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.