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The Seeds and Roots of Change

12 January 2014

Guest post in Governance for Development

Change is what development is all about. The hard part, as the well-chosen title of a new World Bank book makes clear, is persuading the right kind of change to put down roots and flourish.

Institutions Taking Root is a collection of success stories about building state capacity in challenging contexts. The common theme of these stories is not success in itself. They move us firmly on from the old ‘cometh the hour, cometh the leader’ cliché. A good harvest takes more than one seed; years of preparation go into the fertile ground that yields it.

The book looks at the committed group of leaders in Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Finance and Economic Development who continued to perform key functions during civil conflict. It considers the pool of leaders who have filled key positions inside and outside The Gambia’s Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, and yet have held onto a common and consistent vision of policy and implementation.

Groups and pools. Reform networks and coalitions. The kind of leadership that drives genuine, lasting reform is rarely – if ever – about one individual.

This is a core finding of the Developmental Leadership Program (DLP), where we have been examining just this aspect of change. How do networks of leaders form? When or why will they forge effective coalitions that can help positive change ‘take root’?

DLP research shows that the kind of leadership that builds ‘state capacity in challenging contexts’ tends to involve strong groups of leaders, perhaps gathered into coalitions. These are often based on broader networks or pre-existing ties.

For example, leaders in government agencies in China and India used professional and personal networks to build and maintain coalitions of varied interests to promote climate change mitigation. And among those educational specialists in The Gambia, the book traces the formation of links during earlier shared training and in their first jobs.

The roots of leadership groups generally begin to germinate years – even decades – before they come to fruition. The South African Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in the early 2000s improved access to anti-retroviral drugs, but the success of this nationwide coalition had its origins in anti-apartheid networks reaching back to the mid-1900s.

One source of fertile coalition-forming ground that appears often in DLP findings is good quality secondary and university education.

Botswana’s independence leaders built a stable polity and negotiated with De Beers, ensuring mineral revenues would benefit the country’s development for generations. Their coalitions were based on shared values and friendships forged at boarding schools. In Mauritius, political, bureaucratic and business leaders united to steer the country from ‘Malthusian crisis’ to developmental poster-child. These actors had sharply contrasting ideologies – but they shared both high levels of education and networks created at secondary school and university.

These cases and broader studies suggest that quality secondary and university education can also help develop the values and skills developmental leaders need. A recent pilot case study in Ghana showed that education had given nascent developmental leaders their core skills and values of critical thinking, collaboration, public service, social justice and tolerance, as well as seeding the relationships and networks from which successful reform coalitions grew.

The Developmental Leadership Program is in the process of developing this research through further case studies in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka, where the developmental trajectory and the role of education are more complex. The results will be available in late 2015.

Obviously, leadership both shapes and is shaped by contextual factors such as ‘rules of the game’, structures of power and authority, and ‘room for manoeuvre’. Yet the ability of groups of leaders to navigate these social, political, and capacity constraints and opportunities is what drives or embeds reform. They need to be able to spot windows of opportunity, and quickly mobilise their networks to build coalitions of support.

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