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What are we learning when we learn about Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)? (Part I)

Written by Arnaldo Pellini, Endah Purnawati and Siti Ruhanawati  

For the last three weeks I have met on with two colleagues, Ana and Endah, to discuss PDIA. We are going through the modules of the PDIA: Building Capability by Delivering Results – Part I online course which Matt Andrews, Michael Woolcock, Lant Pritchett, and Salimah Samji run in 2015 and 2016.

Every Monday morning we meet to discuss the weekly module. I did the course last year and it is great to go back to it, refresh my memory and, more importantly, hear from Ana and Endah how it all relates to the context in which we work here in Indonesia.

So far we have gone through the following material:

  • Challenges of building state capability
  • The poor results achieved by international programmes during the last 20 years in building state capability, particularly in middle income countries
  • Isomorphic mimicry, or the establishment of institutions that look good on paper but do not actually function
  • The hurry in establishing new institutions so that they fit project cycles but crush under the weight of too much too soon (i.e. premature load bearing)

Here some of the points that have emerged in our weekly discussion so far:

  • Endah says that in our work we often do not look at problems carefully. We do not spend enough time to actually explore and understand the roots of the problems and tend to take a shortcut in suggesting solutions while the problems have not been explored well. This makes us less interested in learning for better implementation because we then are too occupied to implement solutions.
  • There is a lot of isomorphic mimicry around us. A lot. Policies and regulations are being designed, supported and signed off all the time. Often contradicting or duplicating each other. The example in the course of the driving licence office in Delhi is not an exception, but probably the norm.
  • We found the statistics on the lack of progress in state capability quite astonishing. Pritchett notes that ‘The state capability for service delivery is the aggregation of the capability of the organizations acting at the behest of the state (which themselves could be public or private) to provide the service … A central idea in development was that there could be ‘accelerated modernization’ as the lagging countries caught up on the leaders. Strikingly, growth in state capability in the development era appears to be even slower than the now developed countries.’
  • The Quality of Government Institute assesses that 62 of 87 countries which they track show no progress in state capability. Even among the 25 of the 87 countries that have positive growth in state capability the typical country will have taken over 200 years to reach the OECD level of state capability in 1985.
  • Economic growth over short to medium horizons is almost completely uncorrelated with improvements in state capability (and some argue that growth is associated with reductions in state capability).
  • Pritchett concludes that ‘In a nutshell, my argument is that the existence of very high capability Weberian bureaucracies in the developed countries during the development era has made building state capability harder, not easier, for the developing countries … The existence of high-performing Weberian bureaucracies in the developed world which, by the beginning of the development era appeared to and were claimed to operate on the basis of a successful formula, gave credence to the idea that ‘transplantation’ of the formula and rules of those organizations could replicate their functional successes. The idea and possibility of transplantation abetted the desire of new nation-states and their rulers and of the post-war global order generally to ‘skip the struggle’
  • Ana asks why are there only middle-income countries examples in the PDIA course? Why aren’t there examples of isomorphic mimicry in high-income countries? I can think of many in my home country, Italy.
  • Every time we met so far we have ended up talking about political philosophy, human nature, ethics, morality. The questions we are asking asked ourselves which are inspired by the course modules are: why are there so many problems exist in state capability. Why running a state leads to so many problems and failures? What has human nature to do with it since, after all, it is people who vote, who make the rules and who govern.
  • Endah has mentioned Machiavelli who in Il Principle writes:

Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires


One can make this generalisation about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit

  • I have been reminded of a book by Eugenio Scalfari, and Italian journalist and the founder of the second largest newspaper La Repubblica, which I have been reading during the last couple of weeks. Scalfari is now 92 and writes book about politics and philosophy. In his latest book, L’allegria, il pianto, la vita (Joy, tears, life) he writes: ‘In teoria, la sostanza della politica è il perseguimento del bene comune (In theory, the essence of politics is the pursuit of the common good). This is the theory. Does it correspond to reality, he asks?
  • To find an answer he then asks: ‘Given the essence of human nature, is peace or war the normal condition of our species?’ Wars are about winning power and since in the history of men wars have been more frequent than peaceful times he concludes that the normal condition of humans is war, not peace. …. So, ‘if war is the normal conditions (in historical terms) power is the dominant passion in human beings. While politics is about the common good, at its core, however, human nature is about pursuing power.’

Not a nice picture (so far). Three more modules to continue this interesting discussion.


  1. Louise Shaxson

    Hi Arnaldo

    Very interesting, I’d love to part of those discussions! But one question: how do we know when we’ve analysed a problem thoroughly enough? At what stage do we say ‘OK, this has to be good enough, we have to get on and try to do something’?

  2. I think we have to accept the ‘good enough’. We need to use our best judgment and I believe our judgment can improve the more knowledge we acquire about the problems and the politics around the problems. Anyhow, when we identify a solutions we usually discover other problems that need to be solved. And so on.

  3. Pingback: Here is what we learned about learning about PDIA (Part II) | Demand4Evidence

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