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.

The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development
Andrews, Matt. 2012. The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development. Cambridge University Press. Publisher's Version Abstract

Developing countries commonly adopt reforms to improve their governments yet they usually fail to produce more functional and effective governments. Andrews argues that reforms often fail to make governments better because they are introduced as signals to gain short-term support. These signals introduce unrealistic best practices that do not fit developing country contexts and are not considered relevant by implementing agents. The result is a set of new forms that do not function. However, there are realistic solutions emerging from institutional reforms in some developing countries. Lessons from these experiences suggest that reform limits, although challenging to adopt, can be overcome by focusing change on problem solving through an incremental process that involves multiple agents.

Andrews, Matt, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock. 2012. “Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)”. Abstract

Many reform initiatives in developing countries fail to achieve sustained improvements in performance because they are merely isomorphic mimicry—that is, governments and organizations pretend to reform by changing what policies or organizations look like rather than what they actually do. The flow of development resources and legitimacy without demonstrated improvements in performance, however, undermines the impetus for effective action to build state capability or improve performance. This dynamic facilitates 'capability traps' in which state capability stagnates, or even deteriorates, over long periods of time despite governments remaining engaged in developmental rhetoric and continuing to receive development resources. How can countries escape capability traps? We propose an approach, Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), based on four core principles, each of which stands in sharp contrast with the standard approaches. First, PDIA focuses on solving locally nominated and defined problems in performance (as opposed to transplanting pre-conceived and packaged "best practice" solutions). Second, it seeks to create an 'authorizing environment' for decision-making that encourages 'positive deviance' and experimentation (as opposed to designing projects and programs and then requiring agents to implement them exactly as designed). Third, it embeds this experimentation in tight feedback loops that facilitate rapid experiential learning (as opposed to enduring long lag times in learning from ex post "evaluation"). Fourth, it actively engages broad sets of agents to ensure that reforms are viable, legitimate, relevant and supportable (as opposed to a narrow set of external experts promoting the "top down" diffusion of innovation).

Pritchett, Lant, Salimah Samji, and Jeffrey Hammer. 2012. “It's All About MeE: Using Structured Experiential Learning ('e') to Crawl the Design Space”. Abstract

There is an inherent tension between implementing organizations—which have specific objectives and narrow missions and mandates—and executive organizations—which provide resources to multiple implementing organizations. Ministries of finance/planning/budgeting allocate across ministries and projects/programmes within ministries, development organizations allocate across sectors (and countries), foundations or philanthropies allocate across programmes/grantees. Implementing organizations typically try to do the best they can with the funds they have and attract more resources, while executive organizations have to decide what and who to fund. Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) has always been an element of the accountability of implementing organizations to their funders. There has been a recent trend towards much greater rigor in evaluations to isolate causal impacts of projects and programmes and more ‘evidence base’ approaches to accountability and budget allocations. Here we extend the basic idea of rigorous impact evaluation—the use of a valid counter-factual to make judgments about causality—to emphasize that the techniques of impact evaluation can be directly useful to implementing organizations (as opposed to impact evaluation being seen by implementing organizations as only an external threat to their funding). We introduce structured experiential learning (which we add to M&E to get MeE) which allows implementing agencies to actively and rigorously search across alternative project designs using the monitoring data that provides real time performance information with direct feedback into the decision loops of project design and implementation. Our argument is that within-project variations in design can serve as their own counter-factual and this dramatically reduces the incremental cost of evaluation and increases the direct usefulness of evaluation to implementing agencies. The right combination of M, e, and E provides the right space for innovation and organizational capability building while at the same time providing accountability and an evidence base for funding agencies.

Andrews, Matt, Jesse McConnell, and Alison Wescott. 2010. “Development as Leadership-Led Change”. Abstract

'Development as Leadership-led Change' presents the findings of the “Global Leadership Initiative Research Study,” which examines leadership in the change processes of fourteen capacity development interventions in eight developing countries. The paper explores what it takes to make change happen in the context of development, and in particular, the role leadership plays in bringing about change. The analysis and findings conclude that leadership manifests itself in different ways in different contexts, depending on readiness, factors that shape change, and leadership opportunities. However, the key characteristics of plurality, functionality, problem orientation, and change space creation are likely to be common to all successful leadership-led change events.