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#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?

If you are in any doubt about any of this and if you want to learn about how we might get more stuff done, you need to read as carefully and as avidly as you can an important new book on the subject: The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development – Changing Rules for Realistic Solutions. The author is Matt Andrews. He is an Associate Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. This is the kind of book that might turn out to be seminal if enough practitioners pay attention to it. For what he does is to review evidence from interventions from around the world in order to show beyond reasonable doubt that reforms exhibiting best practice bias have a dismal record, and many developing country governments have figured out how to manipulate international aid agencies. There are some truly hilarious stories about how they do this in the book. And donors keep falling for the tricks because of the nature of their own incentive structures. The book is filled with case studies from around the world. When you read the book please look for my favorite story: the two budgets trick (p. 119).

Andrews’ thesis, in my opinion, is summed up in the title of Chapter 4 of the book: Reforms are overspecified, solutions are oversimplified. That says it all. Reforms are overspecified because for every area of reform we have our prepackaged solutions…in detail. Solutions are oversimplified because donor agencies are not really keen on taking on the complexities of the specific context: the rules of the game, the disposition of interest groups, the state of local politics and so on. Too difficult; takes too long. We look for a local ‘champion’, launch the reform and hope for the best. When the desired change is not achieved or sustained we blame the natives, blame the realities on the ground in our evaluation reports, shrug our shoulders and move on. What Andrews does is analyze these widespread failures frankly and elegantly. I say elegantly because the diagrams in this book are brilliant; you will find your own favorites when you read the book.

But The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development does not encourage despair; rather the opposite. Andrews discusses in detail the minority of cases where reforms happened on the ground and were sustained; in other words, cases in which stuff got done. But before we sum up what unites these instances,  let’s discuss three aspects of the book that I like the most.

The first is the astute deployment of insights from the new institutionalists of political science and related social sciences. The book contains a rich discussion of complex institutional structures in different societies and how they shape the behavior of actors/agents. It also shows – not through mere theory but field research – how institutions change and under what conditions new ones take root. Andrews demonstrates that many of the reforms we seek in developing countries can only succeed when the rules of the game change but we are often too impatient or indifferent to really focus on this vital process.

The second aspect of the book that I really like is the push for a problem-driven rather than a solution-driven approach to reforms.  This is something communication specialists know and have been saying. You go to a country as a donor and you say there is a problem to be fixed. Well, as I like to ask, who says there is a problem? If those whose country it is do not see a problem, or they do not define the problem the way you do, well, we have a problem, don’t we? For, problem recognition and problem definition form the basis of mobilizing action and building support for a shared solution. These are crucial communicative processes.

Which brings me to the third aspect of the book that I really appreciate: Andrews’ insistence, backed by his case studies, that what fosters change is multi-agent or broad leadership…not the lone champion. As the reform process unfolds, these multiple agents provide multiple functions: there are conveners, there are connectors, and there are motivators and so on. There are elegant charts in Chapter 9 breaking all this down from real cases.  There is a lot of trade craft to be gleaned from these pages.

To sum up, what do successful reforms have in common as Andrews tells it? They have the following in common:

  1. They  respond to context, especially the underlying rules of the game;
  2. They focus on the problem be solved, a sense of which those whose country it is share;
  3. They have multiagent leadership, not merely lone champions; and
  4. They experiment and adapt, and are often incremental in their approach.

Andrews is a scholar-technocrat, so he has his own jargon for all this: problem-driven iterative adaption (PDIA). Professors seem to need these things.

Great book and a massive contribution. I urge you to get to know it and its riches.

Picture Credit: Cambridge University Press

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