Blog 5: World Development Report 2017 – Part 1

The 2017 World Development Report finally takes a stand. 

While my tribe, the social scientists, are still churning ‘round in the eternal debate on Agency versus Structure, the Worldbank has now decided to that Structure is the thing to invest in. The World Development Report 2017 suggests that it’s not that simple, however.

To make the world a better place, first things first, we need to build ‘good’ formal institutions. This implies that, before we can get to work on food security, gender equality and community-based poverty reduction, we need to create a solid infrastructure for the rule of law, democracy, education and healthcare.

Well. Ok.

 So what?

Do we actually have the luxury of prioritizing?

In the next few blogs, I will have a look at the WDR 2017 diagnosis.


Agency is our capacity to act independently and make our own choices. Structure refers to the institutional infrastructures that limit or facilitate our actions.

For the longest time we have been trying to make a trade-off:

  • Which one of these two do we need to prioritize to make societal change happen?
  •  Does change take place by virtue of exceptional people who see and seize an opportunity?
  •  Or do we need to fundamentally alter our institutions to even bring about opportunities that can be seized?

Chicken? Egg?

In the 2017 WDR report the failure of states is no longer traced back to combinations of their singular geographic, climate or cultural characteristics in Paul Collier-fashion. When building institutions, in many ways, it’s all about choices. Building institutions is often part of a process of human decision-making.

But who gets to be decide?

Isn’t it all political?

And that is exactly why this WDR concerns everybody, because if it’s political it’s related to balances in power, zones of influence and strategic positioning. It’s related to governance and law and their foundations in a society. It’s about the games we play.

This year’s WDR report questions the reasons why some countries build benign institutions that foster economic growth while others build ‘predatory’ ones that retard development.

(For example: Cambodia, The Philippines, Congo and Haiti all illustrate the ways in which widespread patronage can corrupt a system and create state failure.)

What can we do about it?

That is, indeed, the trillion dollar question.

As past failures have shown, to fight corruption, a state needs money, that fuels the vicious circle to stay in motion. 

As past failures have shown, to build institutions, a state needs capacity, yet building quality capacity requires quality educational institutions. 

As past failures have shown, to transform institutions requires governmental dedication and societal support. But why would the decision makers want to change the institutions that feed them and why would they want to mobilize their opposition?

In the next blog let’s take the popular subject of ‘Inclusion’ and try to answer some of these questions.