Confronting capability traps

This is a guest post by Richard Curtain, an independent consultant.

I have just finished reading ‘Capability Traps? The Mechanisms of Persistent Implementation Failure’ by Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, and Matt Andrews from the Center for Global Development, in Washington. A related paper is by Lant Pritchett and Frauke de Weijer ‘Fragile States: Stuck In A Capability Trap?, prepared for the forthcoming World Development Report 2011 on overcoming conflict and fragility.

Both papers make the excellent point that many countries with low capability are mimicking best practice institutions that are all show and little real action. Development consultants from a range of international agencies are recommending that these countries adopt best practice mechanisms that cannot possibly work in the setting they are proposed for. They also are likely to insist that countries in making changes, run before they can walk.

The authors use a term taken from the sociology of organisations (and originally from evolutionary biology) called ‘isomorphic mimicry’ to describe one of the causes of persistent implementation failure in many countries in the developing world. The term refers to how a state adopts a best practice organisational form as camouflage to hide its underlying the lack of capacity to deliver.

The second cause of implementation failure they highlight is the pressure applied by consultants to encourage the hasty introduction of changes, which often results in premature overloading, causing local structures to fail to cope.

The dangers of ‘isomorphic mimicry’ and ‘premature load bearing’, as techniques that can both produce and allow persistent failure, are pervasive because they are attractive to domestic reformers. But paradoxically, external agents, whose presence is justified by promoting progress, also play a strong role in promoting and sustaining failure. Development agencies, both multilateral and bilateral, have very strong tendencies towards promoting isomorphic mimicry–encouraging governments to adopt the right policies and organization charts and to pursue ‘best practice’ reforms–without actually creating the conditions in which true novelty can emerge, be evaluated, and scaled. In particular, it is much more attractive for donors to measure their success in either inputs provided and used, or ‘reform’ undertaken and in process compliance in project implementation…

Pritchett, Woolcock and Andrews argue that neither big, top-down or small, bottom-up approaches to lifting administrative capability work. The former because they are imposed in a ‘one size fits all’ manner. The latter because they are invariably too difficult to scale up. This is spelt out in the second paper where the elements of a middle way are outlined. The aim is to combine the needed elements of the big approach (scale, scope, speed) with the virtues of the small (flexibility, innovation, adaptation).

The essence of a middle way, according to Pritchett and Weijer, is to measure system performance, set realistic goals for achieving that performance and then allowing scope for local autonomy and flexibility in meeting those goals. Activities have to be flexible enough that many different people are committed to their success and feel they are responsible for at least some component of the overall endeavour.

A distinction also has be made between ‘learning’ and ‘training’. Training is about building organisational capability, but is often not focused on the capacities of individual agents. ‘Learning’ is about continuous improvement based on working out why outcomes have been or have not been met.

The third key element is a form of accountability that is not narrowly fiscal in focus. If the primary aim is accountability for inputs to external agents, then the opportunity is lost to create institutions in fragile states that are domestically legitimate and accountable to their own populations.

The issue is how to foster home-grown solutions that will work. One idea is to foster independent think tanks in the Pacific, each with a strong program monitoring and evaluation capacity. These need to be funded on a long-term basis (ten years at least), with substantial resources to create a ‘critical mass’ of research and policy capacity.

AusAID is funding the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PiPP), located in Vanuatu but with a trans-Pacific remit ‘fill the gap between academic and technical studies, and the social, economic and political realities on the ground’ and to ‘advance the the search for practical solutions to development challenges’. But it is not clear how long this core funding is for and what performance outcomes are expected. The Institute does not appear to have a program monitoring and evaluation capacity.

AusAID’s Development Research Strategy 2008-2010 talks about assisting partner country institutions and researchers, as well as selected regional institutions but gives no details. Moreover, the strategy is now out of date. AusAID does fund other research institutes in the region, in PNG for example, but it is not clear from its latest annual report which ones, for what purposes and for how much.

Richard Curtain is a Melbourne-based, public policy consultant, who has spent 18 months in Timor-Leste in 2008 and 2009, working on projects funded by USAID, UNICEF and AusAID. His current work for two major multilateral agencies in the region relates to Timor-Leste and to pacific island countries.

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Richard Curtain

Dr Richard Curtain is a Research Fellow with the Development Policy Centre.


  • The ‘Capability Trap’ papers highlight the importance of mapping the local organisation context as a precursor to selecting and lifting administrative capability. Organisations come with their own histories and operate in specific contexts. I have found that two factors impact on the goals, methodologies and markers negotiated to define measureable success.

    I currently work in Timor-Leste and a feature of donor literature is a tendency to define the development of civil service expertise as a post-independence phenomenon. The scorched earth response, which included mass murder, has contributed to the narrative of a ‘phoenix’ nation, rising new and untested from adversity. The Indonesian civil service decamped, taking with them managerial and technical expertise, leaving the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET), with the responsibility for establishing and ‘capacity building’ a cadre of civil servants across the entire spectrum of government with an unskilled workforce. The work continues today with a low capacity workforce…The human resources reality is however, more complex.

    At one stage I conducted interviews with all staff in three Directorates (63 people) and was surprised to find that 48% of people had been previously employed in similar jobs in the Indonesian civil service for an average of 6.3 years. While few had held managerial or technical roles, one could not characterise staff as being novices to administrative work. This brings into focus Pritchett and Weijer’s point about measuring system performance and developing staff ‘buy in’ to any change process by acknowledging and valuing prior experience. As stated in the article, ‘training’ should take advantage of existing staff skills and knowledge. The context of their former work also needs to be taken into account because it shapes staff perceptions regarding organisational purpose and indicators of success. In the case of Timor-Leste, Indonesian, donor and current staff capacity building/professional development have relied on significant subsidies which unfortunately foster ‘isomorphic mimicry’. I would suggest that the focus of external assistance has to be the work of the organisation and the people who perform that work.

    If, as advocated by Pritchett et al., that donor agencies move away from concentrating on significant organisational targets towards individuals and their ability to perform their key work tasks, then these tasks need to be clearly defined and measured. Richard Curtain has commented, more than once, that AusAID appears to be averse to actually defining and measuring capacity development in practical terms. There is a tendency for some capacity building approaches, such as the Staged Capacity Building Model (AusAID 2006) and ‘enabling environment’, to value high level outcomes or products over a systematic approach which takes into account the contribution of all members, at all levels of a department to achieving agency objectives. As the articles note, it is possible to have an apparently satisfactory outcome, but one which is so heavily reliant on outside funding, expertise and systems support that it is not only unsustainable, but undermines the ability of recipient governments to develop their own, more modest but effective systems.

  • Reading this from Jakarta — working in the early stages of implementing a policy advisory project for the Indonesian Government — the suggestions outlined here seem clear and (as Jane Thomason says) music to the ears. Perhaps the key point that seems striking from the field is that the IMPLEMENTATION of an activity in the aid game is often much harder than the initial THINKING about the program. To put this another way: IDEAS are the easy bit; it’s the IMPLEMENTION that is hard.

    Pritchett and de Wiejer talk of “isomorphic mimicry” and “premature load bearing”. A simpler term sometime used in the aid literature is the “implementation gap”. This is the the gap between the resources needed to implement an aid activity and the resources that are really available. Advisers in the international aid community often don’t seem to think clearly (or even measure) the implementation gap. As just one example of this gap in capacity, consider the resources available to the Australian and Indonesian governments. Julia Gillard is able to spend, each year out of the annual Australian budget, around $15,000 per person across Australia in implementing the Australian Government’s programs. In contrast, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has around $500 to spend per person in Indonesia. The difference in capacity is huge. The ratio of 30:1 (15,000:500) is one measure of the implementation gap in Indonesia. It’s a very real gap. Let’s hope Sandy Hollway’s Aid Advisory Committee discusses it.

  • This is music to my ears. This blog highlights papers which expose the folly of forcing western “best practise” models on systems that are barely operating, and could never hope to attain even “good enough” practise. How often have we borne witness to development consultants and agencies exhorting countries to adopt best practice organisational forms and applying pressure to encourage the hasty introduction of changes, overloading the fragile systems, and causing local structures to fail to cope?

    In my experience – slow and steady wins the race. There are no silver bullets. In our paper “Working together for a better future”, soon to be published in the PNG Medical Journal, Maxine Whittaker and I suggest that home grown solutions need to be given time to emerge and a stronger focus on getting the basics in place is a better bet than creating organisational forms that look good but don’t deliver.

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