Escaping Traps

Reform leaders often are able to generate brief turnarounds.  Security, service delivery and economic opportunity improve.  However, reform efforts can fall prey to one or more governance traps that subvert hard-won gains.  Paul Collier's Bottom Billion profiles some of those traps.

Not all of the challenges that reform leaders face are traps, of course.  All leaders encounter difficult decisions about timing, coalition formation and constituency building—issues discussed in the strategy notes and case studies throughout the ISS website. By contrast, traps usually assume one of three forms:

Institutional traps arise when the community as a whole stands to benefit from a service or a reform, but the people who must implement the changes stand to lose. This kind of trap often appears when leaders incorporate factions or militias in order to settle a conflict, offering a ministerial portfolio in exchange for support.  Faction leaders may staff ministries with people who are not well trained to do the work.  Yet taking steps to improve services by moving better performing personnel into jobs potentially rekindles conflict and undermines service provision still further.

Coordination traps occur when the success of a reform or investment requires the active participation of all or nearly all the members of a group. Without full participation, the effort is likely to fail.  Creating focal points or role models and generating shared narratives are often responses to this kind of governance trap.

Traps also may result when there are feedback loops between causes and consequences.  For example, war or economic decline may cause people with skills to leave a country, making it still more likely that the situation will continue to deteriorate and that conflict will reignite. 

The links at left profile the strategies reform leaders have adopted to escape from several common governance traps.