Building New Democracies: Norms Shape Practice Not Policies

At one point in U.S. history the food and drug association wanted to regulate cigarettes, but it was neither a food nor or a drug! In this instance, an absurd solution was found – using its jurisdiction over medical devices the association declared that cigarettes were a medical device for dispensing a dose of nicotine. This was the anecdote used by Lant Pritchett (Harvard University) to outline the asymmetry between policy mapping and formulation, and policy outcomes during the 2nd Plenary of the ERF Annual Conference.

The use of an artificial fact, in this instance, to attain a policy implementation goal shows how the rules can easily be flouted.

In this sense, Pritchett was keen to point out that ‘institutional’ structures are not the key to achieving successful transition to democracy, because institutions are ultimately governed by social norms. The strongest democracies in the world have different institutional structures – and there is no pre-defined model for success.

Referring to Egypt, he suggested that to achieve its democratic ambitions it must not get lost in institutional building. But instead focus on a small number of key areas that might help usher a change in social norms across society. In other words, technocratic reform doesn’t work, unless a social movement among the dominant forces in society takes effect.

He explored this issue in detail by unpacking the notion of the ‘policymaker’, and described how policymakers are involved at both the formulation level and the implementation level – despite the typical distinction between policymaking and implementation. The first concept refers to the mapping and formulation of policy, while the second refers to the ‘realised policy’ that reflects the “state of the world” or social norms and practices within a specific context. These social norms shape policy in a particular way, and override any legislation that might be related.

He went onto explain how in Delhi the de jura process of acquiring a driving license is much the same as in many other places around the world. You have to provide detailed information covering your age, your address, and so forth, and then complete a driving test. However, the reality (or the de facto) way of acquiring a driving license for many people in Delhi is very different, and involves hiring a tout to secure the license for you. Shockingly, two-thirds of those people receive their license this way, do not know how to drive.

In comparing de jura and de facto economic regulation, Pritchett outlined the disparity that exists between those firms that have the freedom to follow legislation in a de facto way (favoured firms) and those that do not (disfavoured firms). The result is that across all countries firms having to follow legislation by the rule of the law take much longer to secure approval and get products through customs than those that do not. “For my friends anything, for my enemies, the law”, Pritchett quipped.

Making firms  follow the rules can quite literally force them out of business. The norms within a state and across its society ensure that it makes no difference if you have highly detailed policies, if these do not reflect the norms of the policymaking process. Norms must reflect policy, if  policy is to correlate with practice.

3 thoughts on “Building New Democracies: Norms Shape Practice Not Policies

  1. Pingback: Do Institutional Constraints on Policymakers work? « Economic Research Forum Blog

  2. Pingback: ERF 17th Annual Conference: Report Plenary Session 2 « Economic Research Forum Blog

  3. Pingback: Politics and Economic Development: Economic Research Forum (ERF) 17th Annual Conference – March 20-22, 2011 Antalya, Turkey « Global Development Network Blog

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