South Africa: Can Imported Best Practices Solve Complex Problems Like Violence?

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So where has South Africa gone wrong? Lant Prichett, Michael Woolcock and Matt Andrew identify the factors and techniques that give rise to persistent state failure. They say one of the cardinal mistakes made in development is treating complex problems (like violence) as if they were simple, and thinking that all we need to do is import ready-made (best-practice) solutions.

This results in the idea that we can speed up development if we go out into the world and find examples (or worse, ‘models’) that have worked in other places and replicate them.

Since 1994, we have done this in South Africa in various ways – through study tours to other countries, or researchers recommending best-practice examples to inform its laws and policies, for example. Solutions have been imported without appreciating or understanding the cultural, social, economic and political conditions that enabled the ‘solution’ to work where it did.

In the end we have accumulated a wealth of failed expectations by developing policies and strategies that seemed to work in other contexts, but didn’t produce the same results when applied in South Africa.

Of course we can and do need to learn from what has worked and what has not in other countries. And it is important to draw on evidence from evaluations of interventions and programmes conducted on a small scale.

But perhaps our biggest failure has been not to question why things have worked in one place or another, and to make sure that the conditions match those in South Africa. By not doing so, we have set ourselves up for failure. Complex systems have been created that camouflage our lack of capability, by creating the illusion that all the requirements of functionality have been met. 

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