Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Capability Traps in Development1: How Initiatives to Improve Administrative Systems Succeed at Failing

Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Capability Traps in Development1: How Initiatives to Improve Administrative Systems Succeed at Failing

Article excerpt

Ín many nations today, the state has little capability to implement even basic functions such as security, policing, regulation, or core service delivery. Enhancing this capability, especially in fragile states, is a long-term task.2 As we document in this article, countries such as Haiti and Liberia will take many decades to reach even a moderate capability country such as India, and millennia to reach the capability of Singapore. Short-term programmatic efforts to build administrative capability in these countries are thus unlikely to demonstrate actual success, yet billions of dollars continue to be spent on such activities. What techniques enable states to "buy time" to enable reforms to work, mask nonaccomplishment, or actively resist or deflect the internal and external pressures for improvement? How do donors and recipient countries manage to engage in the logics of "development" for so long and yet consistently acquire so little administrative capability? In short, how do initiatives to modernize administrative systems so often succeed at failing? \

Our central contention is that many developing countries are stuck in what we call a capability trap - a dynamic that enables officials to document instances of apparent reform and thus assure a continued flow of development resources to their country or sector, despite the fact that the reforms themselves may be generating few actual improvements in performance. Capability traps have four distinctive and interrelated features. First, they consistently conflate institutional form with function - that is, donors and putative reformers alike presume that what organizations look like (their formal rules, reporting lines, mission statements, and so forth) largely determines what they do.3 Thus, passing a labor law, for example, or conducting an extensive training program for teachers can count as a positive instance of reform even if it in no way changes the actual everyday experience of workers or improves student learning. Second, such reforms are based on a theory of change that regards the adoption of best practices, as determined by experiences elsewhere or international experts, as the most efficient and ethical strategy for rapidly modernizing domestic administrative systems. This approach to development, as one observer dryly put it, can be characterized as "history in a hurry." Third, capability traps are characterized by excessively great expectations. An extension of the best practice logic, the presumption is that the pace of change achieved by the fastest reformers is both desirable and possible elsewhere; after all, to suggest anything less would make one an apologist for non-best-practice solutions, a profligate who wastes resources by "reinventing the wheel." Thus, we expect Haiti to reform at the pace of Vietnam. Fourth, having set such unrealistic expectations, we then overwhelm nascent initiatives by prematurely asking too much of too little too soon, thereby not only ensuring failure but (by failing in this way) undermining the very legitimacy of reform and dissipating the substantive learning that may have accompanied it thus far.

Some Numbers, an Example, a Theory

How do countries become and remain mired in a capability trap? While there are obviously many deep, structural, and interrelated causes (political, social, economic) of why countries fail, we are interested in how countries fail. That is, what are the techniques that allow and facilitate state failure in a modern world - one in which many agencies promote the expansion of state capability? To account for these factors, and to better identify potential strategies for escaping from capability traps, we need a basic theoretical framework. Before outlining such a theory, however, it is instructive to consider some general data documenting the capability trap phenomenon, as well as a concrete instance of capability traps in action. Our particular example comes from reforms in public financial management in Mozambique, but we could readily cite numerous other instances in different sectors in a range of countries (and not only developing countries). …

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