Isomorphic mimicry – or the challenge of the empty organigramme

Could anyone resist a paper that, in the introduction, promises to ‘explicitly eschew the assumptions and Hegelian teleology of classic modernization theory’!?Not me anyway.

While Hegelian teleology is fun, and well worth a visit to Wikipedia (for non political scientists like myself), isomorphic mimicry as a mechanism for ensuring development failure is a genuinely useful addition to my conceptual toolkit (as is premature load bearing). All are contained in an excellent and stimulating article on the ‘capability gaps’ by Lant Pritchett and colleagues at the Centre for Global Development.

Isomorphic mimicry will be immediately recognisable to anyone with more than a passing interest in development. It’s the behaviour behind the feeling of punching through candyfloss (cotton candy!) experienced when trying to discuss ‘policy to practice’ with bright consultants engaged in ‘project identification’ for development partners. Super fast, scarily bright, in the country for a pressurised week and are keen to ‘understand the sector’. Always waving at least two policy documents that I – living in country – haven’t yet seen, they have spent a whirlwind week engaging with the best and brightest in the country (lots of time in the ministry of finance). They’ve seen the organigrammes, understood the problem (normally a ‘sector funding gap’) and are now working hard on the solution – a snappy project document that can make it past the various boards back at HQ.

That most of these snappy documents end up recommending further injections of capital to construct yet more new infrastructure is hardly surprising – after all, government wants it, and it fits well with the latest impact focused policy from HQ. What is more, national policy is up to date and looks good, the institutions to ensure sustainability are in place, the organigrammes makes sense, so what reason not to go ahead?

Well – because of isomorphic mimicry of course! Which is, in short, the mirroring by less developed organizations of the forms of more developed organization but minus the functions that those forms are intended to provide. It is the adoption of ‘international best practice’ – without the practice. It is what I sometimes call the problem of the empty organigramme (organizational chart).

Look at the organigrammes for the WASH sector. All the functions are there in the little boxes – as are the links between them. The roles and responsibilities are defined. Yet begin to probe what lies inside the boxes, and the strength of the links between them, and you begin to understand why things don’t work as planned – whey they can’t possibly work as planned – and why for all the money pumped into new hardware, levels of service will remain stubbornly low (assuming that anyone is actually bothering to measure them – which typically they’re not – but that’s a story for another day).

The countries discussed in the paper are some of the poorest, and most poorly governed in the world: the findings at best sobering and thought provoking, at worst simply depressing. And let’s be clear. Ghana is not such a country. It is an African success story, in which many of the governance indicators analysed in the paper are actually rather encouraging. Yet even in Ghana, at least in the WASH sector, the empty organigramme is a real problem.  From top to bottom of the national sector organigrammes the boxes are at best partially filled – and the lines between the boxes sketchy.  Now, few if any are completely empty – that is the strength of the sector.  At national level, many boxes are actually quite well filled with well motivated and skilled individuals.  And, indeed, even the lower down boxes are not empty: by and large, the people are there, they are paid, and they are reasonably well motivated, skilled and aware of their mandates. But – and a very big but –  the part of the boxes that should be filled with money for operations is essentially empty, particularly at the lower institutional levels. Government pays salaries, and very little else.

For regional or district level actors to carry out their jobs – to go to the field, to visit communities, to carry out routine monitoring, to provide follow up training (which we refer to as ‘direct support costs‘ when using a life-cycle cost approach ) – the daily reality is reliance on money from ‘projects’ (the use of projects to work around government weakness while, paradoxically, contributing to it – is another theme dealt with in the paper). The result is an uneven on-again off-again pattern of activity in which, in regions and districts where projects are ongoing, things work for a while only to stop once the project leaves (follow up visits cease, monitoring data stops being collected, audits are no longer carried out etc.).

The result is a set of perverse incentives towards those parts of the governmental structures whose role it is to facilitate and regulate service delivery – yet who are forced, as an institutional survival mechanism, to become ever more closely involved in project delivery. The tendency of individuals within systems, once faced with a role that is either too complex (or in the case of Ghana insufficiently financed) to fulfil, to subsequently revert to a less complex (or more lucrative) role that is better aligned with their own interests is another aspect of isomorphic mimicry.

One implication of this understanding, that insufficient operational funding of local and regional government is (or seems to be) a major causal factor behind low standards of service delivery, is that advocacy on the need for more financing for the sector needs to be finessed. Instead of simply demanding that government put ‘more money into WASH’ – which is inevitably understood as a call to build more systems – we are increasingly asking government to put ‘more money into the operational expenses of decentralised WASH institutions’. This, unfortunately, is a bit of a mouthful – and is therefore much more difficult to sell than the simple demand for more money.  And of course neither politicians nor donors get all that excited about giving more money to civil servants: much more fun to cut the ribbons on another water supply scheme (which sadly, and much too frequently requires stepping over the abandoned remains of its predecessor!). Nevertheless, it’s a message that needs get out, because simply closing our eyes and ignoring the empty organigramme (the sector’s isomorphic mimicry), is like ignoring the leak in the bottom of the bucket into which we are pouring our water.

6 Responses to “Isomorphic mimicry – or the challenge of the empty organigramme”
  1. Stef Smits says:

    My shocking learning last week was that Chipinge district (a district in Zimbabwe where I was – population ~284,000), has an operational budget for the things you are mentioning (coordination, monitoring, follow-up training) of a whopping 1500 U$/year. And Chipinge is a blessed district, according to some. Various NGOs are active in the area, indeed putting money into hardware, but also software, at community level. Better than nothing, one would say. but because there are so many NGOs, Chipinge doesn’t get any transfers for WASH from national government. So, the costs for coordination and monitoring etc need to come from the own revenue raised by the district, which then indeed translates into 1500 US$/year. No wonder that the district cannot really have a voice in issues related to WASH and will always accept whatever the NGO or donor or national government agency says that comes by

  2. Are some NGOs trying to pay for these “operational expenses of decentralised WASH institutions” at the moment as a way of providing some of the evidence for advocacy i.e. showing what extra the government could achieve in terms of improved service delivery if it did allocate this money itself? For example, this is broadly the approach WaterAid is moving towards in Mali. I know the work of both Triple-S and WASHCost is related but I would be interested to know if this idea of direct budget support to local levels gets much attention.

    • Well, it depends a bit on what exactly you mean. Of course, both NGOs and Donors work on local government capacity, and there are a lot of actors in Ghana involved in different aspects of local governance. And some – including WaterAid of course – are doing this in the water sector. However, ‘paying operational epxenses for decentralised WASH institutions as a way of providing someof the evidence for advocacy’ – I would say no – at least not to my knowledge in Ghana (I’d be happy to be disabused!). there have been some examples – AfD and DANIDA that know of – where support has been provided to local governmetn to, in turn, provide post-construction support to communities. However, that we are aware of, this has not really been documented – neither have any lessons learned about impact (if indeed this was measured). And in general, there seems to be little systematic documentation of any of the work going on at district level – not what it costs, but also not what is involved, or what works or doesn’t (although Engineers Without Borders have done some nice case studies – for example In our WASHCost work in Ghana we have hit something of a brick wall on the issue of direct support costs. Our field data collection suggest that what is spent is low – in the regoin of 0.50 US$/capita/year – which is primarily aimed at salaries – and that this is not really sufficient. But we have not yet been able to identify what a ‘sufficient’ level would be. The next step is to work with a number of stakehodlers to, basically, build a bottom up cost model for what ‘acceptable’ district and regional level support might look like for a country like Ghana with middle-income aspirations (how many vehicles, how many computers, how many kilometres per year, how many workshops etc. etc.).

      • Thanks for the WASHCost update and EWB links Patrick. Yes, your response is the type of things I was thinking of. WaterAid in Mali is just starting to get some evidence of combinations of support costs / outcomes in municipalities where it partners directly with local government. Not quite in the level of detail or breadth that I think WASHCost is working at elsewhere, but hopefully some useful case studies that can be shared soon.

  3. Jack Barrie says:

    Great article Partick,

    This article has hit the nail on the head. But how should it could be solved is almost like chasing the rain away train.

    Check out for similar articles on Water and Sanitation in developing countries.

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