Delivering more with less: Subnational service provision in low capacity states


by PIM | November 28, 2018

Photo: ILO in Asia and the Pacific

In developing countries, low state capacity frequently is blamed for poor and uneven service delivery. Yet, since state capacity manifests unevenly across space and sectors, identifying which elements of capacity are more likely to enhance service delivery is not straightforward. The new paper by Jordan Kyle and Danielle Resnick examines how subnational variation in capacity affects access to agricultural extension in rural Nepal. The authors explore six dimensions of state capacity using original household survey data and interviews with local bureaucrats. They find that local knowledge and motivation of bureaucrats play a significant role in shaping service access. By contrast, traditional capacity indicators—including resources, professionalization, and autonomy—matter surprisingly little. These findings suggest that bureaucrats working with fewer but more motivated staff who spend more time in a district are more likely to facilitate citizens’ access to agricultural extension.

"The villages of Barbote and Pyang are located in the far west region of Nepal, in neighboring districts. Both villages are heavily dependent on rice cultivation, similarly sized (around 1800 households), and equally distant to a major road (4 km). Despite similarities between the villages, citizens within them receive remarkably different levels of public services. Citizens in Barbote, who depend on rice cultivation for their livelihoods, are confident that they can find a crop extension agent if they need one, and a third of them have within the past year. Anuj, the official in charge of agricultural extension services for Barbote’s district, provides these services with shockingly few resources: a staff of only 5 crop extension agents to serve over 82,000 farmers. However, what Anuj lacks in resources, he makes up for by embedding himself in the community. Having lived in the district for 24 years, he understands local agricultural conditions and leaves the district capital for field visits at least every other week.

Pyang differs notably from Barbote in both the resources deployed to provide public services and in the levels of services provided. Bishal, the official in charge of agricultural extension services for Pyang’s district, has 26 crop extension agents to serve 187,000 farmers (though this is far too few staff to effectively serve the population, it is nonetheless more than twice the ratio as Barbote). Despite this advantage, Bishal knows little about the community he serves, having lived there for less than 2 years and not recalling his last field visit outside the district capital. When asked the best way to expand agricultural production in his district, Bishal could not name a single policy area. Though citizens in Pyang are equally dependent on rice cultivation for their livelihoods, all surveyed citizens reported that no crop extension agents serve their village.

This example, based on two real (but anonymized) villages, highlights a broader puzzle. Despite shared socio-economic characteristics and geographic proximity, rural villages are not uniformly underserved by public services. Using a combination of elite interviews and nationally representative survey data from Nepal, we explore when and how state capacity plays a role in variations in the delivery of public services."

Authors believe that the findings of their study contain a hopeful message for service delivery in areas of limited statehood, like Nepal. "Even when resources are scarce, knowledgeable and motivated bureaucrats can deliver surprisingly high levels of services with scant resources. Where university graduates are scarce, staffing districts with junior technicians—as long as they are local—improves outcomes as these local staff are more embedded in local conditions and communities. Reducing the use of district transfers at both the junior and senior levels would be an inexpensive way to improve service outcomes and encourage greater embeddedness.”

Read the paper online (Open Access)


Kyle, Jordan; and Resnick, Danielle. Delivering more with less: Subnational service provision in low capacity states. Studies in Comparative International Development. Article in press. First published online on November 10, 2018.

The authors are grateful to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for extending financial support to conduct this study through the Policy Reforms Initiatives Project in Nepal and through ReSAKKS-Asia. Funding was also provided by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), which is led by IFPRI and funded by CGIAR Fund contributors. The opinions expressed here belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of PIM, IFPRI, CGIAR, or USAID.