Efforts to build state capability often take the form of commonly used, highly designed and engineered best practice solutions that have worked in many other places and that we suspect (and hope) will work again in many contexts. Such interventions do sometimes work, especially when the treatment actually addresses problems that fester in the context. Where the contextual problems are different, however, the treatment is just isomorphic mimicry—it looks good but will not be a solution to problems that actually matter. Development organizations often cannot see this, however, and offer the same solution again and again—hoping for a different outcome but imposing a capability trap on the policy context, where a new diagnosis and prescription is actually needed. In some countries the treatment has an even worse impact, fostering premature load bearing—where the context cannot actually handle what is prescribed. How can development experts identify in advance where they will have such negative impacts, and how can they identify in advance where they need to do development differently? This paper addresses such questions, and introduces an approach to building state capability in the latter contexts (called 1804 contexts), called problem driven iterative adaptation.
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