November 2016|bsi|

Ideas sometimes travel in strange ways. Isomorphism and isomorphic mimicry have been terms in biology since the 19th century. They refer to different organisms evolving to look similar without actually being related. In the case of mimicry the process is by, well, one organism mimicking another to gain some sort of an evolutionary advantage. Think of a perfectly edible species of butterfly that looks like another, not so edible, species to avoid being eaten.

The idea made its way into organizational sociology in the 1970s and 80s, most notably by the work of Powell and DiMaggio. Now, nearly 30 years later, it has become a buzzword of sorts in development policy. Pritchett, Woolcock and Andrews (PWA) in their work on “capability traps”, and Matt Andrews specifically with regards to PFM reform in Africa, have used isomorphism to describe the highly negative consequences of donor-assisted reform efforts to establish formal institutions in developing countries.

This mini-etymology matters, because along the way the connotation of isomorphic mimicry changed. In biology mimicry is a good thing, bestowing an evolutionary advantage on the mimic. In organisational sociology Powell and DiMaggio made the point that organisations can mimic other organisations without evidence that it actually increases performance. Organisations are imitated because they are perceived as successful, because others depend on them, or because they are seen as ‘the thing to do’ in a certain profession. But for PWA imitation of perceived success is unreservedly negative: part of the reason fragile states are hopelessly stuck is precisely because they try to mimic the formal institutions of success, rather than figuring out the functions of statehood on their own. According to PWA, mimicry is the expression of a teleological worldview, a futile chase for that one best-practice path towards development.

In the last year or two the PWA take on isomorphic mimicry has received a lot of attention, especially in the context of the 2011 World Development Report on fragile states. The paper was reviewed favourably in the blogosphere (see here, here and here). As far as I know, their idea that institutional change by mimicry is a bad thing stands unchallenged.

I think this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Not to say that donors don’t deserve every bit of the opprobrium implied in this work. In Matt’s survey of African PFM reforms, the vast bulk of 31 governments surveyed pursued MTEFs, performance budgeting, top-down budgeting and so on, often at the same time. Given the variation of these institutions among OECD countries, it’s just inconceivable that any sound analysis of functional need could produce this incredible homogeneity. Inevitably some, if not most, of these 31 countries are ill-served by these reforms. So telling every government they need to mimic best practices is a very poor strategy for donors – but does that mean mimicry is automatically a bad thing for governments themselves?

Plainly, governments mimic one another all the time, and often quite successfully. Powell and DiMaggio cite the example of Meiji Japan. In the last decades of the 19th century, Japan copied the postal system from Britain, the police from France and the army from Prussia. Did they think the Prussian Army was most suited to Japan? No. Prussia’s army was reputed to be the best; though nobody knew why specifically (there were other modern, experienced armies around). Japan copied what they thought was the best case, and it worked very well for them. This is precisely the point. We hardly ever have good evidence for exactly why a certain institutional innovation works, or even if it really works. Given the complexity of social systems, we may never really know. Looking to good performers as models to imitate is just fine, as long as governments know how to adapt on their own.

What happens with successful reforms is of course far more complex than simple copying and pasting of organizational charts – which is what PWA find so offensive. But rarely can you find examples of historically embedded, problem-oriented institutional change without an element of mimicry as well. Matt Andrews has recently written about the 1990s budget reforms in Sweden, highlighting how they were anchored in Sweden’s fiscal history going back decades. True, but Swedish officials also looked at their European neighbours – specifically von Hagen’s index of budgetary institutions, which was very new at the time. This index is nothing if not formal-institutional. Swedish officials didn’t want to remain in the “spaghetti league” with Italy and reformed their institutions accordingly.

Even when governments in developing countries adopt formal institutions insincerely, to follow donor demands, it is not clear that such strategies are inherently bad for governments. Take PRSPs. A national poverty reduction strategy based on consultations with domestic groups, monitored according to international standards and focused on all things that donors hold dear clearly doesn’t fit most government’s institutional settings. The gap between PRSPs and regular government structuresis not surprising, and in fact a perfect example of a “ceremonial institution”.

If governments are rational actors, why wouldn’t they adopt these insincere institutions that are required to access debt relief, grants and cheap loans? The cost-benefit calculation would surely beat raising taxes. The crucial point here is that governments are actors. If the analogy to biology is to make any sense, governments should not be assumed to strive for development but for their own survival. Survival for organisations is enhanced by greater resources, so developing country governments will continue to implement superficial best practice reforms as long as donors ask – and pay – for them.

Along with genuine innovation by mimicry and insincere mimicry there is a third kind. This occurs when fragmentation and informality in government is so high that purposeful action is very difficult. When the centre of government doesn’t have enough autonomy and capability to learn and adapt, externally sponsored formal reforms become very dangerous. This is not isomorphic mimicry, though, but institutional ventriloquism. It happens when best practice reforms are articulated, planned and implemented following external prompting and via externally funded advisers and consultants. Genuinely local government units are further fragmented as they align themselves to available funding and manpower.

Institutional ventriloquism worsens capability traps because it keeps states from developing the autonomous capability to adapt and change. For states that are able to adapt and change on their own, mimicry isn’t a problem.

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