This podcast was originally recorded in March 2011. Development is easy, right? All poor countries have to do is mimic the things that work in rich countries and they’ll evolve into fully functional states. If only it were that simple. My guest this week is Lant Pritchett, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Development and chair of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Master’s program in international development. His latest work looks at how the basic functions of government fail to improve in some developing countries (a dynamic he defines as a “state capability trap”). Part of the problem, says Lant, is that donors often insist on transplanting institutions that work in developed countries into environments where those institutions don’t fit at all.__
Despite decades of development assistance, on a wide variety of indicators of how well governments provide certain services—policing, delivering the mail, building roads, etc.—some countries are simply stuck in the mud. Lant’s work meticulously illustrates the depths of the problem. “We thought we would be able to replicate the development process very fast. We thought, these [countries] are going to develop in about 10 – 20 years,” explains Lant. “At the current rate of progress, it will take literally thousands of years for many developing countries to reach Singapore’s level of capability. That’s the capabilities trap.”
In our conversation, Lant unpacks the problems inherent in what he calls “isomorphic mimicry”: building institutions and processes in weak states that look like those found in functional states. “They pretend to do the reforms that look like the kind of reforms that successful [countries] do, but without their core underlying functionalities,” says Lant. “Instead, countries wind up with all the trappings of a capable system—institutions, agencies, and ministries—without its functionalities.” How to break this bad habit? To start with, Lant says, the development community needs to understand that a lot of what it’s been doing hasn’t worked: “It’s just surreal, the disjunction between any grounding in what the empirical realities of the acquisition of state capabilities have been, and the way in which development plans of official organizations often assume that capabilities can be grown.” To paint a more realistic image, Lant suggests that it’s important to develop indicators that showcase real progress (and are resistant to the mere appearance of progress). In the education sector for example, instead of measuring enrollment rates, he suggests more effort to measure learning (see Charles Kenny). Listen to the Wonkcast to hear our full conversation, including a discussion of Andy Sumner’s concept of the “New Bottom Billion” late in the interview. Have something to add? Ideas for future interviews? Post a comment below, or send me an email. If you use iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week. My thanks to Will McKitterick for his production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and for drafting this blog post.