Institutional Imports

Ranil over at Aid Thoughts, responds to a couple of blog posts by Lee, the Roving Bandit. I commented upon the first of these, and Ranil’s post expanded usefully on my theme. Here are some further thoughts.

Many developing countries have rules and institutions imported from elsewhere, either by their coloniser or at the behest of donors. These are classic top-down blueprints rather than emergent systems (ref Duncan Green’s comment). Even many of those working within them may not fully grasp exactly how the institution is supposed to work, especially how it should integrate with local cultural norms. The situation can be even worse for the general populace, who have an even dimmer understanding of the proper purpose of the institution: they may attempt to interface with it in the wrong way, and will almost certainly fail to hold to proper account those working within the institution. They will very probably understand that things are not working as they should – that one is usually easy to spot – but not how to resolve it.

Take, for example, local government. Around here, everything passes through the hands of the LGA Executive Director, and I mean everything. Of course the Director is easily overwhelmed, and too many things proceed at a snails pace. But the concept of the big man (or even big woman in the modern age) functions just as well at the local level and is extremely enduring. Hence there is little delegation of decision making, and we have a poorly functioning LGA. (There are, of course, many other reasons why the LGA may fail to do a very good job.) But for poor local constituents, they all know the importance of taking their problems to the big man, and thus cultural norms perpetuate the situation. I don’t see this bottleneck really going away until both the cultural norms and the institution adapt to deliver a more workable solution, and this kind of adaptation almost certainly has to emerge locally rather than being imposed from above.

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