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When are we going to stop giving solution-driven aid?
Valedictory lecture delivered at the Overseas Development Institute, London, 23 Apr 2018
In applying best practice solutions without accounting for their informal foundations,
Malawi risks being treated as a blank slate. Best practices currently operating in
various OECD countries typically emerged through endogenous, locally-driven
processes over long periods of time. As such, those best practices likely reflect (or have
come to reflect) a content that is specific and relevant to the nature of their existing
rules. External actors are seldom sufficiently cognizant of the peculiar regulative,
normative, and cultural-cognitive elements that are invisibly making best practices
function in their own developed countries and neither are they therefore attuned to
their absence in a country like Malawi.
(Bridges and Woolcock, 2017)
The outcome of the programme will be that there is ‘Improved accountability and
responsiveness in the management of public goods and services’. This will be
More money being allocated and released to implement
goods/services which are a priority for citizens
Evidence that regulations are being implemented to improve
management and oversight of public service and market chains
Evidence that citizen groups are engaging with state actors to resolve
issues and monitor progress
Evidence that elected representatives are seeking support from the
electorate for delivery of public goods and services
The impact of the programme will be that ‘Malawians have better access to services
and economic development opportunities’
(DFID Malawi, Early Market Engagement presentation for a Transparency and
Accountability for Improved Growth and Services [TRACTION] programme,
London, March 2018)
Why do donors continue to believe they know the solutions to the governance
problems of developing countries when their own research tells them they do not?
My epigraphs highlight the problem. Development agencies, with DFID and the
World Bank in the lead, persist in seeing the development challenges in poor
countries through the lens of the public policy remedies and performance yardsticks
that have come into favour in OECD countries, over the last century and more
particularly over the last 30 years. They act as if these were universally relevant and
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applicable to all, in very much the way the British Empire vigorously advocated free
trade across the globe in the 19th century but not before it had built a commanding
position in world manufacturing on the basis of an aggressive mercantilism.
Ha-Joon Chang (2002) famously called this ‘kicking away the ladder’. It seems an
absolute law of international development that the more advanced countries forget
how they got to their current position and advise latecomers: do what we do now,
not what we did when we began our rise to prominence.
This criticism has been applied by Chang and others primarily to the issue of the
policy space for active industrial policies under WTO rules.
It is even more relevant,
in my view, to the subject of this lecture: solution-driven development assistance,
where the solution is a prescribed type of organisation or institutional reform
based on a relatively recent consensus among OECD member states.
I shall refer primarily to DFID, not because it is a particularly grave offender but on
the contrary because it is a sophisticated organisation that has made significant
progress in many areas and ought to know better. DFID has a cadre of governance
advisers that is unmatched in absolute numbers and as a share of total staffing, so it
is in principle well placed to act intelligently on matters concerning politics and
institutions. Since the turn of the century, it has paid for at least fifteen five-year
research programmes on aspects of governance for development. Despite all of this, I
will argue, it has not yet succeeded in bringing the main thrust of its country work
into line with the evidence of history, as synthesised in the best scholarship.
But, you may be thinking, DFID governance work is getting more sophisticated. In
cases like SAVI in Nigeria, programming is becoming more ‘politically smart and
locally led’ (Booth and Chambers, 2014). TRACTION – the forthcoming Malawi
programme – is to have an ‘issue based’ core component, and its terms of reference
(DFID, 2018) call for a highly adaptive implementation approach. I will argue,
however, that the current model of issue-based governance programming in DFID
is not the same as problem-driven development assistance. Programmes like
TRACTION are not going to succeed in being adaptive, because they remain
I will conclude with some questions about the different drivers of these failings in
DFID. If we can reach some consensus on this, we may have a chance of doing better
in the future.
In which context it is sometimes overstated (Booth and Golooba-Mutebi, 2014).
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2 What the research says
If there is a single message that emerges from the best governance scholarship and
research since the 1980s, it is that we know much less than we thought we did
about the institutional arrangements that developing countries need. Several
things are clearly established. They command an almost complete consensus among
major scholars and have been reaffirmed and further elaborated by the succession of
governance research consortia led out of IDS, LSE, ODI and Manchester University
since 2000. The overall implication of these points of agreement is that we need a
robust agnosticism about the forms of governance likely to contribute well to
building economies and improving conditions of life in poor countries. The
following things are clear:
The formal institutional arrangements that work reasonably well in OECD
countries today are not exportable. These arrangements work well in some
contexts because they are supported by historically generated informal
understandings and norms (North, 1990; 2003; Future State, 2005; 2010) – the
particular point picked up in my first epigraph. Alternatively or as well, the
way institutions work is shaped by particular non-reproducible patterns of
politics (Bates, 1989; Leftwich, 2007; North et al., 2009; IPPG, 2010; Putzel and
Di John, 2012; North et al., 2013; Bates, 2014) and/or by the distribution of
power among different types of organised interest (Khan, 1995; Khan and
Sundaram, 2000; Shirley, 2008; Khan, 2010; Pincus and Robinson, 2014; Hickey
et al., 2015; Hough and Grier, 2015; Khan, 2017).
The institutional arrangements (formal and informal) that have helped
countries break through into fast development are very diverse. There are
some typical problems of social action that figure more or less universally
among the proximate causes of economic backwardness – absence of credible
commitments to investors, and coordination and collective action problems of
various kinds (the ‘three Cs’ of the 2017 World Development Report). But
successful countries have come up with their own institutional solutions to
these problems. We should not confuse institutional functions and
institutional forms (Chang, 2007; Rodrik, 2007; Booth and Cammack, 2013;
Kelsall, 2013; Booth, 2015; World Bank, 2017).
Historical path dependencies are really important, but, contra Acemoglu and
Robinson (2012), history contains more than just two typical long-term
trajectories. There is much more to the global story than the persistence of
‘extractive institutions’ versus the spread of ‘inclusive institutions’.
Fukuyama’s massive survey of world experience (2012; 2014) has taught us
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the remarkable extent to which the different strands of the governance fabric
– state-building, democratic accountability and the rule of law – have distinct
histories. Different world civilisations have made headway on each at vastly
different rates. Even among economically successful countries, the lags and
leads among these variables are substantial. Only England made early
progress on all three. Several of the countries that rose to prominence after
England, including the USA, Germany and Japan, achieved their governance
patterns of today only after they acquired high living standards for their
Countries can and do make rapid and economic and social progress with
institutions that, in overall terms, are seriously dysfunctional. They only
need well-chosen economic policies and a strong coincidence of interest
between political, business and bureaucratic actors, leading to the
construction of effective organisations, in one or two key productive sectors
(Coase and Wang, 2012; Sundaram and Chowdhury, 2012; Khan, 2013;
Studwell, 2013; Levy, 2014; Henley, 2015; Whitfield et al., 2015; Ang, 2016;
Ansu et al., 2016; Lin and Monga, 2017; Gray, forthcoming).
If there is a single takeaway from all of this, it is that ‘good’ institutions are neither
easy to prescribe nor a precondition for successful developmental catch-up. They are
the cumulative result of solving the critical development problems that arise at
different stages in a development process, making use of the path-dependent
resources to hand. Developmental catch-up invariably involves some borrowing
ideas and technologies from abroad, but is never successfully led by borrowing. It is
led by problem solving.
3 Solution-driven approaches to governance programming
Aid has always tended to be driven by what donors want to give or what they
want to promote – rather than by a disinterested assessment of endogenous
constraints and drivers. But this tendency was deepened and the damage increased
when, in the late 1980s, the World Bank and its allies identified the absence of good
institutions as a primary obstacle to adoption of policies for economic recovery in
Africa. I will not bore you by repeating the story of how this combined with the
global ferment around democracy after the fall of the Berlin wall to make improving
governance suddenly the solution to the problems of developing countries. And I
On the causal role of a new policy idea, see Reinert (2007) on Tudor policies and the rise of wool
manufactures in 16th century England. And on the contribution of an exceptionally favourable
resource endowment, see Allen (2009) on the English industrial revolution.
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leave to more knowledgeable others the contribution of the then recent enthusiasm
in the West in the theories of the New Public Management (Turner et al., 2015).
That the immediate post-Cold War era should have featured a certain amount of
liberal-democratic hubris is understandable. More striking is how durable much of
the associated thinking has proven to be in the face of obvious disappointments
and the build-up of the scholarly consensus against it.
One example of this is the surprising persistence in World Bank circles of ideas
about public sector reform and public-service quality inspired by – or rationalised in
terms of – principal-agent theory. I refer here to the technical underpinning of what
came to be popularised in the language of ‘transparency and accountability’. A
critique of that model, particularly its preoccupation with information asymmetries
and its underestimation of coordination and collective-action problems, was the
centrepiece of the final reports of the Africa Power and Politics Programme (Booth,
2012a; 2012b; Booth and Cammack, 2013). So, again, I will not go back over the
I would just add that, since the APPP concluded, a number of studies, including
randomised control trials, have shed doubt on the effectiveness of interventions
relying on the supply of information to service users and voters. Many of these are
well summarised in the book by Khemani (2016). However, Bank propaganda – as
reflected in the subtitle of that same book and some of the publicity around it – has
continued to avoid the obvious implications.
In the Bank’s NGO-oriented penumbra, the concept of ‘social accountability’ remains
popular. The watchwords accountability, transparency, participation and inclusion
have been elevated to become components of an apparent, if superficial, global
consensus (Carothers and Brechenmacher, 2014). In 2015, this consensus came to be
reflected in the wording of Sustainable Development Goal 16.
There may be legitimate grounds for some of this, in so far as some movements and
organisations around the world are obtaining worthwhile results with interventions
that are de facto more sophisticated than their packaging and labelling might suggest
(SNV, 2011; Wild and Harris, 2012). However, I remain sceptical. I suggest that
much of what lies behind the social accountability theme, like the content of most
public sector capacity building, is a projection of solutions derived from
experience in OECD countries onto the very different realities of developing
In 1991, two well-known political scientists who pointed to the concept of accountability as central
to most definitions of democracy were met with overwhelming indifference. A decade and a half
later, a quick keyword search of academic references produced a dizzying number of entries using
the concept across a range of social science subject areas (Lindberg, 2009).
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In other words, social accountability falls to the critique developed in recent years by
Andrews, Pritchett and Woolcock (Pritchett et al., 2010; Andrews, 2013; Andrews et
al., 2013; 2017): it is profoundly solution-driven. As these authors argue, solution-
driven innovation does not work; it tends to produce an impressive façade of formal
arrangements concealing an unchanged or deteriorating substance. Worse – as
detailed in the Malawi paper by Bridges and Woolcock – it has the effect of
weakening country capacities to recognise and solve pressing development
problems using their own resources.
One of the reasons solution-driven governance interventions fail is that they are
typically single stranded. It is clear that most development problems are multi-
stranded (involving combinations of credibility, collective action, coordination,
principal-agent, time consistency and power or political settlement issues).
It is also
clear that these elements are parts of complex systems, whose behaviours are not
predictable. Interventions in such systems are not susceptible to advance planning.
Therefore, approaches that want to be realistic must not only be problem-driven but
must employ iterative learning and adaptation.
These arguments have been sufficiently widely canvassed and understood, as
Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) or Doing Development Differently
(2014), that it is now normal for governance programme designs to include at least
some genuflexion towards problem-driven and adaptive working. Similarly, DFID
governance advisers now frequently embrace the language of solving collective
action and coordination problems, although not always with a good grasp of the
implications. Happily, too, there are beginning to be genuinely problem-driven
programmes within DFID’s Growth and Resilience portfolio – which has happened
with some help from members of the governance cadre that have been getting ‘out of
the ghetto’ of governance programming (Booth, 2016; 2018). However, governance
programming proper has not been able to match this progress. It continues to be
characterised by a combination of new language and old substance.
4 How not to get traction in Malawi
The terms of reference for TRACTION illustrate the difficulty. As the extract in
the epigraph makes clear, the programme is based on a very traditional theory of
change that presents accountability and responsiveness as the keys to improving
public service quality and economic opportunities for Malawians. As per established
bad practice, this is presented as a flow chart lacking the essential qualities of a
theory of change – an explanation of why x is expected to lead to y.
As wonderfully illustrated in an unpublished animated presentation by Tim Kelsall.
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More innovatively, the main component of TRACTION is to be an Issue Based
Programme, which ‘will use a problem-driven approach to address specific issues
that people care sufficiently about and where there is a likelihood of being able to tip
the balance of power’. The issue-based component ‘will play a proactive facilitating
role, supporting collective action of different groups [using] Malawian experts and
facilitators with a deep understanding of the context and political economy
dynamics’. Moreover, ‘the programme will take a highly adaptive approach … in
order to navigate the complex political economy in Malawi’ (DFID, 2018: 2).
What more could one reasonably expect? Is this not a faithful summary of what
ODI’s Politics and Governance programme has been advising and helping to
advocate for the last ten years? It is, and in this building we should take some
satisfaction from the fact that we have successfully helped to influence not just the
discourse but also some parts of the practice in DFID, which is a global leader in this
field. However, I would argue that this influence is often superficial and is still at
Issues-based governance programmes that dedicate themselves to proactive
facilitation of collective action are no doubt a step forward compared with what
came before. As was the case with SAVI, TRACTION is due to take the place of a
grant facility for local NGOs. These previous NGO basket programmes relied too
much on knee-jerk thinking and on NGOs that were good at acting the
ventriloquist’s dummy. There have been real gains from ‘taking the money off the
table’ and loosening the social accountability model a bit in favour of multi-
But the current model of issue-based governance programming is an inadequate
response to what the research tells us. It builds in some of the primary features of
solution-driven aid. I would argue that using social mobilisation around ‘tractable’
issues as a means of bringing about prescribed improvements in country
governance does not a equal problem-driven programme design. I predict that
TRACTION as currently conceived will not learn how to navigate the complex
political economy of Malawi, even if it is extremely well staffed and run.
The problem-driven part of PDIA is not the icing on an iterative and adaptive cake
but a sine qua non. Problem-driven interventions can learn what works because they
are free to go, within some practical and ethical limits, where the problem leads
them. They can make the alliances and adopt the methods of facilitation that prove
optimal, which is the most promising way of contributing to institutional progress in
the longer term.
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For issue-based governance programmes, in contrast, addressing issues is just a
means to an end. The alliances and methods used are required to contribute to the
outcomes that the whole effort is supposed to be about. In the TRACTION case, the
specification of these outcomes is not based on any serious enquiry or evidence on
the kind of governance that might jump-start development in Malawi. The outcomes
are in effect OECD-country best practices – ‘solutions looking for problems’.
In the TRACTION terms of reference, the proposed outcome objectives suggest a set
of predefined activities, roughly as follows:
Better budget allocation and execution budget advocacy
Enforcement of regulations strengthening oversight organisations
Engagement of citizen groups with state actors around issues building
More programmatic politics training parliamentarians and councillors to
do their duty
It seems to matter little that these are among the donor-inspired activities that
have failed over many years to have a significant impact on the way politics and
policy work in Malawi. Defenders of the TRACTION design will point out that, as
the programme builds accountability and responsiveness, there will also be
‘intermediate level results’. Those are to be treated as ‘important programme results
which will be measured’ (ibid: 3-4). These incidental results may include:
improvements in the number of people receiving potable water
reductions in the numbers of cases of cholera and other diseases
increases in the number of jobs for women
increases in yields and profits for a number of farmers
increases in tax and export revenues
increases in profits for input and trading companies
evidence of improved services … such as planned infrastructure built,
increase in numbers of drugs and textbooks delivered to facilities.
I am not sure whether it is shocking or just bizarre that making a difference to these
important matters in a country such as Malawi takes second place to getting the
country to come closer to OECD-country standards of transparency, accountability
and programmatic politics.
I would argue that setting up programmes in this way is not only inviting failure
but doing a disservice to the credibility of adaptive programming, and of aid in
general. TRACTION may make a measurable difference to one or more of these so-
called intermediate issues. I very much hope it does, although I am quite sure the
contribution will fall short of what might have been achieved with some hard
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thinking ‘outside the box’ on the part of the right self-directed Malawian
development entrepreneurs. It is predictable, however, that the programme will not
make measurable and attributable contributions to the functionality of Malawian
governance. This, equally predictably, will be blamed later on the fact that
institutional transformation is hard to measure and occurs slowly -- not on the fact
that the programme has set itself inappropriate outcome-level objectives. That will
be regrettable. It will fuel the legitimate doubts that some taxpayers have about the
value of aid.
5 In lieu of a conclusion: why is this happening?
If you follow me this far, you may agree to join me in a consideration of what kind of
problem we are dealing with here. Obviously, DFID is politically led, and our
politicians, with very few exceptions, believe it is the duty of the UK to share its best
ideas, a goal that translates easily into ‘kicking away ladders’ without much
hesitation. But DFID is a technical bureaucracy which prides itself in being evidence-
based, and believes in research. I am sure it does challenge ministerial prejudice
when this really matters. As we have seen, moreover, it has not been entirely closed
to the influence of the research-based ideas it has helped to generate. So why is the
uptake so incomplete?
Part of the problem, no doubt, is that the governance advisory cadre has vested
interests in the matter. The cadre cannot be seen not to set governance improvements
as the purpose of the programmes whose design it leads. This means ‘problems’ are
always going to be treated as a means to an end. The Governance, Open Societies
and Anti-Corruption (GOSAC) department even has solution-mongering, of an
Acemoglu and Robinson sort, built into its name.
A radical way of responding to this source of difficulty would be move on from
getting governance out of its ghetto and take the natural next step of abolishing the
ghetto (a corollary of which, by the way, would be a new name for ODI’s PoGo). A
less frightening solution would be for the governance cadre to engage more
seriously with the research. Seriousness would imply embracing the core
propositions in the major works and synthesis reports, and not just the buzz-words.
This would call for a step-change in self-awareness.
But even this modest proposal would imply all parties’ recognising the need for
change, and I am not sure we can assume that is straightforward. A part of the
current problem, I have been led to conclude, is that the abstractions most often used
to characterise desirable governance patterns – transparency, openness,
accountability and responsiveness among them – have become too much terms of
everyday parlance. As a consequence of their familiarity, they now seem so natural
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and obvious as topics of concern that they are no longer subjected to critical scrutiny.
Unaware of the relative recentness (in historical time) of their rise popularity – and
unaware also of the particularity of their roots in Anglo-American political
philosophy – many practitioners regard such goals as self-evidently important and
relevant whatever the context. As a result, many no longer perceive the difference
between development problems and the absence of their preferred solutions.
Importantly, this applies as much to development professionals who were born and
bred in countries like Malawi as to those brought up elsewhere. As Bridges and
Woolcock insist, the bad habits of thought about which they and I are concerned
have been thoroughly internalised by nearly everyone in the development business.
I am quite uncertain as to how any one of these challenges might be tackled but look
forward to your help in coming to a view.
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Power, Prosperity and Poverty. London: Profile Books.
Allen, Robert C. (2009) The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective.
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Andrews, Matt (2013) The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development: Changing Rules
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Ang, Yuen Yuen (2016) How China Escaped the Poverty Trap. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
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Booth, David and Diana Cammack (2013) Governance for Development in Africa:
Solving Collective Action Problems. London: Zed Books.
Booth, David and Frederick Golooba-Mutebi (2014) How the International System
Hinders the Consolidation of Developmental Regimes in Africa. Working Paper 04.
London: Developmental Regimes in Africa.
Booth, David and Victoria Chambers (2014) Towards Politically Smart, Locally Led
Development: The SAVI Programme in Nigeria. Discussion Paper. London:
Overseas Development Institute.
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Bridges, Kate and Michael Woolcock (2017) How (Not) to Fix Problems That Matter:
Assessing and Responding to Malawi’s History of Institutional Reform. Policy
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Participation, and Inclusion: A New Development Consensus? Washington, DC:
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Chang, Ha-Joon (2002) Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical
Perspective. London: Anthem Press.
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Economic Development: Some Key Theoretical Issues’ in H.-J. Chang (ed.)
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University Press: 17-33.
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Department for International Development.
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Hickey, Sam, Kunal Sen and Badru Bukenya (eds.) (2015) The Politics of Inclusive
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Pincus, Steven C.A. and James A. Robinson (2014) ‘What Really Happened During
the Glorious Revolution?’ in S. Galiani and I. Sened (eds.) Institutions, Property
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Cambridge University Press: 192-222.
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London: London School of Economics/Crisis States.
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Poor. London: Constable & Robinson.
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Economic Growth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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Region. London: Profile Books.
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