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.