At an event convened in Oslo,Norway last week, I had the opportunity of discussing issues related to capacity building with the well-known economist Lant Pritchett.
In a fascinating book titled Building State Capacity: Evidence, Analysis, Action (2017), Pritchett and his co-authors Matt Andrews and Michael Woolcock argue that despite good intentions aimed at strengthening capacity and improving effectiveness, the history of organisational reforms in the developing world has been one of failure. Why is this so?
In large parts of the world, many well-meaning actors have encouraged and financed initiatives to strengthen the policymaking landscape. Thus, new legislation and organisational reforms are routinely proposed, debated, criticised and adopted. But they may fail to deliver the intended results and hence the oft-repeated lament that many countries are policy rich but implementation is poor.
The book argues that implementation failure often results from organisations “that cannot equip their agents with the capacity, resources and motivation to take actions that promote the organisation’s stated objectives”. It suggests two main sets of explanations for this: isomorphic mimicry and organisational overload.
Many countries and organisations adopt “isomorphism” as a strategy, i.e. they want to look or pretend to be successful. Thus, leaders may actively embrace and promote reforms to improve performance even when very little of that performance is achieved in practice.
By recognising the need for reforms, organisations and their leaders give the impression that they are more successful than they are. They do this to increase their legitimacy in the eyes of the public or donors. The problem is that isomorphic mimicry substitutes “looks like” for “does”, and participation in trainings and workshops or formulating impressive budgets may count as “success” even when such rituals do not change actual behaviour.
Another reason why reforms fail is when organisations are prematurely overloaded with ambitious tasks which force them to do too much too soon. When asked to perform complex tasks such as regulating industrial activity or collecting taxes, routinely carried out by their counterparts in more affluent parts of the world, organisations with weak capacity face immense pressure.
Many well-intentioned attempts at promoting good governance and good institutions have ended up transplanting western models and legal instruments in low-income country contexts.
Pritchett and his co-authors warn us not to conflate “form” (e.g. rules on procurement, which may be easy to transplant) with “function” (proven performance). Simply transplanting “forms” without considering actual ability to perform can be counterproductive.
The same applies for imposing unrealistic expectations on weak organisations and hoping they will perform miracles overnight. A better strategy, the book argues, is “problem-driven iterative adaptation” (PDIA) where local problems are identified and solved through innovation and feedback through horizontal and interlinked networks. I will discuss the merits of PDIA in a future column. n