Woolcock, Michael

Development Research Group
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Social development, Research methods, Institutions, Poverty, Community Driven Development, Governance, Conflict
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Last updated June 24, 2023
Michael Woolcock is the lead social scientist in the Development Research Group at the World Bank, where he has worked since 1998. For 14 of these years he has also taught (part-time) at Harvard Kennedy School, with periods of leave spent at the University of Cambridge (2002) and the University of Manchester (2007–09). In 2015-17 he also helped establish the World Bank’s first Knowledge and Research Hub, in Kuala Lumpur. His current research focuses on strategies for enhancing the effectiveness of policy implementation, extending work addressed in his recent book, Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action (with Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett; Oxford University Press, 2017). Michael is a co-recipient of the American Sociological Association’s awards for best book (2012) and best article (2014) on economic development.
Citations 433 Scopus

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Now showing 1 - 3 of 3
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    Measuring What Matters: Principles for a Balanced Data Suite That Prioritizes Problem-Solving and Learning
    (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2022-05) Bridges, Kate ; Woolcock, Michael
    Responding effectively and with professional integrity to the many challenges of public administration requires recognizing that access to more and better quantitative data is necessary but insufficient. Overreliance on quantitative data comes with its own risks, of which public sector managers should be keenly aware. This paper focuses on four such risks. The first is that attaining easy-to-measure targets becomes a false standard of broader success. The second is that measurement becomes conflated with what management is and does. The third is that measurement inhibits a deeper understanding of the key policy problems and their constituent parts. The fourth is that political pressure to manipulate key indicators can lead, if undetected, to falsification and unwarranted claims or, if exposed, to jeopardizing the perceived integrity of many related (and otherwise worthy) measurement efforts. Left unattended, the cumulative concern is that these risks will inhibit rather than promote the core problem-solving and implementation capabilities of public sector organizations, an issue of high importance everywhere but especially in developing countries. The paper offers four cross-cutting principles for building an approach to the use of quantitative data—a “balanced data suite”—that strengthens problem-solving and learning in public administration: (1) identify and manage the organizational capacity and power relations that shape data management; (2) focus quantitative measures of success on those aspects which are close to the problem; (3) embrace a role for qualitative data, especially for those aspects that require in-depth, context-specific knowledge; and (4) protect space for judgment, discretion, and deliberation in those (many) decision-making domains that inherently cannot be quantified.
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    Implementing Adaptive Approaches in Real World Scenarios: A Nigeria Case Study, with Lessons for Theory and Practice
    (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2019-06) Bridges, Kate ; Woolcock, Michael
    How does adaptive implementation work in practice? Drawing on extensive interviews and observations, this paper contrasts the ways in which an adaptive component of a major health care project was implemented in three program and three matched comparison states in Nigeria. The paper examines the bases on which claims and counterclaims about the effectiveness of these approaches were made by different actors, concluding that resolution requires any such claims to be grounded in a fit-for-purpose theory of change and evaluation strategy. The principles of adaptive development may be gaining broad acceptance, but a complex array of skills, expectations, political support, empirical measures, and administrative structures needs to be deftly integrated if demonstrably positive operational results are to be obtained, especially when undertaken within institutional systems, administrative logics, and political imperatives that are predisposed to serve rather different purposes.
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    How (Not) to Fix Problems that Matter: Assessing and Responding to Malawi's History of Institutional Reform
    (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2017-12) Bridges, Kate ; Woolcock, Michael
    Malawi can be understood as a microcosm of institutional reform approaches in developing countries more broadly. A common feature of such approaches, whether implemented by government or donors, is reform initiatives that yield institutions that "look like" those found in higher-performing countries but rarely acquire the same underlying functionality. This paper presents a retrospective analysis of previous institutional reform projects in Malawi, as well as interviews with Malawi-based development practitioners. The paper finds a plethora of interventions that, merely by virtue of appearing to be in conformity with "best practices" elsewhere, are deemed to be successful yet fail to fix underlying problems, sometimes in contradiction to internal and public narratives of positive progress. This unhappy arrangement endures because a multitude of imperatives, incentives, and norms appear to keep governments and donors from more closely examining why such intense, earnest, and long-standing efforts at reform have, to date, yielded so few successes. This paper seeks to promote a shift in approach to institutional reform, offering some practical recommendations for reform-minded managers, project teams, and political leaders in which the focus is placed on crafting solutions to problems that Malawians themselves nominate, prioritize, and enact.