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What does "to do so" refer to in the following sentence:

Although these ambiguities formed a backdrop to the heated debates in the formulation of the WDR, the real controversy concerned the role of institutions: did they “fill in” for market failures, or did they often help to preserve existing inequalities, frequently giving rise to inefficiencies in the attempt to do so?

Development economics through decades, by Shahid Yusuf (2008), p. 147

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  • So just means "that" here; you can read it as "...in the attempt to do (that thing)." Possibly useful previous questions: Meaning of "he does not do so", the usage of 'so' in ' it does so very slowly'' – stangdon Aug 22 '16 at 12:51
  • @stangdon So, what that refers to here? – comi Aug 22 '16 at 12:57
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    The original sentence is not clear, as there is no reference to an "attempt". One might have expected "did they try to fill in ..." We can understand "fill in" to mean "to compensate for" or "to take action in response to". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 22 '16 at 13:01
  • @TRomano. Thank you for your guide. one more question: what do you think about the meaning of backdrop hear? I mean is it an accelerator for heated debates? – comi Aug 22 '16 at 13:19
  • To "form a backdrop to" something is to be a context for it. The ambiguities which "form the backdrop" to the debate are described in the original text in the paragraph that precedes your snippet. They relate to the failure of US institutions to address problems in its financial sector, and the resulting loss of confidence in those institutions as a model for other countries. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 22 '16 at 14:02
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The phrase "do so" means, "do the thing previously mentioned". It's a way to avoid repeating the same words.

In this case, the sentence could be reworded, "Did they 'fill in' for market failures, or did they often help to preserve existing inequalities, frequently giving rise to inefficiencies in the attempt to fill in for market failures?"

But just reading that, you can probably see how it sounds repetitive.

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