Following my last blog entry, let me suggest one thing we should always remember about the importance of context in development and governance, especially when we are contemplating institutional reform. The idea is implicit in my forthcoming book on the topic.
There is no such thing as a blank canvas, and what's there matters and may not be well identified, appreciated or understood by outsiders.
Let me explain what I mean, and why it is important.
Most serious new institutional theorists (including Douglass North) argue that all social groups have rules of the game; including small communuities, sports teams, scout groups, ministries of education, tax collection offices, and classrooms of students. These rules differ in size and shape across contexts and through time, but they are always there, as incumbents that have emerged to direct behavior in the context. They influence how agents think and make decisions, impact patterns of resource allocation, and shape the kinds of capacities that exist and do not exist.
In a way, they are like the paint marks an artist has already put on her canvas. Sometimes they make sense to external observers, and appear ordered and purposeful (maybe like the flowers below), and other times they make a little less sense to observers, looking disordered and messy (the Pollock painting under the pretty flowers may look like this to some, certainly I have a hard time working it out).
It turns out the functionality of different incumbent institutional forms may be as subjective as art, and as difficult to make sense of and appreciate for outsiders who have not learned about such mechanisms. Rules of the game in a poor country with no transparency may resemble messy and 'in need of reform' painting marks to you and me, for instance, but they could merge to provide some kind of chaotic order that works for important groups of people in the country (often even for the poor).
More importantly, the people in the country may not see any need to change incumbent rules of the game, or may lack capacities to change given the entrenched dominance of incumbents. So any new reforms you introduce become like added paint on the Pollock canvas; which has to fit in with what's already there or risk adding to the chaos; or being overwhelmed by the incumbent patterns (as seems to happen to so many reforms).
This basic observation is an important starting point for thinking about context and governance and institutional reform: Institutions always exist, in all contexts, in many different forms that have some functionality for some people in the context, and that need to be considered when thinking about reforms, but probably are never properly considered by outsiders.
It is an obvious observation, you may say, but is it always respected when development agencies craft their reform programs for developing countries, or when we as outside specialists conceive our indicators of what constitutes a good, or better, or best practice?
It seems to me that many reforms are crafted with only a passing glance at the context; which is followed by a much more serious presentation of externally devised, 'better' and 'right' rules. It seems, further, that the act of creating generic indicators of the 'right rules' turns a blind eye to the fact that different places already have rules in place and that relevant governance solutions are more than just a little likely to look different across different places (if only because the opening slates are so different).
In both instances it seems that we in the development comunity think it appropriate to craft reform solutions and think about 'good governance' ideas as if there are a bunch of clean or clean-able slates on which to work our masterpieces. The reality is that you cannot 'buy' a clean slate on which to paint new governance solutions (like those shown below) and that we should stop blaming countries when reforms fail because the reform slates were filled with other incumbents that we either did not see or did not take seriously.
We need to remember this. And stop pretending that the world is our oyster. And start developing the tools, capacities, and sensibilities to better understand how to appreciate 'what's already there'.
What do you think these tools, capacities, and sensibilities should or could look like?