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institutional reform

#6 from 2013: The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development - Changing Rules for Realistic Solutions: Getting Stuff Done

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by readership in 2013
This post was originally published on February 21, 2013


There is a silent struggle going regarding how you do governance reforms in development. It is between the prevailing tendency and a small but growing band of practitioners saying things need to be done differently. The prevailing tendency is the packaging of experts-devised best practice packages that we take from country to country…model anti-corruption laws, model designs for the civil service, procurement systems, and financial management systems and so on. Our highly trained experts are invested in their solutions, and the modern global system has a growing array of policy networks on every issue under the sun, and they amass and disseminate norms of ideal practice. So, donors and their experts move from one country to another, offering money, loans, and these packages.  So, how are things working out? Not very well is the answer. To use an Americanism; we are not getting stuff done that much when it comes to governance reforms, whatever the sector. Isn’t it high time we changed our ways?

The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development: A Big New Book by Matt Andrews

Duncan Green's picture

There’s nothing like an impending meeting with the author to make you dig out your scrounged review copy of his book. So I spent my flight to Boston last week reading Limits (sorry the full title is just too clunky).  And luckily for the dinner conversation, I loved it.

Limits is about why change doesn’t happen, and how it could. It synthesizes the ‘groundswell’ of disquiet about the failure of the governance and institutional reforms that have been promoted for many years now by aid agencies like the World Bank. And it’s not just a whinge – there are plenty of ideas for how aid agencies can do better. The book is particularly useful for those working on fragile states – lots of the positive examples (as well as some failures) come from Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and elsewhere, although there is a bit of ‘why can’t everywhere be more like Rwanda?’ in there too.

Overall, the approach reminded me of Dani Rodrik’s great book, In Search of Prosperity, and Matt says Rodrik (a fellow Harvard prof) was influential in pushing him to nail down the always-elusive ‘so whats’.

Limits summarizes research and thinking from disparate disciplines, with lots of fascinating case studies (he’s put in the legwork to build a serious empirical basis for his conclusions). His big idea is captured in a new acronym, PDIA (Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation), which, as he pointed out, is similar to the Participatory Institutional Appraisal idea I raised in a recent blog. I’m not sure if PDIA will catch on – it could have done with a snappier title, as could the book – but the content is really important if you are interested in aid, institutions or governance.

So what does it say? Firstly, that we have a big failure on our hands. The spate of projects and programmes around institutional reform has at best a mixed record of success; in many countries institutions have actually deteriorated in terms of effectiveness, corruption etc.