Evolutionary biology meets development

Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) theory of evolution by natural selection has been described as the most powerful idea ever conceived; the shear breadth and variation in the natural world all created from the inexorable application of one, very simple principle. So fantastically powerful is it that its application is not limited just to biology but is increasingly being applied in the social sciences … and now in development economics.


If looks could kill: a non-poisonous frog that looks rather poisonous

The Sapito Listado frog from South America would make a tasty meal for many a tree snake, but it doesn’t get eaten so much as it looks like poison dart frogs which the snakes have learned are not nearly so digestible. In other words the Sapito Listado has all the trappings of a poisonous frog without the key poison functionality. Since poison is a hard thing to produce this is a great evolutionary strategy, known as Batesian mimicry, or at least it is until the snakes learn to spot the difference.

Lant Pritchett reckons the same thing could be happening with institutions in developing countries. This is an analogy that makes a lot of sense: the education ministry may have an org chart that looks like a Western education ministry, it has lots of schools and nearly as many teachers as classrooms, but, at least around here, too many children aren’t learning very much. Lant Pritchett suggests that this is because developing country institutions have mimicked their Western cousins’ appearance without taking on their functions.

I think this is a key insight. Development experts have long understood that just providing the monetary inputs isn’t enough (even though donors have taken rather longer to catch on), and the dysfunctional nature of many developing country institutions has been clear to see. The response has usually been to invest in building the capacity of those institutions (perfecting the mimicry), but Lant Pritchett’s analysis tells us this is insufficient, and that instead we need to go back to square one and focus on the outcomes. This brings us back to Cash on Delivery aid.

In the evolutionary arms race some snakes may eventually work out how to tell apart a Sapito Listado from its more dangerous cousins, and the Sapito will have to come up with a new survival strategy. There might not quite be an ‘arms race’ between Western donors and patronage networks in developing country governments but their priorities clearly diverge. Can they evolve a more symbiotic relationship? I hope so. A bit more selective pressure and less quasi-monopolies on both sides would help a lot, along with better feedback loops.


8 responses to this post.

  1. […] a really interesting post, MJ over at Bottom Up Thinking discusses the connections between evolution and institutional development in aid-dependent countries, […]


  2. […] constraints, combined with the belief that all you need is a bit of capacity-building in profoundly dysfunctional institutions to turn it […]


  3. […] to stimulate the critical thinking that is essential to solving real world problems. Instead we get dysfunctional institutions that superficially look capable of doing a job, but lacking the internal engine to make it tick. This problem applies equally to government […]


  4. […] to Tony Blair’s recent comments (see my previous post on Learning by Doing) and the problems of form vs function. If we want to build the capacity of developing country institutions, then I think there is no […]


  5. […] I could give my own reasons to go alongside Nathaniel’s. (How do you stop the anti-corruption guys themselves being corrupted? Is the political will really there to eliminate graft wholesale, or only those bits which are politically convenient to attack?) Anti-corruption commissions are surely ideal candidates for falling into the trap of isomorphic mimicry. […]


  6. […] might be that national governments in places like Zambia are misinterpreting donor concerns (à la isomorphic mimicry), but it wouldn’t surprise me if, on this point, many donors were guilty as charged. Don’t […]


  7. […] Development Report on fragile states. The paper was reviewed favourably in the blogosphere (see here, here and here). As far as I know, their idea that institutional change by mimicry is a bad thing […]


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