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The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development
Changing Rules for Realistic Solutions


  • Author: Matt Andrews, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
  • Date Published: January 2014
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781107684881
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About the Authors
  • 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.

    • Interdisciplinary institutional theory is used to frame the discussion
    • Empirical evidence helps validate arguments and give readers real examples to consider
    • Andrews goes beyond common critiques, to provide practical ideas for improving reforms
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'Institutional reform can only work if it is tailored to the local context. That is why so-called best-practice reforms typically fail: they create the illusion of progress, but not the reality. This important book goes beyond this lament to formulate a positive agenda of reform, built on incrementalism, problem-driven focus, and collaboration among stakeholders. Matt Andrews has seen the future, and it is in this book.' Dani Rodrik, Harvard University, and author of One Economics, Many Recipes

    'The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development points to the singular inability of international donors to promote their vision of good government, and explains how this is rooted in their failure to understand local context. More importantly, it suggests a way forward, not through preconceived models but through experimentation and adaptation.' Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University, and author of The End of History and the Last Man and Falling Behind: Explaining the Development Gap between Latin America and the United States

    In this post-financial crisis era, many of us increasingly realize that we actually know little about how to govern human society for a good life. The author's insightful analysis makes a significant contribution to the literature. It has major implications for the study of public sector reforms in developing countries.' Jun Ma, Sun Yat-sen University, China

    'Andrews has a simple but bold idea: admit that no one really knows what to do about governance failings in poor countries. Deep six the World Bank-style public-sector reform blueprints that haven't worked. Define the problem instead of specifying the solution, adopt 'muddle through' instead of 'best practice', and stop counting on local champions. New World Bank president Jim Yong Kim should ask for a briefing on this book.' Nancy Birdsall, President, Center for Global Development, Washington, DC

    'For some time, developing countries have been told to improve their institutions by copying the institutions of the rich countries as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. Matt Andrews tells us why this approach has not worked: this is a landmark analysis that will change the way we both understand and design institutional reform.' Ha-Joon Chang, University of Cambridge, and author of 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism

    'Using a wealth of data and informative cases, this book convincingly shows that the export of institutional reforms to developing countries has often resulted in superficial changes that have had little or no impact. Mimicking institutional devices cannot replace profound changes in the basic operational norms of how the government in developing countries tries to solve real problems.' Bo Rothstein, August Röhss Chair in Political Science and Head of the Quality of Government Institute, University of Gothenburg

    '[This] book is a must-read for anyone interested in international development. It is already shaping debates related to the post-2015 development agenda, and is bound to trigger important new scholarship on institutional change in international development and beyond.' Prakash Kashwan, European Journal of Development Research

    '… this book deserves wide readership among those concerned with the improvement of public institutions in developing countries.' Scott Wisor, Global Governance

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    Customer reviews

    05th Jul 2015 by Andywynne

    This book should be read by all those involved in supporting or promoting good governance in the Global South. It not only demonstrates that the current approach by the donor community is failing, but suggests how a very different approach would lead to much better results. “The basic story line is that half of 145 countries that have had donor sponsored reforms in place saw declines in indicators of government effectiveness over a recent ten-year period” page 15. Why is it that after at least a quarter of a century of spending of billions of dollars and the participation of tens of thousands of consultants introducing ‘global best practices’ that so little has been achieved? At the macro-level, the problem is capital flight from the Global South to the industrial centres of the world. In terms of sub-Saharan Africa, a study by many NGOs last year demonstrated that the continent suffers a net loss of capital of almost $60 billion a year. This book concentrates on the micro-level and provides extensive evidence that the current approach of using expatriate consultants to introduce ‘best practices’ does not work even when assessed by the donors themselves, in their own terms. So for example, a study published in 2011 by the World Bank found that fewer “than 40 percent of the eighty countries receiving World Bank support for public sector reform between 2007 and 2009 registered improved CPIA governance scores in that period. A quarter of these countries actually saw such scores decline, whereas more than a third stayed the same” page 13. Development agencies are not facilitating development Due to the capital at their disposal and their gate-keeper role, in terms of both the tools and techniques to be used and the consultants employed, the donors are, “increasingly shaping the ideas, opportunities, demand, and supply of public sector institutional reforms in developing countries” page 7. Not only do, “generic models dominate the reform agenda of development agencies” but, in addition, these have “a strong neoliberal influence on reform content” page 7. First, the standard institutional reforms, “aim to foster market-friendly governments through interventions like privatization, deregulation, trade liberalization, and… [the promotion of] competitive markets” page 8. “Second, reforms aim to create disciplined governments” page 9. “Ninety percent of the forty sample countries took steps to discipline their public finances and civil service regimes and to streamline debt in the first four years of World Bank–sponsored institutional reform” page 9. Thirdly standard techniques or ‘best practices’ are common, for example, “fiscal rules, medium-term budgeting frameworks, and internal audit regimes” page 10. As a result, “market-friendly, disciplined, and modernized government… themes dominate more than 70 percent of World Bank-supported [administrative reform] projects” page 11. A new approach is needed Matt Andrews advocates a new approach that he terms Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation PDIA. This “calls for interventions that address context-specific problems through stepwise processes of purposive muddling by broad groups of mostly local agents” page 228. First we need to identify the specific problems that the institutions face. This needs a detailed understanding of the current environment and the key challenges, weaknesses and capabilities of the local institutions. In most cases this will involve a key role for local civil servants who have the intimate knowledge of their organisations, systems and processes that can only be gained by working within the organisations for several years. Consultants may have a role to play, but the local experts must lead and really own this process. Their views have to be respected and carefully listened to. But even when using local officials, “it is important to choose those who have not mastered the art of isomorphic mimicry and reforms as signals” page 231. The current reform approach supports a specific modernisation paradigm which in reality consists of neoliberal economic policies and New Public Management styles reforms which have had questionable success even in their home countries. Second reforms should build, on and not replace, current techniques, processes and expertise. Major reforms inevitably lead to reduced effectiveness and control, at least in the short-term. We need iterative reform addressing key, specific weaknesses in existing systems. “All manifestations of good, better, or best practice should be subjected to stringent tests” page 230. “It is extremely difficult to imagine change toward a PDIA-type approach in the presence of processes that incentivize actors to focus on large, pre-programmed, solution-based projects” page 230. This book is an important step in re-thinking the rules for institutional reform across the Global South. Another world is possible, but donors have to ensure that, based on a recognition that the current approach is not working, that they change the rules of the game. We need a paradigm shift from the easy introduction of standard ‘best practices’. We need to move to an approach that is based on iterative and incremental reforms, addressing key local challenges which are led by local officials who have not been seduced by the questionable benefits of the currently fashionable standard reform agenda and its neoliberal overtones.

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    Product details

    • Date Published: January 2014
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781107684881
    • length: 268 pages
    • dimensions: 229 x 152 x 15 mm
    • weight: 0.39kg
    • contains: 12 b/w illus. 17 tables
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Change rules, change governments, and develop?
    2. Deconstructing the puzzling evidence of reform
    3. Overlooking the change context
    4. Reforms as overspecified and oversimplified solutions
    5. Limited engagement, limited change
    6. What you see is not what you get (expecting limits)
    7. Problem-driven learning sparks institutional change
    8. Finding and fitting solutions that work
    9. Broad engagement, broader (and deeper) change
    10. Reforming rules of the development game itself.

  • Author

    Matt Andrews, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
    Matt Andrews is a fellow at the Center for International Development at Harvard's Kennedy School and the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC. His numerous articles have appeared in journals such as Governance, the International Public Management Journal, the Public Administration Review, Oxford Development Studies, Public Administration and Development and the Journal of Development Studies. Prior to his fellowship at Harvard, Professor Andrews was a vice president of the International Consortium on Governmental Financial Management and supported various government leaders in South Africa during the transition from apartheid. He has worked in more than twenty-five developing and transitional countries as a permanent member of the World Bank and as a Harvard University academic doing research on development and government reform. Dr Andrews received his PhD from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

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