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.

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