Imitating Success Not the Answer for Human Capacity Development

  • 2013•07•24

    James Stewart

    Ricefields, Baucau

    UN Photo/Martine Perret

    One important aspect of the development process is the building of the human capacity. Institutions and infrastructure are important but a skilled, educated workforce is required to carry out basic functions such as policing, security, regulation and core service delivery. Developing this capacity is a difficult task, and is not likely to be achieved in a short amount of time.

    Despite this, billions of dollars are spent each year on short-term programmes designed to achieve the impossible. In the WIDER Working Paper “Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation“, Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock and Matt Andrews address this question of why this occurs.

    They argue that while modern development discourse espouses the idea that different countries require different solutions, there is still an overemphasis on imported — one-size-fits-all — solutions. This approach not only fails to develop state capacity, but also slows the process by encouraging developing countries to adopt predefined solutions that focus on form over function, and thus neglect the importance of experimentation.

    What is development?

    The authors argue that development practice continues to operate on the assumptions of an outdated theory of modernization. For them, this is at least part of the reason for lack of progress in terms of developing human capacity in developing countries. This theory of modernization sees development as a process through which a country undergoes four interconnected transformations related to the more productive economy, a more democratic polity, a more just society and more professional administration.

    In the 1950s and 1960s, many believed in the idea that history was unfolding towards an inevitable end state, and that the occurrence of these transformations was simply a matter of time. Communism for those on the left, and capitalism for those on the right, would inevitably lead to the uniformity of institutional forms. Thus, modernization theory stated that the best way to speed up development was for countries to skip some of the process of modernization by copying those countries further along the path.

    Very few development professionals still subscribe to this view. The development discourse is now focused around the idea that one-size-fits-all and silver bullet solutions simply do not work. Instead, there is a general consensus that context matters, and that developing countries themselves should be in control of their own development process.

    However, the authors argue that the rejection of modernization theory in principle has not led to the abandonment of the practices it recommends. Many projects still operate on the premises that development can be accelerated by importing “best practice” models from developed to developing countries.

    The authors argue that this approach does not effectively promote the development of human capacity, as while donors and recipients may believe they are importing both form and function, successful outcomes are often judged by form alone — and, thus, appearance is emphasized over substance. Indeed they demonstrate that nearly all of the thirty countries with the worst levels of bureaucratic quality and corruption, as defined by the International Country Risk Guide, are actually getting worse in this respect.

    In order to understand why this kind of approach to development continues to be prevalent, we need to understand how countries mask their non-accomplishment. The authors suggest that a technique they term “isomorphic mimicry” is often used to sustain the legitimacy of institutions in developing countries, even when these institutions cannot demonstrate expected  accomplishments.

    Isomorphic mimicry

    The paper suggests there are two main ways members of organizations can demonstrate their legitimacy. They can either (i) appeal to demonstrable accomplishments, such as their ability to fulfil their intended role in an effective manner, or (ii) just point at the fact that their organization looks like other similar institutions around the world, which are seen as legitimate, and claim this similarity makes their institution legitimate by proxy.

    Pritchett, Woolcock and Andrews term this second approach “isomorphic mimicry”. They argue that developing countries often use this technique to sustain legitimacy by imitating other successful modern institutions without actually developing the functionality of the institutions they are copying.

    The role of the development community

    The goal of development policy should then be to ensure that demonstrable accomplishments, rather than isomorphic mimicry, become the mechanism through which legitimacy is sustained. However, the authors argue that the process of isomorphic mimicry is currently encouraged by the traditional development practice of importing structures that have been successful elsewhere.

    This is due to the fact that development practitioners often try to achieve this goal by making aid disbursements conditional on countries implementing certain reforms. These conditionalities create a disincentive for experimentation. Organizations that deviate from approved forms may face sanctions, even if this deviation is demonstrated to have positive outcomes.

    The authors’ concern with isomorphic mimicry does not translate to all areas of development. If a cure for cancer were discovered, they would not advise against developing countries adopting this predefined solution.

    The problems associated with isomorphic mimicry occur precisely when the search for a predefined solution actually detracts from attempts to find new ways of solving the specific problems at hand. Importing a solution that has proved successful elsewhere diminishes the potential for novel approaches to unique problems to be developed and tested.

    Pritchett, Woolcock and Andrews conclude that the key question for development practitioners looking to implement policies that will help build human capacity is how to facilitate the creation of context-specific institutions and incremental reform processes. In the UNU-WIDER Working Paper “Escaping Capability Traps Through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation“, the authors expand on the kind of policy they believe is required to achieve this.

    • • •
    This report summarizes UNU-WIDER working paper no. 2012/63, “Looking Like a State:
    Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation
    “, by Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock and Matt Andrews.