By Yuen Yuen Ang, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan and the author of “How China Escaped the Poverty Trap“
This blog is part of an ongoing series evaluating various facets
of Development in Transition. The 2019 “Perspectives on Global Development” on “Rethinking Development Strategies” will add to this discussion
For the past decades, policymakers and development practitioners have clung to the idea that “good governance” is the solution to poverty. If only poor countries could eradicate corruption, enforce laws, hold leaders accountable and achieve a checklist of best practices, their economic and social problems would be resolved.
This thinking, however, runs into a chicken-and-egg problem: in the first place, it’s hard for poor countries to quickly and meaningfully establish good governance. Indeed, if it were easy to achieve good governance, poor countries would have done it long ago.
But if insisting on one-size-fits all good governance is not the solution, then what is the alternative? My research on China’s development reveals a surprising lesson: normatively weak institutions can be functionally strong. Seen through first-world lenses, the norms and structures found in low-income, pre-industrialised countries are often regarded as “weak” or “backward,” that is, as impediments to development. In fact, these institutions can be creatively adapted or repurposed to kick-start development.