A number of noteworthy reports on institutional change, development, and foreign aid have been published recently. There is much agreement between them, suggesting that we have reached a tipping point in knowledge in this area. I will briefly summarize the results here and provide links for those who want to explore the subject further.
The Development Leadership Programme lays out a framework for how to work politically:
1) Agency matters. This means that the choices, decisions and actions of individuals, groups and organizations and, in particular, their leaders and elites matter.
2) Leadership matters. But the extent to which he or she will be able to pursue a particular vision depends on his or her ability to mobilize an alliance or coalition of other people, organizations or interests in support of that goal.
3) Coalitions matter. This is essential to reconfiguring political dynamics to overcome constraints and take advantage of opportunities. The possibilities depend on the institutional and political context; the interests, strength and nature of the political opposition; the strategies they adopt; the networks they exploit; and the manner in which their tactics and communications are framed.
4) Collective action problems constitute one of the major challenges of development. Collective action problems are best understood as those pervasive problem situations in which people or groups with diverse (and often competing) interests find it hard to agree on an institutional or organizational arrangement from which they would all benefit and without which they would all be worse off.
5) Understand the micro-politics in detail: who the players are, what they do, where they come from, their organizational affiliations, networks, ideologies and interests and the political dynamics of the issue or sector.
6) Processes are key in development and change, and their evolution and forms, and their institutional expression, will vary from context to context and require both support and time to consolidate.
7) Respect, support, and encourage local leadership to shape or reform institutions to achieve positive developmental outcomes rather than trying to accomplish change directly.
In Unblocking Results: using aid to address governance constraints in public service delivery, an ODI team identified six factors that were critical to success:
1) Identify and seize windows of opportunity: This requires the right relationships, trust, and inside knowledge—all of which take a long time (before the window occurs) to create.
2) Focus on reforms with tangible political pay-offs: Those with power are more likely to act when they have a self interest in doing so.
3) Build on what’s there: Look for governance strengths in whatever form they appear and concentrate on enhancing how they work instead of creating new rules and laws.
4) Move beyond dialogue: Better to focus on improving how things work than endless discussions on policies, procedures, regulations, and laws.
5) Facilitate local collective action solutions: Bring people together that normally would not meet so they can solve problems for themselves. Locals will be better at customizing solutions to fit local circumstances.
6) Learn and Adapt to Local Needs: Be flexible, allow adjustment to what is learned when a plan meets the reality on-the-ground.’
In the Limits of Institutional Reform in Development, Harvard’s Matt Andrews argues that reforms in large organizations depend on a large number of ‘distributed agents’ rather than any reform champion. As such, these distributed agents need to be engaged early on so they can influence and buy into any change process.
He argues that the best way to bring about institutional change is through a four-part process called Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). This concept was originally outlined in a paper about escaping capability traps that he co-authored with Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock:
1. PDIA focuses on solving locally nominated and defined problems in performance (as opposed to transplanting preconceived and packaged “best practice” solutions).
2. 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).
3. 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”).
4. 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).
As Duncan Greene summarized on his blog, Matt’s book suggests outsiders should avoid blueprints and
1) Focus on identifying, highlighting and exploring problems, but let locals come up with their own solutions.
2) Provide opportunities for local actors to meet, debate, and reflect upon problems
3) Focus on removing obstacles to new approaches
4) Invest in flexible initiatives that allow learning-by-doing, and a customization of solutions
As was mentioned during his ODI presentation, much of this will be familiar to anyone steeped in the literature of public administration reform, but may be new for development people.
The Africa Power and Politics Programme, which wrapped up last year, argues that
governance challenges are not fundamentally about one set of people getting another set of people to behave better. They are about both sets of people finding ways of being able to act collectively in their own best interests. They are about collective problem-solving in fragmented societies hampered by low levels of trust.
1) Creating new ways of power sharing to deal with sectarianism
2) Ring-fencing important institutions and developmental oriented ministries from politicians
3) Foster the creation of hybrid institutions that take advantage of how local people actually do things
4) Learn from what has worked elsewhere in similar circumstances (rather that what we think ought to work from our own experiences)
5) Work to change informal social norms and moral sentiments (through, for instance, creative use of mass media and the power of example) instead of assuming changes to formal laws alone will have a big impact
6) Work more “at arm’s length,” delegating planning and funding to organizations that have a better capacity (than aid agencies) to work within the local context
The synthesis report concludes that:
Where positive outcomes are achieved, the reasons are almost always that circumstances have permitted a collective action log-jam to be overcome, usually at several levels simultaneously and interactively.
There is much in common across all these. Other reports and books, such as those produced by Elites, Production and Poverty, the Centre for the Future State, and Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont of the Carnegie Endowment on development aid and politics have made similar conclusions.
All of this shows how much more we know about institutional change than just a few years ago. The researchers behind these works deserve much praise.
But the most important question remains unanswered: Can donors change how they operate enough to take advantage of knowledge like this?
Maybe the next research program should focus on the dynamics of institutional change within these organizations?