World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has urged staff to improve the “science of delivery” in development. But the “delivery,” or implementation, isn’t exact science: it’s also art, which requires crafting local solutions to local problems as the basis for building effective public institutions.
That’s the main message from the Policy Research Talk on June 25, a monthly series by the World Bank’s research department hosted by Director of Research Asli Demirguc-Kunt. Michael Woolcock, the department’s lead social development specialist, spoke at the Bank’s headquarters to a standing-room only audience, including researchers, operational staff and others from outside of the Bank.
“Our goal is to bring innovative and thought-provoking research to our operational colleagues, so we can work with them to help improve development outcomes,” Demirguc-Kunt said.
Effective development is no easy task. As development creates new winners and losers, Woolcock said, it unleashes the familiar processes of “creative destruction,” which affects not only firms but people’s livelihoods, identities and aspirations, as well as the power structures governing their lives. Existing forms of authority don’t go quietly, creating new frictions. This can be seen even at the village level. In Vanuatu, for example, illiterate village elders reported being mocked by their newly educated daughters. Succeeding in girls’ education, which everyone supports, has unwittingly undermined the legitimacy of village leadership systems, and thus its capacity to resolve difficult disputes.
“The more we succeed in development, the harder it gets, because the process brings uneven success and failure,” he said. “And citizens become increasingly aware of the gap between their expectations and their everyday experience.” On a larger scale, the tensions we see today in countries like Egypt, Turkey and Brazil are examples of these uneven transformational processes playing themselves out.
The key challenge, Woolcock said, is to build robust, legitimate public institutions to manage these seismic transformations, and to ensure that basic services are actually provided. Building such institutions is especially important, because research has shown that the quality of governing institutions in most developing countries isn’t improving at all, he said. Some can’t even perform basic functions like delivering the mail. If succeeding in development creates tensions, so too can persistent development failures lead to prolonged conflict and extreme violence, and undermine the credibility of broader development goals.
Woolcock supports a gradual, context-specific approach to boosting a country’s administrative capabilities. Rather than seeking “best practice” solutions adopted from elsewhere to problems determined by outsiders, the approach Woolcock advocates seeks to begin with locally nominated and prioritized problems as the basis for crafting “best fit” local solutions. In short, Woolcock said, success leads to effective institutions, not the other way around. And, because it takes time to bring about change, those who set development goals for governance should be in it for the long haul.
This approach requires field research and extensive, ongoing engagement with local governments and organizations. It also means finding positive examples of problem solving in the local context. “Someone somewhere probably has a better way. Find them, learn, iterate and adapt, and share your ideas with the community of practice,” Woolcock said.