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Building State CapabilityEvidence, Analysis, Action$

Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780198747482

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198747482.001.0001

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Premature load bearing

Premature load bearing

Doing too much too soon

(p.53) 3 Premature load bearing
Building State Capability

Matt Andrews

Lant Pritchett

Michael Woolcock

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that many countries find themselves in capability traps because they try to perform tasks before they are actually capable of doing so. This can create too much pressure on the organization and its agents and lead to the collapse even of what small capability might have been built. When such processes are consistently repeated, premature load bearing reinforces capability traps—by asking too much of too little too soon too often (the “four toos”), the very possibility and legitimacy of reform and capability building is compromised. We recognize the pressures behind such premature load bearing, including the often implicit view that “best practices” can be broadly introduced because of the presumption that the level of performance and pace of change achieved in one place is possible everywhere, including “here.” We also recognize that to suggest anything less than perfection would make one seem a pessimist, an apologist for the unacceptable who doesn’t want the best for others, or a profligate indulgently wasting time and money “reinventing the wheel” when the best practice solution is already known. However, the chapter argues that a sober and strong stand against premature load bearing (and these pressures) is vital to ensure actual capability is built and governments and countries advance beyond capability traps.

Keywords:   capability traps, collapse, load bearing, four toos, best practice, capability

Premature load bearingDoing too much too soon (p.54)

Building Paper Bridges

You could build a paper-mache bridge. Done well, this could look a lot like a real bridge, perhaps even a beautiful bridge. But if one became confused and tried to drive heavy traffic across the bridge, the bridge would soon reveal itself as not robust to pressure and will fail—quickly, spectacularly, and tragically. To cross a chasm sometimes one can use an arrow to shoot a thread across the span. With the thread pull a string, with a string pull a small rope, with a rope pull a larger rope, with a large rope pull a steel cable. Once the steel cable is fixed on both sides one can send across very heavy loads. Sending those loads on the string would have thwarted the whole process. These are examples of premature load bearing—putting too much weight on a structure before it is able to support it not only does not accomplish the task at hand, it sets progress back.

While perhaps little is known with certainty about how to build state capability, destroying it seems easy. Requiring organizations and institutions to perform tasks before they are actually capable of doing so can create too much pressure on the organization and its agents and lead to collapse even of what small capability might have been built. When such processes are consistently repeated, premature load bearing reinforces capability traps—by asking too much of too little too soon too often (the “four toos”), the very possibility and legitimacy of reform and capability building is compromised.

The often twinned forces of isomorphic mimicry and premature load bearing can leave countries stuck in capability traps in spite of well-meaning conscious efforts to accelerate modernization by both domestic actors (“reform champions”) and external development agencies. Importing “best practices” and placing unrealistic expectations on the presumption that the level of performance and pace of change achieved elsewhere is possible everywhere, including “here,” is a temptation. After all, to suggest anything less than perfection would make one seem a pessimist, an apologist for the unacceptable who doesn’t want the best for others, or a profligate indulgently wasting time and money “reinventing the wheel” when the best practice solution is already known. This leads to paper-mache bridges to nowhere.

The weakness of premature load bearing becomes apparent when newly formed organizations are asked to implement the functions that similar organizations perform in rich countries—but which put them under enormous pressure immediately. There are many examples from regulation and taxation. Dubash (2008) describes the reforms that introduced an “independent regulator” to set electricity tariffs in India. Even with the transplantation of the exact legislation and organizations of the “independent” regulation of electricity from other countries, this did not produce the hoped-for results of the “independent” (in name) regulator: resisting strong political and social (p.55) pressures and setting higher, cost-recovering, tariffs. In hindsight, none of the background institutions, professional norms, social conditions, political history and accumulated organizational capability that made this particular package of reform successful in its original environment was present in the Indian states adopting this “global best practice.”

Premature load bearingDoing too much too soon

Figure 3.1. If implementation stress exceeds organizational robustness, then “premature load bearing” can lead to collapse of capability

Figure 3.1 illustrates a hypothetical case in which the existing tax code—because of its complexity, level of rates, or definition of base—creates pressures for individual tax-collecting agents to deviate from compliance that exceeds not only what the organization is capable of but the maximum organizational capability even if those elements under control of leadership (e.g. the “management” elements of accountability) were optimally designed. This leads to a shift from high capability to low capability from which it is hard to recover.

The weak and very weak capability states in Chapter 1—including the various “F” designations (failing, flailing, fragile)—are particularly prone to premature load bearing, as their robustness to stress is lower and they are often interacting with external actors who serve as a vector for transmitting over-ambition. While any description of the “typical” development effort in a fragile state loses specificity, there are common features to these efforts as they are often premised on three main notions. First, there is an implicit assumption that the country is a “blank slate” with no pre-existing state capability, or such weak capability that it can be easily replaced or subsumed. Second, there is the expectation that function will follow form, quickly. Third, (p.56) the actions of the international development community are based on the same theory of change that has become familiar thus far in the book: namely, their actions are based on the transplantation of best practices with little regard to the actual capability of the organizations charged with implementing it.1 The upshot is that aid dollars flow to the fragile state, accompanied by technical expertise from all over the world. All factors seem to be in place for a rapid rise to better living standards, for the emergence of an increasingly effective and reliable state, and for a steady convergence with the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, reality proves more stubborn than wishes. The overly optimistic expectations of the possible rate of change of state capability—coupled with institutional incentives that focus on form rather than function—lead to persistent implementation failure. When the international community and the fragile states interact, stresses get created, which, if not managed well, actually undermine state capability rather than build it. In such situations, the danger is not just that reform or the building of state capability may take longer than expected. Deepening isomorphic mimicry produces a loss of institutional integrity and coherence, which presents itself in a widening gap between the de jure and the de facto. Organizational imperatives on both sides of the equation interfere with one another in a way that deepens isomorphic mimicry, and leads to the existence of two parallel universes that no longer communicate with each other: a universe of reporting requirements declaring success but in fact only building state capability on the surface, and a universe underneath the surface in which the gap widens between form and function. The legitimacy of the system to external actors is increasingly derived from isomorphic mimicry but without the internal legitimacy borne of either accommodating pre-existing rules systems or demonstrating superior performance. Once a fragile state is locked in a capability trap, a change in the notional, or de jure, policy universe has little to no effect on the de facto reality, i.e. actual performance on the ground. When these incipient institutions and organizations are then put under the stress of actual implementation they are likely to collapse, leading to a worse situation than before because repeatedly failing in this way delegitimizes the very possibility of improvement. Our goal in this chapter is to elucidate some of the underlying dynamics of these troubling patterns. (p.57)

A Simple Vignette of Premature Load Bearing

There are various sources of premature load bearing; perhaps the most easily illustrated is when an organization is overwhelmed with the complexity of the tasks being demanded of it. Certain tasks require a vast interplay of many moving parts, which are all necessary to carry out a function effectively. Collecting tax is one such example: it requires both a capable state and an acceptance by the population that this is a legitimate role of the state. The now-wealthy countries built this capability slowly, but developing countries are expected to quickly acquire the capability to conduct this task, despite the fact that such tasks are complex and often contentious.

The number, scope, scale, and expected quality of the tasks a government is expected to perform have increased tremendously over time, and post-conflict countries have frequently failed to keep up. Needless to say, to begin implementing all these complex tasks all at once—and in particular in a post-conflict setting suffering from asymmetrical power dynamics and insecurity—is not easy. Beyond the complexity, there is the critical budgetary constraint to consider. Poor country governments are expected to perform this multitude of state tasks despite the fact that they are, well, poor. Almost by definition, these governments have far less government revenue per capita at their disposal than do industrialized countries. This creates obvious limitations for what a poor-country government can realistically be expected to do.

Table 3.1. Revenue per capita for various governments and time periods, in US$ (not PPP)


Government revenue per capita (including aid where applicable) in 2006

Ratio of US government revenues per capita in 1902 to countries in 2006 (constant dollars)



















Source: Adapted from Thomas (2009), table 4. Government revenues per capita in 1902 were US$526 in 2006 prices (but not adjusted for PPP)

As Thomas (2015) shows, however, the external actors’ expectations of the range and magnitude of what governments can do seems to be based on those of a state capable of massive revenue mobilization. But a country like Afghanistan has only about $10 per year to spend on its citizens, as compared to the $17,554 the US has available. Including aid flows this number increases in Afghanistan to $105, but this is obviously not a “sustainable” source of revenue. And even if Afghanistan could manage to obtain $105 from domestic sources, this would still only bring it up to the level of India, which is still a factor of 175 lower than the US—and a factor of 5 lower than the US at the turn of the twentieth century (i.e. well over a century ago, when it was at the level of development of today’s middle-income countries)—see Table 3.1.

Thomas (2015) argues that in light of these figures it is impossible to expect Afghanistan to build effective and universal-access institutions across the range of domains that it is currently expected to do, as articulated in various plans and strategy documents. A similar argument will hold up for many, if not all, post-conflict countries.

It is thus easy to imagine how premature load bearing can have disastrous effects on the capabilities of a fragile state. As an example, consider Box 3.1 and the case of land registration in Afghanistan—just one of the many tasks expected of this supremely overburdened fragile state.


Gaining Normative Traction (Or, Decoupling de jure and de facto)

Premature load bearingDoing too much too soon

Figure 3.2. Wishful thinking about the feasible pace of improvement in capability can cause implementation stresses that undermine capability and sustain capability traps

Source: Authors

The application of “best practices” in low capability environments leads to a decoupling process in which the notional practice (de jure) and actual practice (de facto) diverge, resulting in a loss of what we call “normative traction.” A metaphor to illustrate this concept is the image of pulling a brick with a rubber band; one can drag the brick in spurts, but the rubber band is too weak (p.59) to lift it, and will eventually snap if stressed too far. A reform process gains normative traction when the de jure and de facto practices begin to steadily align. If this cannot happen, an overly optimistic perspective on the level and possible pace of creating state capability amounts to wishful thinking: an organization is overloaded with tasks it cannot perform, and as such the temptation is strong to retreat behind a façade of isomorphic mimicry to justify one’s actions and to sustain the flow of resources. Continued over time, this process will eventually reach a point where the de jure ceases having any normative traction on the de facto: any changes made in notional policy will no longer have any real effect on the ground, because the connection between the two realms is completely severed. (See Figure 3.2.)

To illustrate how this process unfolds, consider two examples from the economic realm—each illustrating the deterioration of capability as stress increases.

Example 1: Tariff Rates

Premature load bearingDoing too much too soon

Figure 3.3. When official tariff rates passed a threshold, collections stopped increasing

Source: Adapted from Pritchett and Sethi (1994: table 2)

An old example comes from customs data, in which the tariff line item is compared to the ad valorem official tariff rate and the actual collected rate—the ratio of tariff collected to reported import value. In both Kenya and Pakistan the collected rate increased with the official tariff (not one for one, but did increase) up to a point around 60 percent, after which the collected rate (p.60) stopped increasing. After that point, further increases in the tariff just increased the discrepancy between the official rate and collected rate—even in the officially reported data. Including the categories of mis-declaration, under-invoicing, and outright smuggling would almost certainly lead to an even more dramatic deterioration in the collected rate. In this case the stress is obvious, as the tariff rate increases the amount an importer will pay to evade the tariff increases and hence the potential temptations for customs officials to deviate increases. (Of course, these considerations, among others, eventually led countries to reduce tariffs as in many countries they were simply uncollectible.) (See Figure 3.3.)

Example 2: Doing Business vs. Enterprise Survey, de jure vs. de facto

A second example is the comparison of “official” times for how long it would take to comply with various regulations—such as getting a license to operate a business, or to get goods through customs, or to get a construction permit—with how long firms themselves say these procedures actually take.

Premature load bearingDoing too much too soon

Figure 3.4. In countries with very high official regulatory times to get construction permits, firms actually report taking less time to get permits

Source: Author’s calculations from data as reported in Hallward-Driemeier and Pritchett (2015)

There are two different ways in which the “investment climate” has been measured. The first is via the Doing Business survey, which measures (among many other things) how long it would take the typical firm to get a typical construction permit in practice if they followed the law. This is intended to measure not the worst it could possibly be, but asks local researchers and consultants to estimate typical times if firms followed the existing regulatory procedures—and did not, for instance, hire an agent. In other words, the “Doing Business” surveys record the de jure regulations. The second primary (p.61) source for assessing the investment climate is Enterprise Surveys, which just ask firms how long the process actually took for them. The Enterprise Surveys asked firms who recently received construction permits how long it took to get them. For sixty-three countries there is enough data (both a Doing Business measure, and more than twenty firms answering the survey question about a construction permit) to compare the two. Figure 3.4 shows the results comparing countries with different formal measures of regulatory stringency—those with fewer than 200 days, those with 200 to 300 days, and those with more than 300 days (as reported in Doing Business).

There are two striking things about Figure 3.4. First, the quarter of the firms who report the fastest actual times report that it takes about ten to fifteen days, no matter what the Doing Business survey data says the law says. All that grows as the legal compliance times grow is the gap between the legal compliance times and the fast firms’ reported times: no matter whether the DB reported days is 100, 200, 300, or 400, there is a set of firms that report no trouble at all getting a permit. Second, the actual reported times—at all points of the distribution of firm responses—to get a permit are lowest in the countries with the most stringent regulations. In countries where Doing Business data says it takes more than 300 days the average reported time was 47 days—lower than the average of 58 days in countries where the regulations were fewer than 200 days. Hallward-Driemeier and Pritchett (2015) argue that once regulations pass the threshold that the country can enforce, the legal and actual compliance times become completely unlinked. In effect, asking about the “investment climate” for firms in countries with weak implementation is (p.62) like asking what the temperature a person is experiencing when everyone has air-conditioning—it does not matter what the outdoor thermometer says, the temperature is what the indoor thermostat is set at.

While there are obviously a number of ways to interpret this figure, one such interpretation is that when de jure regulations exceed the organization’s maximum capability, compliance simply breaks down and outcomes are deal by deal. Once a policy-implementing organization has passed the threshold into collapse, all else is irrelevant. Who wants rules when they can have deals? As such, a first lesson is that putting organizations (whose capability depends at least in part on the background institutions on which it can draw to create accountability on the one hand and intrinsic motivation on the other) under duress before they have developed sufficient capability—not just apparent capability but also robustness to pressure—is a recipe for disaster.

The developing world is in fact now riddled with agencies that have been delegated the responsibility for implementing policy regulations in which the de jure policy and the stated organizational objectives have no normative or positive traction on the behavior of the agents of the organization. While this is perhaps a good thing if the policies themselves are overly restrictive, organizational disability spills over into capability to enforce even desirable regulation.

The Role of External Actors in Organizational Failure

By starting off with unrealistic expectations of the range, complexity, scale, and speed with which organizational capability can be built, external actors set both themselves and (more importantly) the governments they are attempting to assist up to fail. This failure relative to expectations (even when there is positive progress) can lead to erosion of legitimacy and trust, both externally and internally. We will argue that these unrealistic expectations are not merely creating a dynamic of perpetual disappointment, but that there are genuine dangers involved which go way beyond simply not reaching one’s goal.

Premature load bearingDoing too much too soon

Figure 3.5. Tensions between imperatives of internal and external actors threaten organizational coherence

The difficulty is that the de jure can be created with the stroke of a pen—countries can adopt sound policies, create “modern” organizational charts, pass impressive legislation, announce noble “plans.” These de jure changes can create the appearance of a positive reform dynamic that is pleasing to external actors and domestic constituencies, but the creation of de jure without a genuine capability to implement creates parallel universes within the organization. One universe is inhabited by a small number of well-educated, often English-speaking individuals, those that “have capacity,” who engage actively with a large number of foreign consultants and other forms of technical assistance, and know how to tick various donor boxes. The other (p.63) universe is inhabited by the remaining civil servants, which constitute the vast majority and in particular the front-line agents—those who are in direct contact with the citizens who are continually making demands for real solutions to their real problems. Over time, this logic widens the gap between the demands of domestic society and the demands generated by the internal imperatives of development agencies: the upper-level leaders of governmental organizations become embedded in different value systems than the citizenry, which manifests in various (potentially conflicting) tensions. (See Figure 3.5.)

The internal tensions between the front-line agents and the upper level leaders of the organization creates a situation in which the group of front-line agents, stigmatized as “lacking capacity,” becomes increasingly disgruntled and disengaged from the international community, and steadily disassociates themselves from the efforts conducted by the upper layers. They become ever less inclined to carry out the tasks assigned to them by the upper layer—if these tasks were even assigned to them in a comprehensible manner in the first place—or to follow the organizational behavioral norms underpinning them. The temptation for these agents to pursue their own interests (as opposed to those of the organization) thus increases, and the gap widens between what the organization notionally aspires to and what it can actually implement.

In such circumstances, the organization comes under increasing stress and finds itself in a downward spiral toward a severe loss of institutional integrity. Since the organization needs legitimacy for its survival it will need to pretend (p.64) that it is still functioning. Coercive, normative, and mimetic forms of isomorphic mimicry all become engaged; the organization will continue to create the illusion of being a capable organization through adopting the outward forms of a capable organization, with little regard for the actual functionality of the organization. The organization survives, but the price it pays is a severe loss in organizational coherence and a subsequent fall in real capability to deliver.

The institutional imperatives of many large development institutions continue to reflect high-modernist mental models, in spite of a changing rhetoric on paper. As a logical extension of this way of thinking, performance tends to be measured in terms of inputs or output indicators—which reflects form, rather than outcomes that can reflect function. There is an automatic assumption that when the inputs have been entered, the outputs achieved and the “form” obtained, the end results will follow automatically. Has the strategy document been written? Has the organization been restructured? Have the consultation workshops been held? Have the training and “capacity building” sessions for front-line staff been conducted? Have the procurement rules been faithfully followed? This perspective is heavily biased against implementation, as there are few checks and balances in place to ensure that the policy change has actually been implemented on the ground. In other words, it is quite possible to get away with ticking the donor boxes without the policy change ever reaching the ground. As such, the international aid community itself suffers from—and reinforces—isomorphic mimicry, where ticking the boxes fulfills its need for sustaining its own legitimacy.

There is therefore a genuine risk that the engagement of the international community creates a deepening of the pattern of isomorphic mimicry, and a further loss of institutional integrity. Rather than strengthening the capability of the state—the goal the policies clearly aim to achieve—these well-intended efforts may actually backfire and reduce the capability of the administration. It may be that the more rapidly the appearances presented must conform entirely with “modern” rules systems—in order to garner legitimacy from external actors—the more quickly it will diverge from reality. To illustrate this process with a real-world example, let’s return to Afghanistan.

Example 3: Meritocratic Reform in Afghanistan

One particularly painful example of this tension can be found in the “meritocratic” standards of recruitment that are the foundation of Public Sector Reform. Meritocracy is premised on the notion that all individuals should have equal opportunity and that preferential treatment of individuals on criteria deemed to be “morally irrelevant” (Roemer 1998)—such as gender, ethnicity, or kinship—is unjustifiable. But these are a particular set of values, acquired gradually over time through an organic political and social process. (p.65) For agents within organizations with a different internal logic, to apply meritocratic principles is not easy as it can be incompatible with the existing normative underpinnings of many societies, particularly when the stakes are high—e.g. when government jobs are at a premium. Afghanistan is again a case in point.

The difficult point is that meritocratic standards are a worthy goal—just not one that can be achieved immediately by declaring it so. We have no road map on how to get from a system based on patronage and kin-based loyalty systems to a system premised on universal rules and equal access. One might think the “donor community” would learn to not attempt premature load bearing in fragile states from the experience in Afghanistan (and elsewhere). But in the new state of South Sudan, a “South Sudan Development Plan” was issued in August 2011 one month after the country was born into independence with essentially zero capability. The plan bore all the hallmarks of donor-driven premature load bearing: a document 413 pages long with “objectives” in governance like “zero tolerance” for corruption (an objective not achieved by any of its neighbors), and for the “public administration” component of the governance pillar, goals such as to:

  • Ensure a strong public administration through the enactment of just and effective laws and the development of responsive and inclusive policies, based on transparent processes and credible information and knowledge. (p.66)

  • Enhance the systems, structures and mechanisms of coordination at (and between) all levels of government to promote professional, ethical, and efficient service delivery to all the people.

  • Strengthen and sustain the capacity of oversight institutions to enhance accountable and transparent public administration through effective monitoring, evaluation, and verification.

And this in a “plan” that was intended to run only until 2013. But it wasn’t really a plan; it was a paean to premature load bearing.

Robustness to Stress: From Spartans to Paper Tigers

The battle of Thermopylae, at which a small force of Spartans (and others) held off a massive invading force from Persia, fighting to the last man, resonates through the ages. It is remarkable that a relatively obscure battle over 2,000 years ago has inspired various Hollywood movies (including a spoof). There are of course a variety of reasons why this battle is so famous, but the reason we want to focus on it is that the Spartans illustrate the robustness of organizational capability for policy implementation to countervailing pressures.

Ideal Actions vs. Real-World Actions

To begin, we need a definition of organizational capability that includes a notion of organizational robustness to stress. As we’ve noted elsewhere in this book, the first important distinction to make is that the individual capacity of the agents is one, but only one, element of organizational capability. All public sector organizations—ministries of education, police forces, militaries, central banks, tax collection agencies—have stated objectives. One can define their organizational capability as the extent to which the agents of the organization, both management and front-line agents, undertake the actions which would, contingent on their maximum individual capabilities, pursue the organization’s objectives. For instance, a hospital’s maximum capability might be limited by the technical knowledge of its nurses and doctors.

The second important distinction is stress, or how well the organization actually performs in “real-world” conditions. As we all know, there is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip; in fact, agents have their own interests, goals, and objectives—and agents choose their actions to pursue those objectives. This is not to say those objectives are exclusively or even primarily pecuniary, as intrinsic motivation or commitments to professional identities or normative desires to help their comrades or not “lose face” (p.67) (or “honor”) certainly play important roles. But there are pressures on agents to pursue other objectives and these can be less or greater. Let us now illustrate these with a military analogy.

Spartans, Keystone Cops, and Paper Tigers

An intuitive example of these two dimensions of organizational capability and stress is to think of armies as an organization. A reasonable measure of their organizational capability is their ability to inflict damage. One can imagine how large this capability would be if the army itself were under no countervailing battlefield pressure and every agent (from officers down) were operating at their maximum individual capacity. This might be larger or smaller depending on the size of the force, the equipment at their disposal, the level of training, experience, etc. But every military leader knows that this definition of organizational capability is irrelevant. The more important question is the robustness of that capability to pressure from the opponent. How quickly does the ability of a fighting force to act to inflict damage on the capability of the opponent degrade under actual battlefield conditions?

The US Marine Corps official doctrine Warfighting (1997) is publicly available and makes for interesting reading. For the US Marines, “war is an interactive social process” in which one force attempts to impose its will on the other; hence the overwhelming emphasis of their war-fighting doctrine is not destroying the opposing force in material terms (casualties or equipment) but destroying the opposing force’s will to fight.2 Their goal is to sufficiently disrupt the opposing forces’ organizational coherence such that its individual agents cease to act as a coherent purposive body and instead pursue their own immediate interests; in so doing, the organizational capability of the opposing forces, even with huge numbers of personnel and massive equipment, disintegrates, in effect turning the opposing army—a social organization capable of directed action—into a mob of individuals.3

One element of this process, and which makes military history fascinating, is that the process is sharply non-linear. That is, in battlefield situations the degradation of organizational capability often does not follow a linear process (p.68) in which incremental units of battlefield pressure yield constant units of degradation of capability. At least at times a small action can cause a ripple effect in which soldiers believe their position is untenable, lose the will to defend it, and a battle becomes a rout (or conversely, a single action prevents the loss of a position that would cause a rout).

These considerations of the robustness of organizational capability with respect to pressure and potentially non-linear dynamics lead to Figure 3.6, which, building on Figure 3.1, contrasts three paradigm cases: Spartans, Paper Tigers, and Keystone Cops. The Keystone Cops were a staple of early silent film comedies; they were a platoon of policemen who, with great fanfare and flurry of activity, would rush around completely incompetently. This is an example of an organization (or disorganization) which even under ideal conditions is incapable of accomplishing anything and hence has low organizational capability over all ranges of pressure. But the Keystone Cops wear uniforms, carry batons, and engage in various policeman-like practices that, on the surface at least, enable them to pass as real police officers.

A contrast to the Keystone Cops is a Paper Tiger. The term “Paper Tiger” refers to an army that appears impressive on the parade ground but is not robust to stress and collapses under even modest battlefield stress. It has trained people with the individual capacity to, in principle, recognize states of the world and respond to them. It has the materials with which to work and has, again at least in principle, modes of command and control of the organization that allow it to operate. But, when put under battlefield stress, the capability collapses as the individuals cease to pursue the organization’s interests; the organizational (p.69) integrity and coherence necessary for capability disappears, and a large army that looks fantastic in parades becomes a mob on the battlefield.4

This brings us back to the Spartans. Part of the point of Spartan training (indeed Spartan society itself) was to create individuals with high capacity (i.e. who knew how to execute the individual skills) but another part—a part of all military training—was devoted to maintaining that capability as an organization even under the greatest duress: when the actions of the individual put their lives at risk in order to maintain the overall organizational integrity and coherence. The Spartans may have had low total capability but were capable of performing under conditions in which each individual member continues to perform, even when in great personal danger.

Premature load bearingDoing too much too soon

Figure 3.6. Armies illustrate the notion of the robustness of organizational capability to stress

Figure 3.6 illustrates this. On the vertical axis is an army’s ability to inflict damage on an enemy. Between the three types of army, there is sharp non-linearity of collapse—which can be modeled as a variety of interactive organizational dynamics—at the various points of stress indicated.

These tensions between building capability and stress play out in real time in war. Two examples. When America declared it was entering World War I, England and France were overjoyed; they had suffered horrific rates of casualties for too long. However, the American general in charge of bringing America into the war, John Jay Pershing, wanted to end World War I with a capable American army. This created enormous tension with the British and French commanders, who of course wanted relief immediately and as such demanded that the American soldiers come into the existing armies under British and French command. General Pershing, however, knew this would not build a capable American army; he knew that putting fresh American-commanded units under battlefield stress against the battle-hardened German troops could easily lead to premature load bearing and collapse. So, neither side wanted American troops as integrated units under American command too soon, but the British and French wanted to use troops soon to augment the existing capability of their armies while Pershing wanted a capable American army. Pershing’s stubbornness led to many more casualties for the British and French as they held the lines waiting, but did lead to a capable US Army.

Similar pressures were present in training air forces at various stages of World War II for both the UK and Japan. Churchill famously praised the Royal Air Force, declaring that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” This raises the question: why were the few (p.70) so few? It is not for lack of volunteers but rather because it takes time to build pilot capacity. Sending pilots into conflict too soon produces a rate of casualties so high that no amount of training of new pilots can keep up. The Japanese, of course, addressed this problem in the last desperate days of their war effort by creating kamikaze pilots with a specialized one-way mission that achieved immediate impact at the expense of future capability.

All of this discussion of militaries is in part relevant, because militaries are large public sector organizations given responsibility for aspects of high-stakes policy implementation (i.e. maintaining national security). But primarily they serve as a useful analogy of more general issues that affect all elements of policy implementation, from direct service provision (e.g. education, health, agricultural extension) to “obligation imposition” (e.g. policing, tax collection) to the implementation of economic policies from the macro (e.g. central banks) to the micro (e.g. prudential regulation).

Failure and “Big Development”

It is alarming that these forces of isomorphic mimicry and premature load bearing can lead so drastically to organizational failure; and it is disturbing that the international aid community often contributes to such processes. But what happens when a development project obviously fails? What is the response of development agencies to such issues of implementation failure and loss of capability?

Providing answers to these questions requires an examination of how responses to failure, as and when it occurs, are pursued within the prevailing development architecture. When policies or programs fail because of implementation failure, there are many seemingly good response options that are actually bad (because they do not change the underlying systemic failure; indeed, they may perpetuate it):

  1. 1. Adopt abetterpolicy. One obvious response to failure is to assume that the reason for failure was that the policy, even if it had been faithfully implemented, would not have accomplished the objective anyway and hence failure requires a new policy. However, even if the new policy is demonstrably better—in the sense that when implemented it leads to better outcomes—if it is equally (or more) organizationally stress-inducing in implementation, this will lead, after a number of intervening years, to further failure.

  2. 2. Engage incapacity building.” One attractive and obvious response to policy implementation failure is to assume that the problem was that the individual implementing agents lacked “capacity,” in the sense that (p.71) they could not have implemented the policy even had they wanted to. This is nearly always plausible, as policy implementation requires agents to successfully recognize states of the world and to know what to do in each instance (e.g. a nurse mandated to do community nutrition outreach has to be able to recognize a variety of symptoms and know which to treat, inform parents about how they should respond, which symptoms need referral to a doctor). What could be a more obvious response of public sector failure in (say) health, education, procurement, policing, regulation, or justice than to “train” health workers, teachers, procurement officers, policemen, regulators, lawyers—particularly as it will be demonstrably the case that “ideal capability” (i.e. the organizational capability if all individuals worked to capacity) is low?5 However, if the organization is under excessive stress due to the attempt to implement over-ambitious policies, the achievable increments to ideal capability may neither (a) augment the “robustness” of the organization and hence be irrelevant in practice, nor (b) shift the entire capacity frontier outward far enough to actually avoid the low-level equilibrium. (In Figure 3.6 even substantial outward shifts in the “low” capability case would still lead to the equilibrium of zero implementation.)

  3. 3. Cocoon particular projects/programs/sectors. Another reaction to implementation failure, particularly when external assistance agencies (whether donors or NGOs) are involved, is to ensure “their” project succeeds in a low capability environment by creating parallel systems. These parallel systems come in many varieties, from project implementation units to “bottom up” channels in which funds are provided directly to “communities.” The common difficulty with cocooning is that there is often no coherent plan as to how the cocooned success will scale to become (or replace) the routine practice. In fact, the cocooned implementation modes are often so resource intensive (in either scarce human capital resources “donated” by NGOs or financial resources) that they are not scalable. Again, cocooning can be a valuable technique of persistent failure—one can have long strings of demonstrably successful individual projects while a sector itself never improves.

  4. 4. Throw more resources into it. It is easy to see how isomorphic mimicry and premature load bearing make a powerful partnership. When governments are carrying out necessary and desirable goals (e.g. building roads, educating children, maintaining law and order) and are doing so by pursuing demonstrably successful policies (i.e. policies whose (p.72) effectiveness as a mapping from inputs to outcomes has been shown to achieve results when implemented somewhere) and are doing so through isomorphic organizational structures (e.g. police forces or education ministries whose organizational charts and de jure operational manuals are identical to those in functional countries), then doubling down the bet seems the only viable strategy. After all, this is known to work: it works in Denmark. Because most places with low state capability also have low productivity and hence governments are working with few resources, it is hard to not believe that simply applying more resources to achieve good goals by implementing good policies through good organizations is not the obvious, if not only, strategy.

Not only are there many good bad response options but some potentially good options are bad options, on the part of both clients and donors.6

  • Scaling policies to the available implementation capability is often professionally and normatively unattractive (i.e. scaling to the level of a given system’s prevailing capability to implement could be, or appear to be, highly condescending, patronizing, and insulting if that level is actually embarrassingly low).

  • Expanding capability in ways that are perhaps more “robust” but which do not expand the “ideal” are often decidedly unattractive to development actors who prefer options that are “modern,” “cutting edge,” and technically “state of the art.”

  • Attacking organizational failure is unattractive, as once an organization’s goals have been inverted to rent collection these are often subsequently capitalized into the political system in ways that eliminate potential constituencies for organizational “reform.”

As techniques that can both produce and allow persistent failure, the dangers of isomorphic mimicry and premature load bearing are pervasive precisely because they are attractive to domestic reformers. But, paradoxically, as already noted, external agents, whose presence is justified by the need to promote (and fund) progress, also play a strong role in generating and sustaining failure. Development agencies, both multilateral and bilateral, have very strong proclivities toward promoting isomorphic mimicry—e.g. encouraging governments to adopt the right policies and organization charts and to (p.73) pursue “best practice” reforms—without actually creating the conditions in which true novelty can emerge, be evaluated, and scaled. It is much more attractive for donors to measure their success as either inputs provided, training sessions held, or “reforms” undertaken and in process compliance in project implementation; all of these are laudable activities that can be readily justified and attractively presented at year’s end, yet can lead to zero actual improvement in a system’s demonstrated performance.

The logic of the broader structures of the international aid architecture and the core incentives faced by staff of the major development organizations, however, largely conspire against local innovation and context-specific engagement. This system instead rewards those who manage large portfolios with minimal fuss (actual accomplishment of objectives being a second-order consideration), is resistant to rigorous evaluation (since such an exercise may empirically document outright failure, which cannot be ignored) and focuses primarily on measuring clear, material inputs (as opposed to performance outcomes). Moreover, the more difficult the country context and the more ambiguous the appropriate policy response, the stronger the incentive to legitimize one’s actions—to clients, colleagues, and superiors—by deferring to what others deem to be “best practices” and to assess one’s performance in accordance with measurable “indicators,” which again tend to be inputs (since, unlike outcomes, those can be controlled, managed, and predicted in relatively unproblematic ways). Given that virtually all developing country contexts are, almost by definition, “complex” and facing all manner of “needs,” the systemic incentive to identify “proven solutions” and universal “tool kits” is powerful; those who can provide them (or claim to provide them)—from microfinance and conditional cash transfers to malaria nets and “property rights”—are development’s stars.

What to Do? Navigating the Second Jump Across the Chasm

So what is the prognosis for states stuck in a capability trap? Clearly, the standard responses of large development agencies to the failures caused by isomorphic mimicry and premature load bearing do not counteract the negative trajectory of these pernicious processes. Unfortunately, the even more worrisome problem with premature load bearing is that it may be more difficult to fix an organization once broken than to build it from scratch. In the debate over the transition in the post-Soviet era there was a saying used to justify “shock therapy” approaches: “You cannot cross a chasm in two (p.74) small jumps.”7 If your first jump fails, the second jump is from the bottom of the chasm and your legs are broken.

Hence, whatever the explanation for why the first jump failed, a second jump is different. Models of capability building that may have been correct strategies for implementing first jumps are not applicable to second jumps. To the extent that state capability completely (or nearly) collapsed (as in Liberia or Afghanistan or DRC or Somalia or Haiti) or had been sharply retrogressing from moderate levels (as the data on “Quality of Government” suggest of Pakistan or Kenya or Venezuela) or is merely stuck at a low rate of either retrogression or progression (or a mix) or a moderate level of capacity (as appears to be the case in, say, India), these are all “second jump” situations.

As organizations slip out of de jure control, agents consolidate around a new set of norms and practices. Society’s expectations of the behavior of the administration will alter as new behavioral patterns are created. The difficulty of the second jump at the chasm in building state capability is that with failure on the first jump one can end up in a situation in which “things fall apart” (in Achebe’s resonant phrase; see also Bates 2008), and while the previous systems of folk accountability and folk norms are eroded they are not replaced with strong systems of external thin accountability or strong internal performance norms in formal state organizations.8 Rather one has to contend with ingrained—indeed “capitalized”—cynicism inside organizations and alienation and cynicism about state organizations from without.

There are a variety of possible scenarios for capability failure, and different states—and even different ministries within states—can take on different characteristics.9 State functionality could collapse fully; the state could remain present nominally but simply not perform any tasks; the state could turn into an extractive state where rent-seeking and state capture by individuals is the order of the day; or the agents of the state could respond to the demands of the society as a whole and base its actions on the normative underpinnings of the society as a whole. We conjecture Somalia exemplifies (p.75) the first scenario; Haiti perhaps the second; many sub-Saharan African countries the third scenario.

Each failure makes success the next time around that much more difficult, as it breeds distrust between internal and external actors, cynicism among citizens, and a “wait and see” attitude among existing public sector agents when the next round of “solutions” are announced. Moreover, dysfunction often comes with corruption and this creates powerful private interests for the continuation of the status quo.

What to Do About Premature Load Bearing?

Does the risk of premature load bearing and collapse of state capability mean that the state should take on fewer functions? Does this mean that less aid should be channeled through the state? This is not a conclusion that we would automatically draw. The role of the state is crucial for effective development assistance, and therefore we have to treat state capability as a scarce resource, or perhaps even the binding constraint on development. We argue that state capability should be deployed in those spheres where it is most crucial and strategic, and that tasks should remain within the limits of what can genuinely be accomplished, even as we recognize that a defining feature of development is that states become incrementally more able to implement, under pressure and at scale, more complex, and more contentious tasks.

At the moment, however, the international community is squandering this precious resource by making tremendous demands on state capacity for non-productive purposes, such as reporting requirements and continuous organizational restructuring. Non-strategic functions can be outsourced, and a strategic plan can be put in place for a slow and gradual transfer of responsibility back to the state. Even so, there is the need for a genuine debate about the tasks a government can realistically perform at a given moment in time. When tasks can equally well be carried out by other actors, and the government role in this sphere can be limited, then perhaps this is worth exploring. As Thomas (2015) argues, aiming for a much less ambitious (or at least realistic) role for the state “is not about ideology, this is pragmatism.” That is, in states with high levels of capability much of the debate is about what the state ideally should do, which sometimes breaks into the familiar left–right ideological spectrum. But in fragile states the main problem is whether the state can do even those very limited tasks it must do. Adding roles and responsibilities, however attractive those may be in principle and in the long run, can actually be worse than useless.

The dilemma faced by the international community in fragile states and/or conflict situations is a catch-22. State capability is low and clearly needs to be (p.76) strengthened and reform is necessary to increase capability. At the same time, pushing too hard for reform may put too much strain on the system leading to retrogression rather than progress. This is particularly true for those reforms that are contentious and cause the highest stress on the system.

This is the capability trap in which many fragile states find themselves stuck, and to which the presence of the international community too often unwittingly contributes, in spite of good intentions. But explaining this dire situation is the easy part. Much harder is offering a coherent, supportable and implementable alternative, not least because trenchant criticism per se does not automatically generate one. And the incumbent always has the upper hand. But we argue that development practitioners must redefine their modus operandi; perfectionist project designs and proliferation of templates have not worked.


(1) For a detailed analysis of a specific fragile state (South Sudan) in these terms, see Larson et al. (2013); on the challenges of redefining fragile states in ways that incorporate and promote metrics more readily reflecting a given country’s trajectory of building state capability for implementation, see Woolcock (2014).

(2) None of this is particularly original as these are the ideas of B. Liddell Hart, transmuted into the German Army’s application of blitzkrieg in which the deep penetration of rapidly moving armored units sufficiently disrupts the ability of the opposing army to respond such that the capability of the opposing army disappears, often with small casualties or materiel loss. The German conquest of France in World War II is perhaps the paradigm example. The broad review of the history of military strategy provided by Freedman (2013) is also consistent with our story—as is, more narrowly, the oft-cited conclusion of Helmuth von Moltke, head of the Prussian army in the late nineteenth century: “No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.”

(3) Using the example of an army is hardly original; Wilson’s classic Bureaucracy (1989), for example, opens with a martial example.

(4) A similar phenomenon plays out in team sports. In Australia, for example, elite athletes and coaches often refer dismissively to “flat-track bullies”: those individuals and teams who appear intimidating and can perform wonders at training but whose performance falls away rapidly once the demands of a serious, actual contest unfolds.

(5) Moreover, as the development saying goes, “A project that gives a man a fish feeds him for a day, but a project to teach a man to fish lets you give your friend the technical assistance contract.”

(6) Some of these issues were addressed in Chapter 1. See also Banerjee et al. (2008), who demonstrate the resilience of deep organizational failure in attempts to enhance the performance of nurses in Rajasthan. What is striking about these examples is that they all come from India, which is, on average across the four indicators we use of “state capability,” in the upper tier of developing countries.

(7) An internet search attributes this saying to David Lloyd George, though variations on it exist in numerous cultures (cf. China, which under Mao argued that “you cross the stream by stepping on the stones” after a previous ill-fated attempt at a “great leap forward”). See also the witty exchange between representatives of these contrasting approaches to institutional reform—single bound versus incrementalism—in the post-Soviet era conveyed in Adams and Brock (1993). As Dani Rodrik has wryly noted, when policy arguments are made with pithy aphorisms one knows the contribution of economic science is limited.

(8) As our opening epigraph from Dewantara conveys.

(9) One might invoke Tolstoy at this point, extending his famous opening line in Anna Karenina to propose that happy, high capability states are all the same but that unhappy, low capability states are unhappy in their own way.