Making best practice better: how governments can learn the right lessons from each other

By on 20/02/2023 | Updated on 20/02/2023
A photo of a tram in Romania in 1989.
A photo of Romania in 1989. Dr. Jelena Vidojević says countries in the global south should consider examples of how state socialism in Eastern Europe advanced gender equality. Photo by Firobuz via Wikimedia Commons

Countries around the world – and specifically in the global south – are facing unprecedented pressure. As governments look for solutions, how can they make sure they learn the right lessons?

Countries of the global south are caught up in an intricate web of acute and chronic uncertainties, generated by the combined devastating effects of a number of factors – both global and local – with climate change, the pandemic, neoliberal economic paradigm and violent conflicts the most prominent ones. The current moment is also marked by complex contradictions, and a lack of transparency concerning locations and structures of power at both the national but also the global level. There is also an extreme degree of inconsistency between political proclamations, legal norms and practices.

The crisis has produced different and often contradictory reactions, reflecting sharp divisions between beneficiaries and victims of global capitalism. Countries in the global south have large economic and human potential, but despite their attempts to modernise, develop and stabilise, face greater external turbulence compared to countries with greater ability to actively shape the global order.

For the societies residing on the global periphery, the depth of the existing drama requires navigating both history and the fog of current complexity in the search for responses to the question “What kind of society are we striving for?”. Internal economic, political and social fissures, and limited manoeuvring space for autonomous choice, are coupled with a high degree of vulnerability in relation to the external global actors and processes. This requires thinking once again about possible alternative strategies of development, paths for empowerment, and new alliances to express solidarity. Connecting distant neighbours who face the same headwinds can contribute to imagining and creating the ‘New South’, capable of articulating alternatives to the currently dominant development paradigm.

Outlining, and then taking, alternative paths of development will depend on the capacity to produce and use knowledge and share experience in the global south, while looking for examples of good practices outside of the usual reference points.

Bringing together geographically distant parts of the global south, but also including places that traditionally were not regarded as part of the region but that are occupying a (semi-)peripheral position, such as the Balkans, and focusing on recent processes they have been through which exposed some similar profound failures – dysfunctional state institutions, economic instability, widespread crime and corruption, social and economic polarisation to name just a few – will hopefully identify common patterns and outcomes. These will then generate new insights – as well as new modes of cooperation and solidarity – and give a stronger, more independent voice to the quest for alternatives. This endeavour should be followed by “filtering” the relevant, successful experiences of others, in particular in the domains important for building a functional and capable state. In other words, this process should be a project of synthesising one’s own valuable experiences and the practices of others, in accordance with the consensually derived vision of the desired society.

Can government best practice avoid ‘isomorphic mimicry’?

But how do governments decide what is “best practice”, especially when every public action is heavily context-dependent? Over time, ”best practice” has become just another buzz word, extensively used in the development discourse but lacking clarity and precision, and being heavily ideologically loaded. This often leads to imitation of models and practices from the West, which can be seen as a kind of universal, normative ideal.

Governments in the global south would usually mimic other governments’ success, replicating processes, systems and even products of supposed “best practice”. This then leads to what Andrews, Woolcock and Pritchett in their seminal work Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation call “successful failure” – after years of intense policy and reform engagement, countries do not succeed in building real capabilities, but perpetuate dysfunctionality, while pursuing external legitimisation through implementing Western ideas.

These practices are strongly encouraged through the way in which the international development ecosystem engages with the countries of the global south, but partial responsibility rests on the countries of the global south, which, tend to defer to Western epistemic superiority.

“Isomorphic mimicry” is just one of the dangers that this particular kind of Eurocentrism produces. Disregarding the policies and actions, regardless of their outcomes, coming outside of the West and its spheres of dominance is equally damaging.

For example, when considering the ways in which countries of the global south can advance gender equality and improve the position of women (looking beyond quotas), experience of twentieth century state socialism in Eastern Europe is invaluable since it has been a space of great policy innovations. Yet, if it is not completely ignored then it is at least unknown across the global south. After the end of the Cold War, socialism became a dirty word, and the practices and policies associated with it were either ignored or viewed with great suspicion. But if disentangled from “real existing” communism and its past association with forced collectivisation and labour camps, then there are important achievements in science, educational, sport and health that may be useful policy reference points. If done properly, socialist practices can lead to economic independence, better labour conditions, and a better work/family balance. State socialist governments made a huge effort to fully incorporate women into the labour market. Eastern European countries committed vast resources to invest in women’s education and training, to promote them in professions previously dominated by men. They also made a huge effort to socialise domestic work and childcare by building an extensive network of public creches, kindergartens, laundries and cafeterias. Additionally, extended, job-protected maternity leaves and guaranteed (and often very generous) child benefits allowed women to find at least some balance between their professional and personal/family responsibilities.

The motivation behind recalling such experiences is not driven by a misplaced nostalgia for the past. Overcoming the tendency towards “mimicry” means better understanding the conditions under which institutions work and succeed in local contexts. In the new south – places dealing with complex transitions from socialism, from colonialism, from civil war and from military rule – institutional building must deal with these legacies. This is what the New South Institute seeks to do: develop a body of practical knowledge, generated from the experience of government in, for example, South Africa since the end of Apartheid, India, Serbia, and Brazil, to produce models of “good practice” better suited to our contexts.

Dr. Jelena Vidojević is a research fellow at The New South Institute.

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About Jelena Vidojević

Dr. Jelena Vidojević is a research fellow at The New South Institute

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