I have been away from the blog awhile, finishing a couple of book manuscripts. It is time to pick up, however, and I'd like to do so by asking some simple questions about context, governance and development.
Last year I wrote a bit about institutional reforms in Malawi . I looked at the creation of Malawi's Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) in 1994. The reform turned out to be a problematic failure; not once, but on multiple attempts. The experiences raise some important questions about context, history, governance and development.
As a refresher on Malawi's story:
- The ACB was created in the mid-1990s at a time when Malawi had hoped of being a new, vibrant democracy and economy. It was modeled after the Hong Kong anti corruption commission which had also influenced the Botswana version.
- The ACB initially opened thousands of investigations into corruption. Very few investigations went anywhwere, however, and corruption got progressively worse in the country.
- Measures and analytical work done by organizations likeTransparency International and Global Integrity panned the work done by the ACB and noted that the action behind anti corruption laws was limited.
- Donors depressed with the results attempted to launch a new version of the commission in the late 2000s, with new legislation to boot.
- A 2010 NORAD evaluation noted that the anticorruption reforms (past and present) were “Affected by a political context where politics and institutions are highly personalized and a political culture which tends to discourage impartiality.” The report argues that such contextual factors undermined the impact of impartial, formal anticorruption laws and law-enforcers.
- This resonates with comments made over a decade before, which suggested that 1990s reforms should address contextual “reasons why the formal rules governing behaviour in the public sector have broken down, and why informality—of which corruption is one manifestation—has taken over.”
- It appears that these contextual realities were not addressed, however, either in 1994 or in 2009. In both instances reforms focused instead on introducing new and improved formal rules and rule-makers. The result is history repeating itself, with contextual limits emerging again and again to thwart change.
Going beyond Malawi, to generic questions:
The institutional reform experience in Malawi is not peculiar. It is an example of the many reform failures that seem to result from the impact of stubborn contextual constraints that are not
effectively considered in most reform designs.
- Isabelle Werenfels points to such in arguing that Algerian privatization was undermined by, “a country-specific complex interplay of … forces [that] decisively affect the path of any institutional transformation.”
- Andrew Wilder writes similarly about governance reform in Pakistan, where donors consistently push for change “without investing sufficiently in understanding the social, cultural and political contexts within which the
civil service functions.”
Werenfels’ and Wilder’s comments—and the story from Malawi—raise two important questions:
- What should external actors like donors know about the context in which institutional reform takes place?
- Why do these external actors under-invest in understanding such things?
What do you think?
PS. I'm happy to give my sources to anyone who asks but choose not to include them here because they just make the blog post too bulky.