Posts Tagged ‘institutional mimicry’

Anti-corruption efforts: perfecting the art of isomorphic mimicry

UNDP has launched a portal on Anti-Corruption for Development. (To distinguish it from anti-corruption efforts that are anti-developmental??) It includes an anti-corruption poster for REDD programmes that, I am sure, is guaranteed to reduce rent-seeking and improper uses of funds.

Anti-corruption commissions and their ilk seem to me to be one of the worst uses of aid money out there. Because they almost never deal with the politics they only ever address a few low level symptoms (disposable scapegoats) and abysmally fail to tackle causes. And yet they are legion, and probably persist now quite happily without donor money, both for the sinecures they provide, and because, from time to time, they may be politically useful to chastise the opposition. Are anti-corruption commissions therefore the pinnacle of isomorphic mimicry? I think it could be so.

How about a Cash on Delivery solution? $10,000 for every successful prosecution (where the accused have had a fair chance to defend themselves), rising to $100,000 and $1million for more senior officials. Make the bounties high enough and in themselves they may even start to provide an incentive against corruption, because even if the current government are not inclined to follow through, the next one might be …

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In praise of hand-wringing

Let’s not give Libya an anti-corruption commission, says Nathaniel Heller.* (Not, of course, that we’d be actually ‘giving’ it …)

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.

But the bigger point here is that an anti-corruption commission strikes me as a classic donor response to the need to do something, or, more to the point, fund something. I’m no hand-wringing defeatist, but I do question donors’ pathological need to dish out money in response to every problem they see. It’s bad enough, but understandable, when amateur Aid DIYers feel the need to just “do something”, but professional aid agencies really ought to know better.

I suspect part of the problem is the need for donors to put aid donations into various different pots, one of which is probably labelled ‘governance’. Since poor governance is such a big problem throughout much of the developing world, any good donor worth their salt should surely be investing heavily in improving it, right? Except how does a bilateral donor improve governance standards in a developing country when most of their money is supposed to go to the host country government (rather than civil society)?

There are some genuine solutions out there, I’m sure – Twaweza sounds pretty promising – but in a choice between hand-wringing and window-dressing, I prefer the hand-wringing.

* H/T Swahili Street

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.

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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.

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