The double standard and the development of institutions

Tom Murphy recently shared a chart that he created in collaboration with Carol Gallo and David Week. It lists the “double standards” of how certain political activities are described, depending on where they take place — e.g. in DC it’s a “campaign contribution” but in an African capital it’s a “bribe”. They offered the chart a bit light-heartedly, but in a classic blogger move, I’ll use it as an excuse to talk about something related. First, the chart in question:

What people might normally call it
When it happens in Washington
When it happens in Africa
Money received from political sponsors Campaign contributions Bribes
Uneven spending on public services in different ethnic communities Social injustice Tribalism
Seeking money in exchange for political influence Campaign fundraising Rent seeking
Subservience to oil companies Energy policy Control by foreign interests
Political appointees The new administration’s team Cronyism
Political families Tradition of public service Nepotism
People driven from their homes Homelessness Displacement
No bid contracts Necessary expedience Corrupt procurement
Government secrecy National security Lack of transparency
Assistance to the poor Welfare Aid
Internal security apparatus Homeland security Secret police
Not funding public schools, health system, infrastructure Small government Underdevelopment

To be honest, I gave their original post a quick glance and then forgot about it. Here’s why: if you’re from the US and you work in international development in any capacity, then none of this should be news to you. I sincerely hope that we all have the minimum level of awareness and critical reflection to have noticed this double standard already.

So I didn’t give it much thought until my friend Josh forwarded me the post a few days ago. He doesn’t work in development, but we both worked on government reform campaigns in the US many years ago. We have some hands-on experience with a few of these issues and how hard they are to fix.

Given that experience, it doesn’t ring true to me that these phenomena have different labels simply because they happen in DC versus Africa. Yes, Americans have some rather simplistic, prejudiced, occasionally-neocolonialist views of “Africa” that lead to poor analysis and unearned moral righteousness. But there are also actual differences between the political events and practices described in the second and third columns. There’s something more going on here. These differing terminologies reflect something else.

I’ve realized that the double standard arises from how we think about political institutions. There are two (almost contradictory) points here:

1. We believe that institutional frameworks and processes matter …

The similar-looking phenomena described in the chart above are actually dramatically different due to their different institutional contexts. Just like dragging another player to the ground is a legal tackle in rugby, but a flagrant foul in basketball. We call them different terms, not merely because of the different continents, but because they take place within different political and governmental systems.

For example, the US political system has institutionalized the influence of money to such an extent that campaign contributors don’t have to bribe an official into doing what they want. The influence is more subtle than that. Contributions ensure first and foremost that the candidate who already agrees with you gets elected. (Secondary to this is that s/he answers your phone call in the future, allowing you to make the case for a particular policy; and tertiary is that s/he will consider your future contribution when deciding what to do.) You can argue whether this is actually better than bribery, but it’s clear that these contributions occur within formal rules and with a certain amount of transparency. Only in rare cases do campaign contributions come close to being quid pro quo bribes — and we’re understandably shocked by those cases.

In contrast, straight-up bribes occur often in systems without functioning formal rules and with little transparency. They result from institutions that don’t perform as they were intended. Some flexibility within the rules is always necessary, but if a bureaucracy systematically relies on “facilitation payments” because public sector salaries are too low and financial controls are too lax, then that’s a problem. Something similar can be said about the other elements of the chart (with the exception of welfare/aid — where the relevant difference is the international nature of the latter).

This emphasis on institutions and processes isn’t a Western or American bias. It’s a simple a fact of how large organizations function everywhere in the world. Institutionalization, bureaucracy, rules, and organizations allow humans to accomplish far more and at larger scales than we could without them. Of course, the exact nature of those institutions can and should vary from context to context. The point is that we think they are important…

2. … but we have no idea how those institutions form, function, develop or improve.

Every country has a variety of institutions. Some are resilient while others are fragile, but all of them change over time. The harsh, humbling truth is this: we have no idea how institutional change happens or how it can be guided for the better.

The chart reminded me of this because media and advocacy commentary on developing country politics usually applies a “problems-to-be-solved” framework on column three. Academic and policy discussions might go a bit deeper, seeing the problems in terms of “institutions-to-be-built”. But what we’re really talking about are long-term transformational processes over which any given actor has very little control.

We see that if we consider the history and development of the American system in column two. America’s history is marked by a great deal of bribery, clientelism, stolen elections, internecine violence, failed peacebuilding, and worse. The forces behind those didn’t just disappear. Some persist, of course, while others have been channelled into and transformed by our present day institutions. Our own column three has slowly shifted into column two. We argue fiercely — both in academic departments (history, political science, etc.) and in political debates — when trying to explain these shifts. We don’t have answers (let alone an answer) to explain how it all happened.

The double standard points to something worrying: not just an ignorance of how these shifts happen, but an ignorance of just how ignorant we are. Our use of different terms obscures the fact that all countries are grappling with similar issues. That doesn’t mean the solutions from one country will translate over, as trying to copy another country’s institutions can be fraught with hazards. We should point out the similarities among the problems if only to highlight the one real lesson from the American experience: that the solutions to the problems will only develop through a long, unpredictable process that is more or less unique to each individual country.

So to recap:

While I defend the “double standard” on the basis that these similar-looking phenomena really are different when they occur in different institutional contexts, I also think it clouds our view of how institutional development happens over time.

Sorry, were you hoping for a neat little answer at the end? You’ve come to the wrong blog, my friend.

But I do want to reward you for making it this far. As long as we’re talking about how Americans see Africa, you really should watch this:

3 thoughts on “The double standard and the development of institutions

  1. Hey Dave, thanks so much for pointing to the brilliant chart and your post analysis. Its inspired me and I’m going tlo round up some of my friends to I add another column entitled “When it happens in Australia” I already know what the Oz response for “Subservience to oil companies” will be – it’s called the Carbon Tax here! Cheers.

  2. I wouldn’t say we have no idea how institutions are consolidated. On the contrary, a variety of scholars have explored the different aspects of institutionalization. See Huntington in particular, or Jackman. While they by no means agree on one recipe for the creation successful institutions, there is significant overlap and a considerable body of knowledge and opinion. We have an idea.

    • This comment comes rather late, but I just recently saw this post.

      I agree that we have some idea of how institutions form and develop- from examples in academic literature but also more recently from the real world. The shifts to more democratic rule in South Korea on one hand, and the post-authoritarian Argentina and Chile, I think, give good (studied and study-able) examples of the paths which countries’ institutions can take in a more or less positive direction.

      I think the problem might be that we aren’t so sure where outside organizations, agencies, companies and governments can fit in to help this process along the way. Have governance programs like those done by the US’s NDI been successful in creating deep changes in political institutions? Is knowledge sharing, like South Korea is actively pursuing, effective at identifying and tackling the similar underlying problems of state institutions in other countries? I think answers to those questions would bring us a step forward, past the diagnosis step and towards ‘now what?’

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