There are multiple dimensions to ‘development’, one of which is the acquisition of administrative capability, which in the standard characterisation of the modernisation process is the acquisition of state capability. Enhancing this capability, especially in fragile states, is a long-term task. This paper aims to explain how developing countries and international agencies sustain a dynamic enabling both parties to engage in the business of reform while rarely actually achieving it. It highlights systemic isomorphic mimicry, wherein the outward forms of functional states and organisations are adopted as camouflage; and premature load bearing.
How do governments manage to persistently fail to acquire the capability to implement while at the same time engage for decades in the domestic and international logics of development and its rhetoric of ‘progress’? The paper proposes two techniques that enable countries to succeed at failing:
- Systematic isomorphic mimicry, wherein the outward forms (appearances, structures) of functional states and organisations elsewhere are adopted to camouflage a persistent lack of function.
- Premature load bearing, in which indigenous learning, the legitimacy of change and the support of key political constituencies are undercut by the routine placement of highly unrealistic expectations on fledging systems.
To sabotage these techniques, the paper recommends a policy research agenda focused on better understanding the conditions under which political space is created for nurturing the endogenous learning and indigenous debate necessary to create context-specific institutions and incremental reform processes. For development agencies, particularly external agencies, the key questions should focus on how they can facilitate such processes, and resist their own internal imperatives to perpetuate isomorphic mimicry in those sectors (especially political and legal reform) where imported ‘blueprints’ are themselves too often part of the problem.
A key challenge is how partnerships between international and domestic agencies can set and support—and meaningfully assess progress towards—realistic expectations regarding overall organisational performance. If the goal of development is ultimately one of building institutional (and especially state) capability, and of facilitating ecological-level learning, then the key issue for researchers is less discovering which individual development projects ‘work’ (as important as this is on its own terms) and more one of contributing to an alternative theory of change. Such a theory needs to support the emergence of platforms that are simultaneously capable of effecting systemic change, at scale, while retaining flexibility and adaptability.