10 January 2011

Don’t hate the player, hate the game

Here are some great reflections from Tom, an ODI Fellow who just finished his term as a Kenyan civil servant.

I think one of the very many things I'm going to miss about Kenya is the people I work with, just not necessarily the system we were working in.

Which rings very true to me. I worked with some amazing people in Southern Sudan, but good systems take a really long time to create, and bad systems leave you hamstrung.

Which is partly why I am so enamoured by the idea of international migration (and charter cities) as shortcuts to bringing good institutions and poor people together.

We know the secret of development. It is good institutions. We have a reasonable idea what good institutions entail. The only problem is that we have very little idea about how good institutions are established in societies that currently have bad ones.

Yet we persist with the frustrating task of attempting to bring our good institutions to them, rather than contemplating the relatively simple task of bringing them to our institutions.

We already have incredible systems for delivering rule of law, healthcare, and education. We can give these systems to the global poor overnight, and they will stop being poor. Overnight. We could let them move here.


Anonymous said...

I am still massively doubtful about the concept of institutions. It seems that whenever it is tested we test what we presume are the outputs of institutions (for example: confidence of investors). Of course, a lot of things could account for a rise in investor confidence.

All that I can come up with is the the "stuff" that matters in development is social/political rather than based on geography/climate or international flows of capital or trade. But knowing that (persistent) social stuff matters isn't at all the same as knowing that institutions matter, and even if we define institutions to mean "persistent social stuff" that still doesn't say what needs fixing.

Am I way off here?

Ed Carr said...

I have to agree with anonymous about institutions - any studies I have seen about their importance certainly show that they have a greater influence on outcomes than things like geography (but then, we geographers ditched that idea about a century ago). But that said, this is a relative measure - institutions are better than things like geography for predicting outcomes, but they still leave a hell of a lot of variance out there. I think that we have a larger issue - our fundamental assumptions about development, society and economy are not actually well-aligned with how things work on the ground in real communities. And that is where the rubber hits the road.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post. As a liberal educated Westerner with considerable experience in at least one developing country, I have a lot of sympathy for your point. Good people get drowned in horrendous systems. But I think Anonymous and Ed Carr are right to query whether or not you are even asking the right question. Maybe the institutions operate so badly simply because they are not really understood by most of those who live in or with them (the wider populace)? Unfortunately, when alternative institutions are proposed they usually seem to be a thin cover for some pretty dodgy politicking and power grabs by 'big men' leaders.

But coming back to your original suggestion. Just supposing we in the 'West' really did throw open our doors to unrestricted immigration ... how happy do you think developing country governments would be to be losing all their people? Suddenly you might find them restricting outward migration as various authoritarian (especially communist) regimes have done in the past.

Lee said...

I agree that some of the empirics can be a little bit shaky, but I don't think the centrality of institutions is that controversial. I think you would get broad agreement from most economists on that.

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