I was intrigued to come across the term ‘isomorphic mimicry’ (thanks to the reference in Owen Abroad), used by Lant Pritchett to explain the process of “replicating existing forms and processes without functionality”. The idea comes from nature where animals pretend to be something they’re not (or once were) e.g. poisonous. Others have hinted at the idea in Africa, for example ideas about the ‘shadow state’, underground networks vs formal state, etc.
What’s the relevance? Well, remember the last time someone in Ivory Coast gave you a business card with an email address or website that didn’t work? In isomorphic mimicry, the point isn’t that it is there to work (or function) but to look like it does. The government ministry website isn’t actually there to help provide a service, it was created because no respectable ministry should be without a website. The fact that the facadism doesn’t function is beside the point, and anyway the local media will cover the ‘launch’ event and then never bother to make an objective assessment that would test the benefits and costs of providing such a service. It’s form over content because of both a lack of accountability and evaluation to judge the value of something, and a lack of capacity.
I could think of some other Ivorian examples that could fit into this concept;
– the fact that Blackberry’s sell like hot cakes in West Africa would appear to give the impression that the communication revolution has reached these shores and it’s now easier than ever to communicate with businessmen and government people. Wrong – many aren’t even set-up on the network and so offer the same functionality as a Nokia 1100. Is there much point having an iphone without a 3G network?
– big 4×4 cars that appear to be a sign of success and prosperity, when in fact they seem more to indicate easy unearned money. Interestingly when you actually leave Abidjan you hardly see any of these 4x4s and instead every second car is a Mercedes 190.
– government human rights meetings that seem to value form over content (see here).
– I was once stopped by police in Kinshasa, DRC. They checked the papers and found that my MOT certificate had just run it. In fact, the car was riddled with bullets and was missing most sections of glass after getting caught in a firefight. In short, it was a wreck and way below any acceptable standard of road-worthiness. But we completed the formalities to get a new MOT certificate in 20 minutes. It wasn’t about checking to see if the car was fit to drive, although it seemed to be (and that’s what the MOT certificate signifies in Europe).
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The communications revolution has indeed reached African shores but through cheap Chinese handsets and indestructible old Nokias.
The Blackberry is a fashion statement as much in the west as it is in West-Africa. Blackberry managed to fool the world that the only way to access your emails on your phone is through buying a Blackberry. The truth is that you get more from a regular data capable phone (if not more) than from a Blackberry. When mobile operators sell Blackberries they will be lucky to even get 10% of them “connected” to their service (RIM/Blackberry). Fact is, they do not even expect subscribers to ask for a subscription as the mobile operator has to pay some 20-25 US$ to RIM and that cost will certainly have to be carried by the subscriber in one way or another. This is the same in western world. Blackberry victims tend to be high end voice call and SMS users and that is where mobile operators make their money from and that is also the primary reason they are inclined to sell Blackberries. The truth of the matter is, Blackberries do not sell like hotcakes in Africa. The next time you see a Blackberry in Cote d’Ivoire you can be assured that
1. 30% of the time it’s a Chinese fake (smart user)
2. 30% of the time it’s secondhand from the west (fashion victim)
3. 10% of the time it’s connected/secondhand from the west (idiot & victim)
3. 10% of the time it’s new but not connected (semi-smart victim with money)
4. 20% of the time it’s bought new and connected (outright idiot or an idiot company pays)
Iphones are the curse to every mobile operator in this world, they are beautiful devices with a 3G network or without one. They chew so much bandwidth that they cannibalize revenue on normal voice calls. A recent study on Verizon wireless in the US concluded that the operator would declare chapter 11 by 2015 if they did not curb Iphone “abuse”. There will be no more unlimited data usage on Verizon as of end August 2011. And the “coolness” of being able to tell a friend of the weather forecast in Calcutta by simply touching the Iphone screen will disappear with a daily 2 USD bill…
“Isomorphic mimicry” in Africa? Yes, but not in telecommunications. Most people are just too poor to pretend, and the word of a good deal spreads like wildfire. Every penny is turned over 10 times before it’s being spent on the African telecoms market!
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