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When and Why Development Fails, and The Road to Building State Capability

  • Open Gov Hub 1110 Vermont Avenue Northwest Suite 500 Washington, DC, 20005 United States (map)

Why do so many governments struggle with delivering the most basic, needed services to their people? And how can development practitioners better support the building of state institutions that can better do so?

The Open Gov Hub is pleased to host a book talk on Building State Capability with co-author Michael Woolcock of the World Bank and Harvard Kennedy School, and a panel discussion with diverse perspectives to address these questions.

This book articulates and addresses underlying problems at the very heart of the work of international development (getting at “what is truly the essence of the development problem,” in the words of Francis Fukuyama’s review of the book). It then presents problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) as an effective approach to address this field’s essential (even existential) challenge.

Building State Capability begins with cross-country data comparing different countries’ state capabilities, including by assessing the capacity of governments around the world to perform the most basic, mundane and uncontroversial of tasks: mail delivery. The authors then uncover and define a few key causes of the problem – from developing countries ineffectively copying and pasting) systems from developed contexts (“isomorphic mimicry”), to being too often being asked (by donors and international NGOs) to run before they can even walk (“premature load bearing”). These two concepts remind readers that emphasizing the form of institutions does not necessarily ensure that they function effectively (echoing an idea also elaborated on in the 2017 World Development Report on Governance and the Law).  

And what if well-intentioned, external development actors are causing more harm than good? The authors provocatively claim that too often, the current ways development actors try to support states to build their own capacity and advance their economic, social and political development unfortunately are more part of the problem than the solution.

Rather than offering a silver bullet solution or yet more best practices, the book presents a strategy for action. This is the PDIA process for more effectively implementing development initiatives and truly building state capabilities – one that starts with locally-identified problems, then works adaptively and experimentally to navigate the unique complexities in every environment, to identify and then effectively implement customized solutions for each context.

The final chapter of the book urges members of the development community to collaborate  to advance the growing social movement committed to doing development differently.

In that spirit, we invite you to join for this book talk and discussion with several leading minds in the field to react to, challenge and further these ideas.

Books will be available for purchase, and refreshments provided.


About the Presenter:

Michael Woolcock is Lead Social Development Specialist at the World Bank and Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He has a critical vantage point being firmly rooted both in theory and practice.


About the Discussants:

  • Alan Hudson is Executive Director of Global Integrity

  • Dennis Whittle is CEO of Feedback Labs

  • Rachel Kleinfeld is Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

  •  Sandra Naranjo is Director of Operations at IMAGO Global Grassroots and former Vice President of Ecuador