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institutional reform

Developing democracies can thrive — messily

Brian Levy's picture

In a recent blog post, I introduced some data on patterns of governance change in developing democracies. The data confirm a central theme of Working with the Grain that most developing democracies are messy, and are likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. For the overwhelming majority of developing democracies, transformational fantasies are just that – fantasies. In these messy settings, our conventional frameworks of good governance and technocratic policymaking are of little use. Those of us who are committed to democratic pathways need new understandings of the way forward.

This post provides the empirical detail which I promised in the earlier post – and highlights also what the reality of democratic ‘messiness’ implies for action. As I laid out in the earlier post – and as the attached file on MAJOR GOVERNANCE IMPROVERS 1998 to 2013 details, — 65 countries are on a democratic pathway and have populations in excess of 1 million and per capita incomes which (as of 2000) were below $10,000.  The group divides more-or-less evenly between 35 countries for which the recent period has been one of continuing (albeit often uneven) economic progress, and 30 countries that have experienced limited, if any, gains on either the institutional or economic front.  The 35 countries in turn divide into three predominant patterns.

Transformational fantasies, cumulative possibilities

Brian Levy's picture

Reality Check Ahead signDreams die hard. I was on the road for much of last fall, talking about my new book – which promotes (as I put it in a recent piece in foreignpolicy.com), the virtues of modesty in our approach to democratic development. While my message is a sober one, my aim is not to foster pessimism but rather to highlight pragmatic ways forward.

Yet, repeatedly, I come up against critics who bewail my seeming lack of ambition. “Why”, they ask, “do you sell short the possibilities of transformation? Isn’t what we need bold, decisive, ethical leadership which cuts through the messiness of present predicaments?  Where governance is weak, bold leaders can and should make it strong – rapidly and systematically!”.

By now, there is plenty of scholarship that makes the case that changes in governance cannot be willed into being – but rather that ‘good governance’ is the cumulative consequence of a long, slow incremental process. Nobel-prize-winner Douglass North and colleagues have clarified conceptually how personalized bargains between contending elites can provide platforms for both stability and (perhaps) the slow evolution of formal rules of the game. Francis Fukuyama masterfully documents, over two volumes, the deep historical roots of the rule of law, and of the difficult challenges posed by democratization in settings where state capabilities remain weak.

For many, though, conceptual and historical perspectives remain unpersuasive. “We need change”, they insist. “Therefore good leaders should provide it.”

Doing Development Differently: Report Back from Two Mind-Blowing Days at Harvard

Duncan Green's picture

SDDD logospent an intense two days at Harvard last week, taking part in a ‘Doing Development Differently’ (DDD) seminar, hosted by Matt Andrews, who runs Harvard’s 'Building State Capability' programme and ODI. About 40 participants, a mixture of multilaterals and donors (big World Bank contingent), consultants and project design and implementation people, and a couple of (more or less) tame NGO people like me (here’s the participants list).

The purpose was to learn from success, based on 15 short (7m) filmed presentations, which are all online, and ensuing discussions. The premise of the meeting was that there is something like an incipient movement around DDD. As you would expect at such an early stage, it is fragmented and messy (people using the same words to mean different things, lack of clarity on what is/is not included, overlap with other initiatives like the Thinking and Working Politically crew etc), and clearer on what it is against (linear thinking, tyranny of the logframe etc) than what it is for. So this meeting aimed to try and clarify terms and ways of thinking, and build something like a community of practice and consensus among adherents.

#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.