Professor of the Practice of International Development
Escaping Capability Traps
Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)
Andrews, Matt, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock. "Escaping Capability Traps through Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP12-036, August 2012.
Many reform initiatives in developing countries fail to achieve sustained improvements in
performance because they are merely isomorphic mimicry—that is, governments and organizations
pretend to reform by changing what policies or organizations look like rather than what they
actually do. In addition, the flow of development resources and legitimacy without demonstrated
improvements in performance undermines the impetus for effective action to build state capability
or improve performance. This dynamic facilitates “capability traps” in which state capability
stagnates, or even deteriorates, over long periods of time even though governments remain engaged
in developmental rhetoric and continue to receive development resources. How can countries
escape capability traps? We propose an approach, Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA),
based on four core principles, each of which stands in sharp contrast with the standard approaches.
First, PDIA focuses on solving locally nominated and defined problems in performance (as
opposed to transplanting preconceived and packaged “best practice” solutions). Second, it seeks
to create an authorizing environment for decision-making that encourages positive deviance and
experimentation (as opposed to designing projects and programs and then requiring agents to
implement them exactly as designed). Third, it embeds this experimentation in tight feedback loops
that facilitate rapid experiential learning (as opposed to enduring long lag times in learning from ex
post “evaluation”). Fourth, it actively engages broad sets of agents to ensure that reforms are viable,
legitimate, relevant, and supportable (as opposed to a narrow set of external experts promoting the
top-down diffusion of innovation).