Capability Traps? The Mechanisms of Persistent Implementation Failure

51 Pages Posted: 1 May 2011  

Lant Pritchett

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS); Center for Global Development

Michael Woolcock

World Bank - Development Research Group (DECRG); Harvard University - Kennedy School of Government; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Matthew Andrews

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: December 7, 2010

Abstract

Many countries remain stuck in conditions of low productivity that many call "poverty traps." Economic growth is only one aspect of development; another key dimension of development is the expansion of the administrative capability of the state, the capability of governments to affect the course of events by implementing policies and programs. We use a variety of empirical indicators of administrative capability to show that many countries remain in "state capability traps" in which the implementation capability of the state is both severely limited and improving (if at all) only very slowly. At their current pace of progress countries like Haiti or Afghanistan or Liberia would take hundreds (if not thousands) of years to reach the capability of a country like Singapore and decades to reach even a moderate capability country like India. We explore how this can be so. That is, we do not attempt to explain why countries remain in capability traps; this would require a historical, political and social analysis uniquely applied to each country. Rather, we focus on how countries manage to engage in the domestic and international logics of "development" and yet consistently fail to acquire capability. What are the techniques of failure? Two stand out. First, ‘big development’ encourages progress through importing standard responses to predetermined problems. This encourages isomorphic mimicry as a technique of failure: the adoption of the forms of other functional states and organizations which camouflages a persistent lack of function. Second, an inadequate theory of developmental change reinforces a fundamental mismatch between expectations and the actual capacity of prevailing administrative systems to implement even the most routine administrative tasks. This leads to premature load bearing, in which wishful thinking about the pace of progress and unrealistic expectations about the level and rate of improvement of capability lead to stresses and demands on systems that cause capability to weaken (if not collapse). We conclude with some suggestive directions for sabotaging these techniques of failure.

Keywords: capability traps, implementation failure, economic growth, development, development techniques

Suggested Citation

Pritchett, Lant and Woolcock, Michael and Andrews, Matthew, Capability Traps? The Mechanisms of Persistent Implementation Failure (December 7, 2010). Center for Global Development Working Paper No. 234. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1824519 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1824519

Lant Pritchett (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-4562 (Phone)
617-496-2554 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://ksghome.harvard.edu/~lpritch/

Center for Global Development

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5th floor
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Michael Woolcock

World Bank - Development Research Group (DECRG) ( email )

1818 H. Street, N.W.
Mailstop MC3-306
Washington, DC 20433
United States
202-473-9258 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://econ.worldbank.org/staff/mwoolcock

Harvard University - Kennedy School of Government ( email )

Littauer-G-11G
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-0911 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://ksgfaculty.harvard.edu/michael_woolcock

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Matthew Andrews

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Mailbox 31
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-384-8039 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/about/faculty-staff-directory/matt-andrews

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