Why Governments in Poor Countries Fail

Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock have written an extraordinary book showing why governments in poor nations don’t perform well. That book is called Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action. (2019, Oxford.)

The authors of Building State Capacity have worked for many years in at the World Bank. They have taught many courses on the implementation of development policy both at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and in other settings. They have taught professional reformers, development workers, employees of philanthropies and members of international aid organizations who hope to take low performing governments in the Global South and raise their overall levels of performance. How do you make public schools more effective? How do you make police less corrupt? How do you get poor nations to register land and give homeowners title to their property? 


How do you get doctors in government clinics to provide patients quality care?  This book transmits much of the knowledge that these professors try to give their students in their courses, as their students try to change the world for the better.

Most governments in the Global South are completely ineffective. Andrews et. al. construct careful indices of such basic indicators of performance as “rule of law” “control of corruption” and “carrying out core functions such as education or health”. Out of 102 poor nations, only 8 have fully effective governments. Of the ineffective governments, over 70% are getting worse rather than better.


Attempts by Western governments and international aid organizations to put in reforms tend to crash and burn. The Westerners come in with grand plans of making a country like the Congo just as well run and efficient as Denmark. They copy Denmark’s institutions and tell the Congo to imitate the Danish model. Sometimes the local government does put in some program that kind of sort of looks Danish. But at the end of the day, corruption continues, government officials don’t do their job, and performance indicators stagnate. But the Western agency does get signed documents promising action and some photos of a new computer.


This is not because Africans, Asians and Latins are dumb and immoral while Westerners are smart and hard working. Often the programs the Westerners are suggesting are completely unworkable given practical conditions in the countries involved. On the issues at hand, it is often the Americans and Europeans who are the dumb ones, sticking to stale formulas that have little relation to reality.


Other development authors have raised these concerns. What sets Building State Capability apart is that Andrews, Pritchett and Woolcock have a superior diagnosis about why attempts to produce better government in the Global South tend to fail.


They start with an obvious premise that few people would disagree with.


The problems that governments in poor countries face are hard to solve. The West doesn’t have the answers. Locals don’t have the answers. Nobody has the answers. It doesn’t help that underdeveloped nations are really different from each other. What works in Buddhist Thailand may not work in Islamic Malaysia. What works in urban Southern Brazil may not work in the Amazon.


So governments have to improvise and fudge as they work towards a solution to their problems. There is going to be a lot of trial and error. There will be experiments that go bad. The whole process is two steps forward and one step back – or sometimes two steps forward and three steps back. Everyone is groping in the dark.


Now comes the cool part.


Andrews, Pritchett and Woolcock ask:


What kinds of problems are only a little bit hard to solve?


What kinds of problems are murderously difficult to solve?


Governments have good prospects of solving problems that are only a little bit hard.


Attempts to solve problems that are murderously difficult are likely to fail. This is the case even if everyone means well and there are a ton of foreign do-gooders trying to help out.


What makes a problem easy or hard to solve?


1. Does solving your problem involve lots of transactions with lots of people? It is easier to solve problems that don’t require very many people to get the job done. Fixing the monetary policy of a country may involve training thirty highly placed economists in two government ministries and one Central Bank. Improving the math and science skills of high school students will involve teaching thousands and thousands of students. You will also have to train all the teachers, principals and superintendents necessary to execute the plan. Changing the behavior of thousands of students and teachers is more difficult than changing the behavior of thirty economists.


2. Do your program officials have to make subtle complex judgements about local conditions? It is easier to solve problems that don’t require complex assessments on the part of your officials. If you want to stop speeding, you can give your policeman radars. The radars will tell you who is driving too fast and who is not. It is a lot harder to stop cheating on taxes. Your auditors need to know what kind of income might be under-reported and how you would find out where that income is hiding. The more complex judgement you require from your functionaries, the more likely it is that you won’t be able to get enough people for your project. It is also more likely the people you get won’t be very good. Improving tax collection is one of the hardest challenges governments in poor nations have to face.


3. Are you providing benefits to people or imposing obligations on them? The public will cooperate with you if your program does something nice for them. Most people will show up to get their subsidized food baskets or gasoline. The public will not cooperate with you if you are trying to extract something from them. It is hard to get people to pay more taxes. It is hard to make men use contraception if they don’t want to. It is hard to make farm families send their children to school if they need those children to work in the fields.


4. Is there a known effective technology that generally solves the problem at hand, or does the solution remain to be discovered? It is easier to arrange for victims of war trauma to receive artificial limbs than it is to take care of their psychological needs. How prosthetic limbs work is well understood. Post-traumatic stress is less well understood. Post-traumatic stress is particularly poorly understood in non-Western nations where people have different cultures and psychological coping mechanisms than those documented in the Western medical literature. Limbs are easier to repair than emotions.


5. Can you evaluate your own staff with simple bits of information, or does assessing your staff mean making complex nuanced judgements of performance on multiple indicators? It is easier to maintain standards on a program when you can make effective judgements of the quality of your personnel using a simple unambiguous indicator.


Judging palace guards is easy. Are the guards always outside and at attention when you check on them? Has nobody broken into the palace? If so, the guards are doing okay.

Judging the youth coaches for your national soccer program is hard. You have to be able to evaluate what skills the coaches are imparting. You have to be able to evaluate the coaches own capacity for evaluating talent. You have to be able to evaluate the coaches’ ability to recruit talent and motivate players. Developing an internationally competitive soccer program may be fiendishly difficult because you may not be able to recognize poor teaching by some of your coaches.


Given these considerations, what concrete problems are easy or hard for governments in poor countries to solve?


Improving Policy Making at the Top is pretty easy. You only have to train a small number of individuals. If you are lucky, you also have “canned” solutions that would actually work that you can impart to this small elite. Often national policies have indicators that are easy to measure, such as GDP, school attendance or vaccination rates.


Improving Logistics is a little harder but are still on the easy side. Some of what government does is deliver goods or services. You need to get social security checks to old people. You need to put ATMs in state banks. This will involve more transactions and training more people. But the technologies are straightforward and well understood. You are providing a positive service.


Improving the Delivery of Complex Services is harder. Examples might be providing loans to businesses, or providing health care to the population. Lots of people have to be involved. Those people who are involved will have to make sophisticated judgements. Even if the technologies involved are well understood, there may still be complex assessments of attributes like creditworthiness or health status. A lot can go wrong here.


Imposing Widespread Obligations is genuinely difficult. Examples might be collecting a new tax, or enforcing workplace safety codes. You need to involve many, many people. Those people need to make complex judgements. The public is highly motivated not to cooperate with you. A whole lot can go wrong here.


The WICKED HARD Category. (These are the authors own deliberately chosen words.) The Wicked Hard Group is a mixed bag of government tasks that are murderously difficult to accomplish. This category is big. It includes projects that require a lot of people, many of whom have to make complex judgements, with no standard fixed technology that they can fall back on. Worse, they are imposing obligations on the public. Assessing your own staff is challenging because there are many aspects of performance that have to be considered. Using state monies to start up a new industry from nothing falls into the Wicked Hard category. Improving women’s rights falls into the Wicked Hard category.


Notably, changing the health and medical habits of individuals is also Wicked Hard. That is not good news in the era of COVID-19, when government officials are trying to get people to wear masks and to avoid public fraternization.


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What does all of this imply?


If you are an employee of a development organization or a philanthropy, it probably changes how you try to get governments in the Global South to work on the problem you care about. Andrews, Pritchett and Woolcock spend the first third of the book documenting flagrant failures of do-gooders in trying to achieve political and social reform in the poorer nations. They spend the last third of the book walking through planning exercises reformers can do that will maximize the chance that they can actually help the government they are working with institute effective change. If you actually ARE a reformer, you want to read the last third of this book. It covers a significant percentage of what Andrews et. al. teach in their courses at Harvard … and you get to avoid paying Harvard tuition.


If you are just a regular person with an interest in world events, Building State Capability has two important messages.

I. Governments in the Global South are going to face all sorts of obstacles to effectively solving the difficulties faced by their country.

II. This is not entirely the fault of the people in charge. What they are trying to do is legitimately difficult.



So let’s cut the people who run the poorer nations of the world a little bit of slack.

Cut them even more slack if you are looking at Wicked Hard issues like getting people to change fundamental behavior.