The limits of institutional reform in development: a book review


The idea of solutions emerging through responses to locally perceived problems sounds basic. It is, however, potentially revolutionary for designers of externally influenced institutional reform.” (p. 150)

Matt Andrew’s book on the Limits of Institutional Reform in Development is the kind of book only students or academics would read, by its cover. Yet it would be a pity if this book didn’t reach the hands of development professionals.

Why do institutional reforms in development fail?

Around 40% of institutional reforms initiated by development banks or agencies in developing countries fail. The author arrives at this conclusion following an analysis of reform evaluation reports published by the World Bank, the IMF and other development banks and agencies from the mid-1990s to the end of the 2000s.

The book provides a good comparison between the characteristics of institutional reforms displaying limited or disappointing results, and those of successful reforms. The main originality of the book actually resides in its presentation of a new approach to deliver institutional reform in developing countries, which the author calls a “problem-driven iterative approach” (PDIA).

The main reasons why institutional reforms fail and why a problem-driven iterative approach yields better results are summarised in the diagram below:


The conditions for success in institutional reform projects The most relevant part of the book is towards the end, when Andrews identifies key recommendations on how to improve institutional reforms in development from the many examples of successful projects he has explored. These are:

  • focus on problems, not solutions;
  • facilitate the construction of problems from internally identified issues;
  • facilitate deconstruction of problems for deep reflection;
  • provide opportunities for local agents to reflect on the problems;
  • pay attention to deinstitutionalization requirements;
  • establish flexible pathways to exploring problems and finding solutions.

Another set of recommendations focuses on how to make reforms more relevant to their context:

  • focus on small next steps, not final solutions;
  • capture lessons and cultivate stories of positive deviations;
  • always build on past steps;
  • identify and pay attention to what is politically acceptable and practically possible;
  • foster multiplicity;
  • facilitate learning and bricolage.

The last set of recommendations looks at how to improve internally executed but externally influenced institutional reforms in development:

  • establish multifunctional reform communities, not champions (broad-based communities of change);
  • cultivate and support mobilizers;
  • external agents should be humble.

The need to reform the development game itself

Institutional reform: it’s about creating adaptive governments that can modernize and improve by identifying and working through problems.” (p. 160)

Andrews suggests that there are already several PDIA-like alternative approaches out there: the ‘Learning and Innovation Loans’ at the World Bank, the idea of ‘Cash on Delivery Aid’, rapid results interventions as developed by Matta, or Leftwich’s Development Leadership Programme to cite but a few.

These alternatives approaches do not gain enough traction however due to barriers in the way institutional reforms are undertaken today in most development banks and agencies. These barriers are mostly linked to the nature of the development game itself:

  • employees are judged on the basis of size and number of projects/loans they process, not the results of these projects;
  • detailed programming and planning is ok for technical, infrastructural projects but not for institutional reforms;
  • there’s a lot of talk about disruption in the field of international development in political arenas, but little action in practice.

Andrews makes a good case for a thorough revision of the way we do institutional reform in development. The results of his research are also in line with the arguments presented in the book Development Aid confronts politics, which I reviewed  last year, and with the evolution of how public services and institutional reform is being delivered in OECD countries.

I have to admit the book is a bit dry and the reading not the most entertaining, but it’s well worth sticking to the end if you want to understand problem-driven iterative approaches and how to put them in practice.

Other relevant book reviews:

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