I've just returned from a two week stint in two countries trying to promote growth, better governance and development.
People in the public and private sectors are struggling with many prescriptions given them by well-meaning economists, political scientists and other development specialists. These usually come in neatly developed plans and working papers, strategy documents, and other codified structures. They are rigorous and well considered, but they commonly do not effectively consider the realities on the ground. This leads to the people hitting walls in implementation, that are often seen as failure and lead to an end of the initiative.
Why does this happen, I ask.
I thinking about this, I find myself reflecting on what the people are trying to do--usually something written into some formal document. However, I find that even the most well described plan and proposal is always alarmingly oversimplified. They assume so many capabilities that simply don't exist in developing countries (most of which I think the writers are not even aware of, given how mundane they may be--structured approaches to work, delegation capabilities, time management, and more things that no one teaches in an economics of development course.
This oversimplification is not in and of itself a problem, I guess. Hirschmann helped us see that we only pursue impossible things because the impossibility is hidden from us, so if we knew how little was really possible we would not do it.
But Hirschmann saw the need for some adaptation mechanisms that help people manage when they realize the capability gaps and contextual limits of codified ideas. These mechanisms help in the identification of gaps and building of capabilities found lacking, and frequently involve facing up to what looks like failure, having a frank reflection on this, and making really hard choices and changes.
In my experience this stage also demands incredible amounts of work on the ground, which is commonly not provided because those needed to work are busy explaining themselves to the ones who codified the project in the first place. I find again and again that the codifiers--project writers, high level economic plan developers, etc.--respond to these situations by criticizing implementers and proposing another codified project that they say 'just needs to be implemented'.
This is frustrating to everyone, and is one reason why I see history repeating itself again and again.
We need to be able to protect initiatives when they run into the traps of low capability, high ambiguity contexts...we need to be able to foster reflection on what gaps can be seen in these moments, and what kinds of practical changes these gaps call for...and we need to resist introducing new codified solutions to the problems of practice.