Local Solutions for Local Problems

June 25, 2013

  • Launch of the Research Policy Talks series in the Research Department
  • Talks are meant to bring together a body of research based on a theme and present its implications for policy.
  • Features one of the department's cross-cutting research themes: the "science of delivery," which researchers define broadly as effective delivery of development, including aid, and service delivery

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.

" 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. "

Asli Demirguc-Kunt

Director of Research, World Bank

To turn his research into practice, Woolcock co-founded the Bank’s Justice for the Poor program, a joint initiative with the Legal Vice Presidency and Social Development Department. Recognizing that many societies are governed by unwritten rules systems, the program doesn’t try to bring about greater “compatibility” between those systems and Western legal institutions. Instead, it focuses on generating context-specific evidence to better understand how the existing systems operate, and supporting the creation of institutions that give otherwise marginalized groups a stronger voice in managing the conflicts – conflicts that inherently accompany processes of institutional change. (See Contesting Development, Yale University Press).

He is not alone. Vijayendra Rao, a lead economist in the research department, has set up a Social Observatory (SO) in India which is creating holistic and dynamic learning systems for project implementation. Working with operational colleagues, he supports the Bank's multibillion-dollar portfolio of livelihoods projects in India by helping to conduct high quality impact evaluations, develop effective monitoring systems, and design relevant case studies and innovations, such as the use of rigorous qualitative analysis and behavioral tools for project assessment and learning.

“Taking context seriously, which requires tapping into the full range of human knowledge and experience, is hard to do, but not impossible,” Woolcock said. “This type of work can be a valuable complement to, not a substitute for, the Bank’s current work.”

Junaid Ahmad, sector director of sustainable development in the Bank’s East and North Africa Region, was a discussant at the lecture. He said Woolcock’s research shows that it’s difficult to prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions while designing knowledge-management systems in institutions like the World Bank. As an example of successful “global practices,” he mentioned the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program, with local teams delivering effective solutions based on local context. “Knowledge about development is best learned and adapted at grassroots levels,” he said.