“…allowing organizations to attract support without having to demonstrate superior functionality”

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Lant Pritchard writing in Harvard’s Building State Capacity blog draws some useful lessons on how US democratic institutions were forced to prove themselves in a struggle with the independent interests of their people.

He offers these insights into why the transfer of institutions in developing countries not only may not work, it might also have profoundly negative consequences:

One, organizations could gain legitimacy simply from mimicking the forms of rich country organizations without their function. Sociologists of organizations call this “isomorphism” and describe the pernicious impacts of allowing organizations to attract support without having to demonstrate superior functionality.

Two, the availability of resources from development agencies who were more familiar with and expected to see “modern” organizations meant that accountability to citizens could be attenuated.

Three, by changing the nature of the struggle the “experts” were not forced into a process of testing their ideas and notions and ways of “seeing like a state” against direct and immediate feedback—and push back—from local realities. Mistakes of mismatch between what the “experts” recommended and the reality of what could work in the local context could be larger and persist longer when insulated from the test of functionality.

But you cannot juggle without the struggle. The fact that someone else can juggle, and can show you how to juggle, and describe juggling in great detail does not mean that functionality is transferable. By changing the nature of the struggle many developing countries are stuck with state organizations that just cannot juggle.

It strikes me that closer to home with all the understandable focus on creating stability, we’re in danger of removing this all important struggle from our own institutions (where experts, lobbyists and already embedded forms of power operate) to the streets.

So all manner of glib claims can be made for said institutions without challenge, and when it comes to election time it’s possible to predict with near certainty how the next three or four elections will play out.

Without challenge and struggle, our institutions simply cannot juggle.

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  • Coll Ciotach

    If they can’t juggle why have them?

  • Mick Fealty

    I suppose because something is better than war. But here’s a core point worth remaking:

    …it was thought that “modernization” could be achieved as a purely technical exercise in which the demonstrable successful organizations and institutions of the “developed” world could be transplanted to other countries. Why should the newly sovereign country in the 1950s and 1960s “struggle” towards an effective Post Office when there exist working models throughout the world (US Post Office, Royal Mail, Bundespost)?

    It was believed that “modern” police forces, schools, roads, courts, forest services, water companies—the organizations that make a state capable and deliver what the state promises—could be created without all of the bother of citizens being empowered to not just vote, but also resist, to subvert, to complain, to protest, to organize and agitate.

    Think of the idle boast that the south could benefit from our model of Policing Board (top of the range you might say). The technical thing itself is immaterial. The point being made here is that the institutions have to prove themselves worthy of trust before they can demand it from citizens.

    I think it works well beyond NI. I think the challenge being posed by the independents in the south is a profound one of ‘Oy, you lads in Dublin, you forgot us out here in the parishes. Yer governance stinks by the way, so we’ve chosen people we trust, not the ones you say we should’.

    That’s a near perfect match with this from Pritchett:

    Daniel Carpenter’s The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928 narrates the rise of (among other organizations) the “modern” Post Office as a centrally controlled civil service bureaucracy. It had to struggle itself into control of the post against powerful political forces and local resistance that supported the former Jacksonian system of locally appointed postmasters.

    If we are lucky, we are going to see a lot more of this tensions between an overweening centre and a too long neglected taken for granted edge…