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.