Capacity Building



Fragile states have governments too weak or too dysfunctional to provide the kinds of basic services that both citizens and businesses need if they are to thrive. Some cannot provide such services because they lack the required resources. They have little or no money to spend on services, and too few well-qualified officials to deliver them. Legal systems are hampered by shortages of trained judges, prosecutors, attorneys, and public defenders. Others fail to implement their own laws, programs, and policies not because they lack the required resources but because they are badly organized and chronically corrupt. Government capacity also varies tremendously by district and region; citizens in the capital may receive adequate public services while those in outlying areas receive little or none.

Creating a robust government apparatus able to implement policy can take generations, because it involves changing the professional culture and improving the skills of an army of mid- and lower-level government officials. In most poor countries, few officials have any idea how to build organizations, professionally manage people, and coordinate operations across geographic regions and economic sectors. Few judges have been to law school, few policymakers have attended professional workshops, and few police have been adequately trained for their jobs. Pay and motivation are both low. Organizations work at cross purposes, without clear goals, and without clear divisions of responsibility.

Instead of comparing themselves with developed countries and inevitably seeing only deficits and liabilities, the leaders of developing states should start by assessing what strengths they already possess and then seek to creatively make use of these to improve public authority and public services within their borders. Each country’s unique challenges and priorities will be shaped by their unique circumstances.

Those who perform these assessments should take an open-minded approach to what might qualify as a governing asset. A country’s governing capacities, for instance, could include not only the government’s own apparatus but also a wide variety of nongovernmental organizations and social institutions, from traditional systems of justice to religious schools to parliamentarians’ relations with their constituencies. An assessment will likely produce an inventory of rather messy and unorthodox assets, but many may be more effective at delivering one or more public services than approaches that focus only on the central government.

Many Asian countries have, in fact, grown rapidly despite—or, more probably, because—they did not try to emulate the institutions, norms, and practices of developed countries. Indonesia, Thailand, and China have been able to foster rapid growth and increase public services by basing their governing regimes on historically and culturally familiar forms—even if these often fell short of international standards. Thailand, for example, gave the king a special role. At the same time, the have not forgotten to enhance their legal and administrative systems as new needs arose.


For more information, see:

Aiding Governance in Developing Countries: Progress Amid Uncertainties

By Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont


Good Enough Governance Revisited

By Merilee Grindle


Capacity Change and Performance: Insights and Implications for Development Cooperation

By ECDPM (Policy Management Brief 21)


Not Just Aid: How Making Government Work Can Transform Africa

By Tony Blair


And Justice for All: Enforcing Human Rights for the World’s Poor

By Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros


Learning about Schools in Development

By Charles Kenny