Post-conflict and Fragile States

This paper presents the case of World Bank support to the mass titling component of the Cambodia Land Management and Administration Project. This was a project for which there was clear national demand, as evidenced by the fact that the Cambodian government had already attempted to implement mass titling a decade previously, but had lacked the human and technical resources to complete it. The case describes a consensus between donors and a host nation government during the planning and approval of the intervention, which dissolves into conflict during implementation. Ultimately, the case raises questions about the ethics of intervention. When governments want approximately the rules of the game suggested by donors (functioning institutions to facilitate markets) but do not want a level playing field, how should this be understood and resolved? Must donors always be passively complicit in elite projects until domestic politics hold them accountable to their own rules?

The coherence and effectiveness of engagement with the world's 'fragile and conflict-affected states'—beyond ethical imperatives and geo-strategic considerations—turns on answers to two vexing questions. First, on what defensible basis is any given country, at any given historical moment, deemed to be (or not to be) 'fragile'? Second, if a defining characteristic of state fragility is low levels of capability to implement core responsibilities, how can international agencies best support domestic public organizations to acquire capability? The first issue may appear to be a methodological one (wherein more and better data would provide a firmer empirical foundation on which to base key decisions) but any determination, especially of marginal cases, must also be grounded in a correspondingly comprehensive theory of change. Similarly, the optimal response to the second issue may appear to be importing technical and rigorously verified ('best practice') solutions, but in fact it is more likely to require a qualitatively different strategy, one able to experiment with alternative design specifications and adapt in real time to changing contextual realities (thereby iterating towards customized 'best fit' solutions). To this end, an alternative approach to the theory, measurement and practice of engaging with fragile states is outlined, in the spirit of rising concerns across the development community that prevailing strategies have demonstrably reached the limits of their effectiveness.

de Weijer, Frauke. 2013. “A Capable State in Afghanistan”. Abstract

This paper argues that attempts at state-building in Afghanistan have led to institutions that are not robust. The state institutions and organizations continue to be highly dependent on external resources and technical expertise, and lack of critical mass of people able and willing to maintain them when external support recedes. I contend that Afghanistan may have fallen into a "capability trap" that can lead to an actual decrease in state capacity in spite of an appearance of progress.

This capability trap has been facilitated by four conditions:

1. High expectations on the government without sequencing or prioritization

2. More weight on immediate results than on establishing capable institutions

3. A limited menu of acceptable options for institutional arrangements, leading to strong pressures for simple "transplantation"

4. A top-down model of implementation

Thinking about state-building thus needs to shift towards helping to structure or guide a process through which the problem-solving capacity of a broader range of actors can be brought to the fore, and more contextually fit models can emerge, that are less reliant on external expertise, resources, and legitimacy.

During Sudan’s ‘interim period’ from the end of civil war in January 2005 until South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, foreign development agencies provided extensive support and billions of dollars in aid—for which institutional development and capacity building of the nascent Government of Southern Sudan were core priorities. This six-year period thus provides a major case study in modern-day state-building. As a framework for analysis, the paper utilizes the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness—which was signed in February 2005, shortly after Sudan’s peace agreement. Assessment of how the Paris principles were utilized in Southern Sudan underscores the limits of the prevailing orthodox approach to development, particularly in fragile post-conflict environments. In such complex, highly challenging contexts, orthodoxy often fails.
Larson, Greg, Peter Biar Ajak, and Lant Pritchett. 2013. “South Sudan's Capability Trap: Building a State with Disruptive Innovation”. Abstract

The prevailing aid orthodoxy works well enough in stable environments, but is ill-equipped to navigate contexts of volatility and fragility. The orthodox approach is adept at solving straightforward technical or logistical problems (paving roads, building schools, immunizing children), but often struggles or outright fails when faced with complex, adaptive challenges (fighting corruption, upholding the rule of law, establishing democratic institutions). South Sudan, the world’s newest country, presents a post-conflict environment full of complex, adaptive challenges. Prior to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 South Sudan had no formal institutions of self-governance. During the CPA period and after independence in 2011, foreign development agencies have contributed billions of dollars of aid and technical assistance to "build capacity" in the nascent Government of South Sudan (GoSS). The donors utilized approaches and mechanisms of support that at least nominally reflect the prevailing aid orthodoxy. We argue that orthodox state building and capacity building more or less failed in South Sudan, leaving the world’s newest country mired in a "capability trap" (Andrews, et al 2012). Despite countless trainings, workshops, reforms, and a large corps of foreign technical assistants embedded within state ministries, there is an absence of real change, and GoSS now "looks like a state" but performs as anything but. The challenges presented by this new, complicated, post-conflict country demand innovative approaches to building state capability which go beyond importing "best practice" solutions while feigning "client ownership." We explore one such approach to disruptive innovation that has emerged: Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). To escape from the world's newest capability trap, South Sudan’s government and its international donors must challenge themselves to imagine innovative paths to state building, which diverge from "business as usual" and attempt to create something that lasts.


In Afghanistan in early 2002, the emergency character of the situation was clear, its problems complex, and the international community’s understanding of the realities on the ground limited. In July 2002, a nascent new government was established and with it came the task of building the capacity of the state to perform its key functions. What these were, no one knew or no one agreed upon. But enthusiasm and levels of ambition was high. In 2012, levels of enthusiasm are down. Capacity building of the government had proven to be a difficult task, and the processes of policy reform were highly fragmented, disjointed and uncoordinated. The search for homegrown, contextual solutions seems to have been overshadowed by donor mandates and policy prescriptions. Among Afghans, frustration levels ran high on the billions of dollars spent, which little results to show for it. A culture of blame has developed.

Having spent nearly 10 years in Afghanistan, predominantly serving as an advisor to a number of Afghan government ministries, I have been able to observe these changes unfold. Through this experience, I have become convinced that the conceptual frameworks in place were not particularly well suited for solving many of the challenges Afghanistan faces. These conceptual models were based on importing institutional models and applying international best practices to the Afghan context, and were often severely disconnected from the reality on the ground. Much well-intentioned energy was spent, by some of the brightest people in the world, but effectiveness of most development programs remained low and their high ambitions remained unmet. This situation is not exclusive to Afghanistan, but few other countries have seen such an influx of resources paired with such low capacity in state institutions, which crystallizes out these problems quite clearly.

This paper can be seen as an attempt to explore alternative conceptual frameworks that could be used to look at how change unfolds in societies, and how this could affect our way of nurturing processes of change. To do so I draw upon insights stemming from systems thinking, complexity theory and leadership development, and aim to apply these insights on the challenge of facilitating institutional change and policy reform in a country like Afghanistan, or in fragile states more generally. An essential component of this way of thinking is to start from the premise that change is not as predictable and linear as most of our theories on development would like us to believe. Change proves much more stubborn, and whereas for some challenges we do have ready-made solutions on the shelf, in many cases these seem not to work in the complex systems that human societies are.

In this paper, I will propose a distinction between technical and adaptive problems. Adaptive problems can be defined as those problems where the problem definition is not clear-cut, there are no set procedures, no recognized experts, and no adequate responses yet developed. These are the types of problems that are most resistant to quick fixes, as they are complex with many moving dimensions and interactions between them. Imported strategies are often not appropriate, have unintended consequences, and tend to lead to implementation failures. Attempts to tackle these problems often cause resistance in the social system, as values, perspectives and worldviews are at stake. Technical problems, by contrast, are more clearly defined and less context-specific solutions are required. Best practice solutions can be imported and may actually work. For adaptive problems, they most likely will not.

In my view, one of the main failures of international development is to differentiate between problems that are technical and those that are adaptive; e.g. between problems that have a clear – though perhaps complicated - technical solution, and problems that need to be worked through in more open-ended ways and where the solution is not always clearly in sight. Technical problems are well served by our current reductionist way of thinking, whereas adaptive problems are not. These latter problems are deeply embedded in complex systems, where change is not always predictable and often non-linear. Dealing with adaptive problems requires different diagnostics, different approaches, and different management and accountability frameworks.

This paper explores ways in which approaches for tackling adaptive problems can be institutionalized and managed in practical terms. It stresses the need for space for endogenous change, which can only be created through the adoption of a common language and conceptual framework around the dynamics of change. It points to new ways of overcoming resistance and finding opportunities for change. It emphasizes the need for a learning infrastructure for synthesizing different sources of learning that can feed into a process of continuous adaptation and fine-tuning. It explores principles of emergent planning and building flexibility and experimentation into program design, and discusses performance management frameworks that can contain such approaches and provide the necessary accountability.

Contesting Development: Participatory Projects and Local Conflict Dynamics in Indonesia

The book explores the conditions under which the Kecamatan Development Project (KDP), a nation-wide community development initiative, helped and hindered local institutional change as Indonesia embarked on a series of democratic reforms following the fall of the Suharto government in 1997. Deploying an integrated array of qualitative and quantitative methods – from ethnographies and interviews to case studies and matched comparisons – the research team sought to investigate how KDP, which allocated sources to villagers on the basis of participatory decision-making processes and the active inclusion of marginalized groups (such as widows), engaged with ongoing village conflicts and political dynamics.

At a time when many researchers seek to attribute development impacts solely to a project’s design, and to render judgments about efficacy, replication and scale-up on the basis of average effects, Contesting Development demonstrates that certain projects inherently have highly variable impacts, that this variance – when properly tracked – can be a valuable source of real-time feedback for making mid-course corrections, that the nature of the political context and quality of implementation matters at least as much as a project’s design for determining impact, and that even the best development projects generate conflicts because they alter (by design or default) prevailing social relations, expectations and power. Anticipating and responding adequately to the conflicts that projects generate is key to building legitimacy and sustaining effectiveness. As such, says Woolcock, the book’s key message "is the importance of understanding contexts and contests when designing, implementing and assessing development projects, especially those that seek to facilitate local level institutional change." While Woolcock’s regular employment is with the World Bank’s Development Research Group, at least fifteen HKS students were involved in this research to a greater or lesser extent over many years, and several of them continue to work on related development issues in Indonesia.