Building State Capability Logo

The Building State Capability (BSC) program at the Center for International Development (CID) at Harvard University researches strategies and tactics to build the capability of public organizations to implement policies and programs.

Twitter icon Vimeo icon Microphone icon Facebook icon Linkedin icon

Principles of PDIA

The BSC team uses the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach, which rests on four core principles:

puzzle pieces local solutions for local problems
person pushed forward pushing problem driven positive deviance
arrows in a circle try, learn, iterate, adapt
atom diffusion scale through diffusion

Podcasts

bsc-podcast-cover

What is PDIA?

Recent Publications

Let’s Take the Con Out of Randomized Control Trials in Development: The Puzzles and Paradoxes of External Validity, Empirically Illustrated

The enthusiasm for the potential of RCTs in development rests in part on the assumption that the use of the rigorous evidence that emerges from an RCT (or from a small set of studies identified as rigorous in a “systematic” review) leads to the adoption of more effective policies, programs or projects. However, the supposed benefits of using rigorous evidence for “evidence based” policy making depend critically on the extent to which there is external validity. If estimates of causal impact or treatment effects that have internal validity (are unbiased) in one context (where the relevant “context” could be country, region, implementing organization, complementary policies, initial conditions, etc.) cannot be applied to another context then applying evidence that is rigorous in one context may actually reduce predictive accuracy in other contexts relative to simple evidence from that context—even if that evidence is biased (Pritchett and Sandefur 2015). Using empirical estimates from a large number of developing countries of the difference in student learning in public and private schools (just as one potential policy application) I show that commonly made assumptions about external validity are, in the face of the actual observed heterogeneity across contexts, both logically incoherent and empirically unhelpful. Logically incoherent, in that it is impossible to reconcile general claims about external validity of rigorous estimates of causal impact and the heterogeneity of the raw facts about differentials. Empirically unhelpful in that using a single (or small set) of rigorous estimates to apply to all other actually leads to a larger root mean square error of prediction of the “true” causal impact across contexts than just using the estimates from non-experimental data from each country. In the data about private and public schools, under plausible assumptions, an exclusive reliance on the rigorous evidence has RMSE three times worse than using the biased OLS result from each context. In making policy decisions one needs to rely on an understanding of the relevant phenomena that encompasses all of the available evidence.
Read more

National Development Delivers: And How! And How?

Core dual ideas of early development economics and practice were that (a) national development was a four-fold transformation of countries towards: (i) a more productive economy, (ii) a more responsive state, (iii) more capable administration, and (iv) a shared identity and equal treatment of citizens and (b) this four-fold transformation of national development would lead to higher levels of human wellbeing. The second idea is strikingly correct: development delivers. National development is empirically necessary for high wellbeing (no country with low levels of national development has high human wellbeing) and also empirically sufficient (no country with high national development has low levels of human wellbeing). Three measures of national development: productive economy, capable administration, and responsive state, explain (essentially) all of the observed variation in an omnibus indicator of wellbeing, the Social Progress Index, which is based on 58 distinct non-economic indicators. How national development delivers on wellbeing varies, in three ways. One, economic growth is much more important for achieving wellbeing at low versus high levels of income. Two, economic growth matters more for “basic needs” than for other dimensions of wellbeing (like social inclusiveness or environmental quality). Three, state capability matters more for wellbeing outcomes that depend on public production than on private goods (and for some wellbeing indicators, like physical safety, for which growth doesn’t matter at all). While these findings may seem too common sense to be worth a paper, national development--and particularly economic growth—is, strangely, under severe challenge as an important and legitimate objective of action within the development industry.
Read more

Overcoming the Global Despondency Trap: Strengthening Corporate Accountability in Supply Chains

This paper re-examines why global collective action problems persist, and how to overcome them. Drawing on 140 interviews with campaigners, politicians, and businesses in 10 European countries, it suggests that many activists are stuck in a despondency trap. Never seeing radical reform, they lower their ambitions, and invest in more feasible but sub-optimal alternatives. This creates a negative feedback loop, in which the dearth of radical reform becomes self-fulfilling. But if reformists see advances at home and abroad, they may become more optimistic about collective mobilisation and break out of their despondency trap. This is shown by tracing the drivers of ground-breaking legislation. From 2018, large French firms must mitigate risks of environmental and human rights abuses in their global supply chains, or else be liable. This bill – the world’s first of its kind – was vociferously contested by businesses. But French campaigners and politicians persisted for four years, because they saw reasons for optimism. These include growing international support; public outcry; the French political culture (state intervention, and distrust of multinationals); together with a Centre-Left Government. Optimism galvanised relentless mobilisation. Legislative success in France then delivered a positive shock to activists across Europe, who were emboldened to launch similar campaigns and escape their despondency trap.

Read more

How Cities Erode Gender Inequality: A New Theory and Evidence from Cambodia

Support for gender equality has risen, globally. Analyses of this trend focus on individual and/or country-level characteristics. But this overlooks sub-national variation. Citydwellers are more likely to support gender equality in education, employment, leadership, and leisure. Why is this? This paper investigates the causes of rural-urban differences through comparative, qualitative research. It centres on Cambodia, where the growth of rural garment factories enables us to test theories that female employment fosters support for gender equality: potentially closing rural-urban differences; or whether other important aspects of city-living accelerate support for gender equality. Drawing on this rural and urban fieldwork, the paper suggests why social change is faster in Cambodian cities. First, cities raise the opportunity costs of gender divisions of labour – given higher living costs and more economic opportunities for women. Second, cities increase exposure to alternatives. People living in more interconnected, heterogeneous, densely populated areas are more exposed to women demonstrating their equal competence in socially valued, masculine domains. Third, they have more avenues to collectively contest established practices. Association and exposure reinforce growing flexibility in gender divisions of labour. By investigating the causes of subnational variation, this paper advances a new theory of growing support for gender equality.
Read more
More Publications

PDIA Toolkit

Toolkit Cover

download button download button - Spanish

IPP Blogs