Seeing institutions in different ways
Seeing institutions in different ways

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Seeing institutions in different ways

4 Extending ways of seeing institutions

I have suggested three ways of looking at institutions:

  1. as sets of rules and norms, that govern how people behave and how organisations operate, and that make it possible for agents with different interests, world-views and agendas to work together for development (Brett)
  2. as conveyors of shared meanings and values, that enable people to make sense of their world and identify what is acceptable, and legitimate, or not (Engberg-Pedersen)
  3. as big players, that are influential in establishing the terms on which development is to take place (Hulme).

This suggests in turn that institutional development can be seen as, amongst other things:

  • changes in the rules, attempts to bring in new rules, attempts to make the old rules more appropriate, challenges to the old rules, shifts in social norms
  • the emergence and acceptance of new sets of meanings, attempts to reinforce established meanings, challenges to established meanings, the promotion of new values
  • the introduction of new policies and programmes to ‘deliver’ development, the emergence of new big players, the creation of new alliances between big players, challenges to the power and authority of the established big players.

Activity 6

Timing: You should spend no more than 20 minutes on this activity

Check your understanding of the following key concepts by thinking of examples of each of them.

  • rules: governing who can participate in a development intervention
  • norms: setting standards of acceptable behaviour on the part of agency workers
  • meanings: giving a sense of what it means to be ‘poor’, to live in ‘poverty’
  • values: establishing what would constitute ‘good’ impacts of interventions
  • big players: international agencies, national governments, national forums, local coordinating agencies.

You might put your examples together in a simple spray diagram, or mind map. These concepts do not represent alternative – let alone conflicting – views of ‘institutions’ and ‘institutional development’. Rather, all identify dimensions that you need to keep in mind as you develop your understanding of each of these two terms.

I do, though, want to emphasise that it is essential not only to recognise these concepts, but also to ask questions about them – interrogate them, if you like.


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