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Can Institutions Be Exported?

April 16, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

According to Adam Przeworski the answer is NO.

We need to be skeptical about our belief in the power of institutions and we need to be prudent in our actions. Projects of institutional reform must take as their point of departure the actual conditions, not blueprints based on institutions that have been successful elsewhere. As a former Brazilian minister, Luiz Carlos Bresser Pereira, once put it, ‘Institutions can be at most imported, never exported.

This is not new. What is really new is that the World Bank, until recently champion of institutional blueprints, seems now to share a similar vision:

A focus on legitimate institutions does not mean converging on Western institutions.

History provides many examples of foreign institutional models that have proven less than useful to national development, particularly through colonial legacies, because they focused on form rather than function. The same is true today. In Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority established commissions on every subject from tourism to the environment in parallel with struggling line ministries, and model laws were passed that had little relationship to national social and political realities. Even transfers of organizational forms between countries in the South can be unproductive if not adapted to local conditions—the truth and reconciliation, anti-corruption, and human rights commissions that delivered so marvelously in some countries have not always worked in others.

There are gains from sharing knowledge, as the Report makes clear—but only if adapted to local conditions. “Best-fit” institutions are central to the Report. (World Development Report 2011,Conflict, Security, and Development)

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