examples include local government reforms in Rwanda, anti corruption initiatives in Indonesia, and a variety of initiatives ranging from results based management to civil service modernization and internal control regime adoption in governments like Kenya, Kosovo and Afghanistan. 

Andrews uses these examples to discuss ways in which reforms can actually provide realistic solutions to governance challenges in developing countries. Lessons from these experiences suggest that reform limits can be overcome by focusing interventions on problem solving, and promoting incremental and localized processes to find solutions, involving multiple agents who can authorize and implement reforms.


“Institutional reform can only work if it is tailored to the local context. That is why so-called best-practice reforms typically fail: they create the illusion of progress, but not the reality. This important book goes beyond this lament to formulate a positive agenda of reform, built on incrementalism, problem-driven focus, and collaboration among stakeholders. Matt Andrews has seen the future, and it is in this book.” — Dani Rodrik, Institute for Advanced Studies

“The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development points to the singular inability of international donors to promote their vision of good government, and explains how this is rooted in their failure to understand local context. More importantly, it suggests a way forward, not through preconceived models but through experimentation and adaptation.” — Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University

“In this post-financial crisis era, many of us increasingly realize that we actually know little about how to govern human society for a good life. The author's insightful analysis makes a significant contribution to the literature. It has major implications for the study of public sector reforms in developing countries.” — Jun Ma, Sun Yat-sen University, China

“Andrews has a simple but bold idea: admit that no one really knows what to do about governance failings in poor countries. Deep six the World Bank-style public-sector reform blueprints that haven't worked. Define the problem instead of specifying the solution, adopt 'muddle through' instead of 'best practice', and stop counting on local champions. New World Bank president Jim Yong Kim should ask
for a briefing on this book.” — Nancy Birdsall, President, Center for Global Development, Washington, DC

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Matthew Andrews:

The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development chronicles stories of attempts to build and rebuild governments in developing countries over the last 30 years. These attempts generally try to change the rules of the game within governments and between governments and societies. What the book shows is that many of these attempts don't do what we hope that they will do. They don't lead to more functional states. They don't lead to governments that manage the money better, or manage their people better, or engage in a more fruitful manner with business. They don't necessarily lead to governments that are less corrupt than they were when they began. Instead, they often lead to governments that look a lot better than they did when they started. Their laws are better, their organizations are better, they have better regulations and procedures and systems sometimes costing hundreds of millions of dollars, but in many cases these laws and systems and procedures don't work. They aren't implemented, they aren't adhered to, and they simply become like window dressing on a store that doesn't really function or sell what you really hope it does.

So, what the book does is it goes into an explanation of why this seems to be the case using a fair amount of data, some case studies, and a lot of empirical evidence to try and really make a strong case. It says that a lot of countries have a huge incentive to signal with the reforms that they use. This means that they do all the things that the international donors tell them to do, and this is really useful for them because the donors have very strong ideas about what should be done. Whether you're talking about public financial management or civil service reform or anti corruption, they are usually very, very fixed agendas that donors have agreed to.

These fixed agendas are assessed in indicators that governments will essentially model the reforms around. The problem is that these solution sets don't necessarily take into consideration the context that you are trying to do the reforming. They impose content that is rarely, rarely beyond the means of many countries. And they don't necessarily engage broadly with the agents on the ground who have to make the change happen.

Now, what the book also does is it identifies a subset of experiences where we see reform being more successful, where governments decentralize and they actually find that de-centralized agencies produce services better than they did before. Or the governments try to tackle corruption and they find that they actually can tackle corruption afterwards. Oh the governments try to overhaul their health services and the product is better healthcare. And what we find there is a completely different model of intervention. It doesn't start with solutions, but it starts with problems. It doesn't progress along a standard reform process whereby you have a project and the project has to be implemented in just a manner. Rather, it's incremental, step-by-step, there's a lot of experimentation, and there's a lot of learning and there's a lot of flexibility.

We also find in these cases that it's not about having one single champion running the reform. It's about having a group of agents who bring a lot of different roles and functions to bed to make a solution that works for the country where it is being introduced.

So, this is where the book ends up with a proposal for international development. Not to use a standard project approach in doing institutional reforms, but to adopt what is called problem driven iterative adaptation. It's a bit of a mouthful, but the basic idea is: do the reforms that work in the context, that solve the problems that people there care about, that emerged from iterative processes of finding and footing solutions that can actually work in those contexts, or that involve many, many agents so that you can actually diffuse and you can actually sustain the interventions you put in place.

I leave the book at the end with the question of whether this kind of approach is even possible in the developing community. This community is a community that has withstood change for many, many generations now, but we also do think that there are signs that there might be some openings for adjustments in the process and the approach to change. That's what the book is about. I hope that you enjoy reading it, or at least have enjoyed listening to me talking about it. Thank you.