Why do institutional reforms fail so often in low-income countries?

It sounds like a simple question, but our knowledge about what kind of reform actually works in particular settings is quite limited. In the past, institutional reforms in developing countries have involved a degree of emulating successful solutions from more advanced nations. In this sense, Western institutional practices have diffused among nations (Meyer et al. 1997, DiMaggio & Powell 1983). Japanese reforms during the Meiji period are a well-known example. The introduction of the Novo Mercado, a special listing segment at the São Paulo Stock Exchange that emulates Germany’s Neuer Markt, is a more recent and more technical example. Diffusion of knowledge does not always end well. In fact, many reforms fail and we cannot fully explain why.

I believe that if we want to undestand the big question of what explains the global political order today, we need to understand the details of succesful institutional experimentation (“bricolage”,”tailoring”) and the role of human agency in this process (Campbell 2004).

My ongoing research projects investigate the role of individual actors involved in institutional bricolage. I explore this question in the period of British decolonization in the mid-20th century. British colonial officers found themselves in charge of an array of institutional reforms when colonies prepared for independence. British standards and practices gave the blueprints, but we know from interviews and biographical material that a lot of experimentation and bricolage was applied in various places in search of solutions that better fit the local contexts. The project uses rich biographical material from both the individual officers and the imperial archives in London to explore to which extent the repertoire of ideas and networks of individuals in charge of institutional reforms co-determined reform outcomes.

The necessary biographical data have been assembled in two phases. First, I collected the personnel records of over 14,000 British colonial officers as a visitor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton from 2014 to 2015. Preliminary findings, which were presented at Harvard Law School in June 2015, indicate a robust relationship between the composition of the colonial administration in the 1950s and 1960s and modern-day institutional quality.
Second, I have collected rich biographical material including a series of interviews that we conducted with surviving colonial officers. Project VOICES systematically archives and publish the personal histories of over 100 British colonial officers. The combined research program has been submitted for financing to the European Research Council (ERC Starting Grant) in October 2018. 

Ongoing work

In “Bureaucratic expertise and sector-level economic performance: Evidence from the British Empire”, joint work with Guo Xu (Berkeley), we aim to explain the sector-level economic performance of former colonies by looking at the extended presence of former colonial servants after a colony gains independence. A London designed compensation package brought incentives for some British bureaucrats stay on as advisors after independence – but not for all. We find that this explains variations in the quality of services of public departments in British ex-colonies after independence.

When knowledge and practices are transferred within multinational organizations, most research focuses on the recipients’ experience (Sanders and Tuschke 2007, Kostova and Roth 2002), giving little attention to the role of the agents who do the transferring. “In search of the perfect fit: Knowledge transfers, experimentation and economic performance”, joint work with Robbert Maseland (Groningen), takes a close look at agents (their motivation, skills and biographies) who effectively adapt the transferred knowledge and practices to fit the recipients.

Peer-reviewed Articles

2018: “Copying informal institutions: the role of British colonial officers during the decolonization of British Africa“, Journal of Institutional Economics, First View article. This publication has been financed by Austrian Science Fund (FWF J3848-G28).
Accepted manuscript / Data used in the article / Interviews used in the article.

2017: “Institutional copying in the 20th century: The role of 14,000 British colonial officers”, Schmollers Jahrbuch – Journal of Contextual Economics. This publication has been financed by Austrian Science Fund (FWF J3848-G28).

2016: “Colonial Bureaucrats, Institutional Transplants, and Development in the 20th Century“, in: Becker P. and Nellen. S. (eds), Administory. Zeitschrift für Verwaltungsgeschichte, 1 (2016): 155-172. This publication has been financed by Austrian Science Fund (FWF J3848-G28).

2015: The effect of shareholders’ agreement binding provisions on firm value: Evidence from Brazil (with Luiz Ricardo Kabbach de Castro and Marina Gelman), RAE-Revista de Administração de Empresas55(3): 345-358 [in Portuguese].

I add an English translation to this paper. Please do not cite the translated version.

2014: “When do institutional transfers work? The relation between institutions, culture and the transplant effect: the case of Borno in north-eastern Nigeria,” Journal of Institutional Economics 10(3): 371-397. The paper was shortlisted for the 2015 Elinor Ostrom Award.

Monograph (PhD Thesis)

2011: “Colonial Legacy and Institutional Development – The Cases of Botswana and Nigeria“, ÖFSE Forum Series No 52, Austrian Research Foundation for International  Development (ÖFSE): Vienna.

Other Publications

2017: “Project VOICES – a status report“, The Overseas Pensioner, 114: 20-21. This publication has been financed by Austrian Science Fund (FWF J3848-G28).

2017: ” Overseas officers and development today – an interim report”, The Overseas Pensioner, 113: 18-20. This publication has been financed by Austrian Science Fund (FWF J3848-G28).

2016: “Overseas officers and development today. How your personal account makes a difference,” The Overseas Pensioner, 112: 27-31. This publication has been financed by Austrian Science Fund (FWF J3848-G28).

Working Papers

2012: “When do institutional transplant work“, working paper presented at the 2012 EAEPE in Krakow.

2011: “The role of informal institutions in building the institutional framework of an African state: The case of the Kanuri in Nigeria“, working paper presented at ISNIE 2011, Stanford.

2010: “Why did Botswana end up with good institutions: The role of culture and colonial rule“, working paper presented at ISNIE 2010, Stirling UK.

All publications from 2011 to 2014 have been financed with the support of the Austrian Science Found (Project AP23424-G11). Publications from 2016 to 2018 are financed by an Erwin Schrödinger Grant (FWF J3848-G28).