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By Aisha Ali


Setting the broader context: The need for institutional reform

Institutional reforms have become the focus of many development programs within developing countries. On the whole, the portfolio of World Bank funds dedicated to large-scale institutional reform programs has grown by up to 80% since the 1990s. This is mainly because of the realisation within the development community and in particular, the multi-lateral and bilateral development agencies that, in developing countries, institutions are weak, poorly governed and cannot support the success of investment and policy programs to realise sustainable development outcomes. You can find out more on this here. In some cases, developing countries have taken the lead in driving reforms as home-grown panaceas for the troubles associated with weak institutions. An example is Rwanda’s approach to the decentralization process that sought to reform the hierarchical system of authority that characterised the public-sector governance which was largely driven by the Rwandan government with support from international development partners.

Why the need for the right agency in institutional reform?

As a Masters student researching the adaptation process of institutional reform in the African context, I feel one of the key issues to contend with is identifying the key stakeholders undertaking reforms. It is important to understand what their roles will be and what capabilities are required of them at conception, implementation and completion stages of the reform. This may seem straightforward, after all, the personnel within institutions undergoing reforms are the ideal agents to be involved in the reforms. Often times however, complex administrative arrangements, varying individual capabilities, and the politics within and around institutions can create ambiguity and affect the constitution and performance of agents involved in reform processes. Perhaps, it is due to these complexities, that large-scale reform processes often choose narrow agency engagements that are typically concentrated at the centres of power within these institutions, usually among a few professionalised individuals identified as drivers or champions of the reform processes.


Why is the issue important?

Literature suggests that defining the agency model for reform process is critical, however, the first step to achieving the appropriate mix of agents is to define the context within which the reforms will be unfolding. It has become increasingly clear that individual agents cannot affect institutional change, but rather change emerges from the stimulation of an institutional field.Read more on this here. An institutional field is just a complicated term for a network of actors contributing to or benefitting from an institution. It could be another institution, suppliers, producers, consumers, policy makers, policy users or recipients, distributed agents and so on. These actors create a tapestry of interests and importance around the reform process, the levels of which will vary depending on a number of factors, for instance, what impact the reform is likely to have on each and every one of them. Reformer designers therefore need to map out institutional fields through which the reform process is expected to unfold.

Once the institutional field is defined, we turn our focus to individual agents and the role of institutional entrepreneurship in driving institutional change. An institutional entrepreneur is an agent that is somewhat detached from the institutional normative and culture claims and therefore has the liberty to see the need for and conceive change alternatives but must be, to some extent, embedded enough in the institutional context to know about weaknesses and opportunities for alternatives for change.

Complexity of defining the right agency

In reality, institutional entrepreneurs, with just the right mix of embeddedness, authority and desire for change are not easy to come by. The level of embeddedness among agents will differ, those at the edge of the social network are less likely to be influenced by rules and therefore benefit less from institutional systems – this makes them more susceptible to undermining incumbent institutional culture and accepting institutional change but without the power and authority to actually do so. On the other hand, agents at the centre of social networks, where power is situated, are more embedded into institutional systems, normalised into the processes and rules, are heavily invested in the survival of the ‘rules of the game’ and are less inclined to acknowledge weaknesses in incumbent culture or conceive the need for change alternatives. This is what is defined as the paradox of embedded agency.

What is the potential solution?

Bridging efforts are necessary to connect different agents with various levels of capabilities for institutional change to be successful. The highly embedded agents with power need to convene with low embedded agents with new ideas for a blended effort that will exert change on the dominant logic of the institution. It is this very balance that institutional reform processes need while dealing with multiple agents that operate within their institutional fields. Furthermore, this balance will need to be replicated across the entire institutional field to allow for the effects of the reforms to diffuse to distributed agents. Find out more on this here.

A possible way forward: The Twende Mbele Initiative – A case of institutional reform support in Africa

The Twende Mbele programme is one such initiative that supports institutional reforms within countries in Africa through collaboration and partnerships among countries in Africa. Specifically, Twende works on supporting the development of National Monitoring and Evaluations Systems (NMESs) to improve government performance, allowing the technocrats and bureaucrats from these countries to drive the thought-leading and knowledge generation processes that support reform processes. One key institutional reform that has emerged from the Twende activities is the adaptation of a performance management tool in Benin and Uganda – the Management Performance Assessment Tool (MPAT)  – initially implemented in South Africa.

Already, there are strides taken by the Twende Mbele programme to create platforms for peer learning and sharing across countries. I feel the next step is to extend these platforms into each of the countries’ public service institutions i.e. the institutional fields where the reform is expected to unfold to allow for the effect of the reforms to flow from the centres to the peripheries. The adaptation of MPAT provides for a timely opportunity to extend this approach to the country level to facilitate the emergence of institutional entrepreneurs from all sections of the institutional fields in Benin and Uganda. It will be exciting to study, as part of my Masters’ dissertation, how the MPAT adaptation process will unfold over the next few months.

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