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Escaping Capability Traps through Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)

  • Andrews, Matt

    (Harvard University)

  • Pritchett, Lant

    (Center for Global Development, Washington, DC and Harvard University)

  • Woolcock, Michael

    (World Bank)

Many reform initiatives in developing countries fail to achieve sustained improvements in performance because they are merely isomorphic mimicry--that is, governments and organizations pretend to reform by changing what policies or organizations look like rather than what they actually do. In addition, the flow of development resources and legitimacy without demonstrated improvements in performance undermines the impetus for effective action to build state capability or improve performance. This dynamic facilitates "capability traps" in which state capability stagnates, or even deteriorates, over long periods of time even though governments remain engaged in developmental rhetoric and continue to receive development resources. How can countries escape capability traps? We propose an approach, Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), based on four core principles, each of which stands in sharp contrast with the standard approaches. First, PDIA focuses on solving locally nominated and defined problems in performance (as opposed to transplanting preconceived and packaged "best practice" solutions). Second, it seeks to create an authorizing environment for decision-making that encourages positive deviance and experimentation (as opposed to designing projects and programs and then requiring agents to implement them exactly as designed). Third, it embeds this experimentation in tight feedback loops that facilitate rapid experiential learning (as opposed to enduring long lag times in learning from ex post "evaluation"). Fourth, it actively engages broad sets of agents to ensure that reforms are viable, legitimate, relevant, and supportable (as opposed to a narrow set of external experts promoting the top-down diffusion of innovation).

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Paper provided by Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government in its series Working Paper Series with number rwp12-036.

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Date of creation: Aug 2012
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:ecl:harjfk:rwp12-036
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  1. Pritchett, Lant & Woolcock, Michael & Andrews, Matt, 2012. "Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation," Working Paper Series UNU-WIDER Research Paper , World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU-WIDER).
  2. Elinor Ostrom, 2010. "Unlocking Public Entrepreneurship and Public Economies," Working Papers id:2580, eSocialSciences.
  3. Kraay, Aart & Kraay, Aart & Murrell, Peter, 2013. "Misunderestimating corruption," Policy Research Working Paper Series 6488, The World Bank.
  4. Sharun W. Mukand & Dani Rodrik, 2005. "In Search of the Holy Grail: Policy Convergence, Experimentation, and Economic Performance," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 95(1), pages 374-383, March.
  5. Denizer, Cevdet & Kaufmann, Daniel & Kraay, Aart, 2013. "Good countries or good projects? Macro and micro correlates of World Bank project performance," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 105(C), pages 288-302.
  6. Dani Rodrik, 2008. "Second-Best Institutions," NBER Working Papers 14050, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Garud, Raghu & Karnoe, Peter, 2003. "Bricolage versus breakthrough: distributed and embedded agency in technology entrepreneurship," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 32(2), pages 277-300, February.
  8. Mair, Johanna & Marti, Ignasi, 2009. "Entrepreneurship in and around institutional voids: A case study from Bangladesh," Journal of Business Venturing, Elsevier, vol. 24(5), pages 419-435, September.
  9. Kim S. Cameron, 1986. "Effectiveness as Paradox: Consensus and Conflict in Conceptions of Organizational Effectiveness," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 32(5), pages 539-553, May.
  10. Andrews,Matt, 2013. "The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9781107016330.
  11. Levy, Brian & Fukuyama, Francis, 2010. "Development strategies : integrating governance and growth," Policy Research Working Paper Series 5196, The World Bank.
  12. Pritchett, Lant & Woolcock, Michael, 2004. "Solutions When the Solution is the Problem: Arraying the Disarray in Development," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 32(2), pages 191-212, February.
  13. Daniel Adler & Caroline Sage & Michael Woolcock, 2009. "Interim Institutions and the Development Process: Opening Spaces for Reform in Cambodia and Indonesia," Brooks World Poverty Institute Working Paper Series 8609, BWPI, The University of Manchester.
  14. Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, Matt Andrews, 2010. "Capability Traps? The Mechanisms of Persistent Implementation Failure - Working Paper 234," Working Papers 234, Center for Global Development.
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