It is well established that even in countries that have poor governance and weak public sectors, exceptional well-functioning government and government-supported agencies do exist. What has not been established is where and why these ‘pockets of effectiveness’ are able to emerge. Some attribute their existence to exceptional leadership and good management. Others, while not doubting the importance of these internal factors, believe that these ‘pockets’ are generated by their place in the country's political economy. The literature on this subject is dominated by case studies and the consequence is that a very large number of hypotheses have been generated about what the political processes at work might be. This article inventories the array of available hypotheses and condenses them into five sets of meta-hypotheses. It also discusses how social scientists and practitioners ought to think about something whose occurrence is idiosyncratic. The future of development administration will be enhanced by more informed choice of strategic opportunities—avoiding both political determinism and a naïve faith that all is equally possible to those who will it. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.