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).