SOUTH SUDAN IS ENJOYING MANY OF THE BENEFITS that come with peacetime—new schools, health clinics, and outdoor markets. There are solar-powered streetlamps in Juba, and people have traded in their military uniforms for business suits. One might even say life is prosperous. It’s certainly a far cry from the bloodshed South Sudan and its northern neighbor experienced for half a century. The two countries were embroiled in a bloody civil war that claimed some two million lives and displaced more than four million others. The relative peace the two countries are now enjoying is eight years old.

However, even with billions of dollars in bilateral and multilateral aid, the new nation, which gained official state status only in 2011, continues to suffer from a range of economic, humanitarian, and political challenges exacerbated by extremely limited state capability.

In a new Harvard Kennedy School paper, Professor Lant Pritchett and his coauthors ask whether Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), or disruptive innovation, might be a useful framework for helping the new country escape what they call its “capability trap.”

From the authors

“Given that ‘business as usual’ has failed to establish the roots of good governance thus far, might South Sudan try something different?”

Lant Pritchett Professor of the Practice of International Development, Greg Larson, HKS; Peter Ajak MPA/ID 2009, University of Cambridge

The trap rests on two primary pillars, the authors write. The first is the ability to appear legitimate by imitating modern institutions but without functionality, and the second is what they term “premature load bearing,” which occurs when outside engagement actively hinders the growth of “domestic, organically-evolved functional organizations, paradoxically, by pushing too hard so that stresses exceed capability.”

“Given that ‘business as usual’ has failed to establish the roots of good governance thus far, might South Sudan try something different?” the authors ask.

PDIA calls for “an ongoing process of discovering and encouraging which of the diverse context-specific institutional forms will lead to higher functionality [in South Sudan],” the authors write. Thus, “a PDIA approach in Southern Sudan during the interim period would, for example, not have acted so quickly to establish each and every governing institution immediately.”

Instead, the authors suggest, “It would have experimented with alternative, innovative techniques while being more sensitive to feedback from Government of South Sudan (GoSS) in order to evaluate effectiveness in real-time...[building] on the capabilities that South Sudan does have—in order to build towards lasting capability, and a government that works in and for South Sudan.”

The authors further argue, “Such ‘techniques of failure’ and the capability traps they produce might be overcome, through the approach of PDIA.”

“The South Sudanese experience, where an enormous donor-driven effort to ‘fill the capacity gap’ through a variety of orthodox mechanisms has not resulted in widespread success,” the authors conclude. “GoSS continues to suffer from extremely limited state capability, and is improving at a very slow rate that is hampered by persistent dysfunction in the ‘capacity building’ process.”

The paper, “South Sudan’s Capability Trap: Building a State with Disruptive Innovation,” was written with Greg Larson, a Harvard Kennedy School teaching assistant, and Peter Ajak MPA/ID 2009, of the University of Cambridge. Ajak is a former “Lost Boy,” one of the tens of thousands of Sudanese youths who were separated from their families during the war and grew up in the tumult of the conflict.

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