Thinking carefully about mimicry

If donors are the ones creating the incentives for effective institutions, who knows if they will stick?

In a really interesting post, MJ over at Bottom Up Thinking discusses the connections between evolution and institutional development in aid-dependent countries, comparing the tendency for recipient governments to adopt the semblance of good institutions and practices with the concept of Batesian mimicry. Just as natural selection will favour insects that look like other, more dangerous insects, the external incentives that aid recipients face will push them to look far more effective than they actually are.

Lant Pritchett first posited this connection with evolution in a recent CGD podcast and an accompanying working paper with Michael Woolcock and Matt Andrews defined the practice as `isomorphic mimicry’: “the adoption of the forms of other functional states and organizations which camouflages a persistent lack of function.” Anyone who has walked into a government office with a sign proclaiming “this is a corruption-free zone” will understand this concept immediately.

I would argue that such behaviour is generated mostly by external incentives: in aid-dependent countries, donors carry some of the biggest sticks and carrots, and so create an enormous amount of pressure for governments to look effective. This is partially a result of a historical tendency to focus on monitoring inputs and best practices rather than paying attention to outputs.

Aha, you might be thinking: this is where we should be moving to a results-based model. Somewhere in the distance I can hear the horns of cash-on-delivery aid being blown. This is a reasonable response, and if we are resigned to having a system where donors call so many of the shots, I have little quarrel with a framework that focuses more on actual outputs.

Yet we should be extremely cautious in assuming we can, through greater external pressure, generate institutions that persist beyond the presence of that pressure. Moving back to the evolution analogy: historically, capable governments are generated endogenously, just like organisms through natural selection, adapting to survive in an ever-changing environment.  In such societies, the selection pressure is being generated internally, by either a robust civil society, a discerning electorate or a group of elites whose goals are more focused on transformational change than zero-sum patronage.

That governments evolve to serve their citizens should be a fairly uncontroversial statement, but consider the ramifications of a results-based model that lets the selective pressure emanate from donors rather than citizens. It is likely that such pressures will generate the sort of behaviours we see as good: governments that care about achieving palpable gains in health, education, etc for their citizens, but rather than building these behaviours naturally, we are generating them artificially through external incentives.

This is akin to creating organisms in a laboratory by creating our own selection mechanisms – while through tweaking the parameters we are likely to get similar results to what we see out in the ecosystem, this doesn’t guarantee the organisms we grow will be able to survive in such an ecosystem, which will have selection pressures which are more complex than what we can manage in a laboratory (or in an aid mechanism).

Proponents of results-based aid like those at the CGD are not unaware of these issues, and there has been some talk already about using the framework of COD aid to enhance civil society’s involvement in the process, through inclusion in the target-setting and in monitoring. This is a promising start, although historically honors also have a tendency to resort to mimicry when it comes to difficult, vague objectives like enhancing civil society. Making sure that effective institutions and good practices can `graduate’ from externally-driven incentives to internally-driven ones will be one of the biggest challenges of the future – it is a shame that problems like these are so often ignored.

4 thoughts on “Thinking carefully about mimicry

  1. MJ

    April 11, 2011 at 5:50pm

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the big up. And thanks for making the important point that I left out, which is that the really important relationship we want to develop is not that between donors and developing country governments, but between those governments and their citizens.


    ps. Your cynicism on “corruption free zone” signs is fully merited, but I also recall a local friend of mine suggesting that they felt it did make it harder for an official to demand a bribe, and that if the official had done so they would have pointed politely at the sign. Not quite as useless, therefore, as we might have assumed.

  2. MJ

    April 11, 2011 at 5:54pm

    Sorry I meant relationship we want to “evolve”

  3. Bill Savedoff

    April 11, 2011 at 7:20pm


    I appreciate your nod to the nuances of our COD Aid arguments. People often conflate our argument with other results-based incentives that involve much more micro-management.

    You’ve got the right model here – dynamic complex change with many actors contesting in political and institutional spheres. Our hypothesis is that changing the overall aid relationship toward one which involves less micro-management from donors and transfers funds on the basis of a few high-level and independently verified outcomes will give governments space to experiment institutionally and citizens the information to hold their governments accountable.

    Transferring funds when a country educates more children or reduces the spread of infectious disease doesn’t prejudge how they are going to achieve it. By contrast, paying for curricular reforms or insisting on specific procurement procedures for vaccines is likely to lead to exactly the kind of isomorphic mimicry Pritchett, Woolcock and Andrews are concerned about.

    (disclosure: I’m co-author of “COD Aid” with N. Birdsall).

  4. Ranil Dissanayake

    April 12, 2011 at 8:20am

    Great post. As you know, ‘incentives’ is one of my favourite words and I think the role of incentives and how we inform and distort them is completely under-played. The biggest thing donors can do to stimulate local accountability is to increase the value of aid that’s on budget and not tied to GBS conditions, because this will then be fungible and crucially, contestable. When the voters can (through MPs) decide where money goes, and the MPs can be replaced effectively, accountability runs to the citizen.

    COD will probably at best be neutral to the process of stimulating accountability, though I have some problems with the idea of frankensteining accountability by getting citizens groups involved in COD aid. This is not how Governments should be held to account. They should be held to account largely through electoral representation and collective bargaining. Creating strange, donor-related lines of accountability may make a short term difference but you’ll still be left with the problem of weak lines of accountability in the hypothetical aid-free future.

    One last thing – way back in 2009, I made a very similar analogy about mimicry, but I used the ‘cargo cult’ as my example. From this very blog:

    “An anthropologist I know once told me a great story, which may be a rural myth. It was about a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea from which two members were given the opportunity to travel outside of their homestead to see the urban world in all its ‘glory’. When they returned, they recounted their experiences to the rest of the tribe, and they set about replicating one of the more amazing things they’d seen: an airport. They cleared a runway. They built an observation tower out of wood. They even crafted headphones with little reed antennae for the ground control team to wear. When they were done, they waited for the planes to arrive.

    They never did. Building the structures, the visible artifices of an airport is only symbolic. The actual meaning of what an airport is, what makes it functional, cannot be seen.”

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