The opening sentence of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina–All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way–is popular among development practitioners, who often offer their own version as follows: All rich economies are alike; each poor economy is poor in its own way. This idea, which we can call the Anna Karenina principle of economic development, is meant as a recognition of the value of context and local knowledge.
And it is not only practitioners that share this well-intentioned sentiment. A long-standing literature on development has usefully alerted us to the dangers of simply copying institutional best practices from developed countries, or “isomorphic mimicry” to use the term originally from evolutionary biology that has caught on in the development literature.
But, oversimplified as in the Anna Karenina principle, it has an unintended consequence. In short, what’s wrong with it is not the punchline but its setup. Thinking all rich economies are institutionally alike is simply misguided. (In jest, it could be described as a case of “idiomorphic myopia,” or the inability to clearly see different institutional forms.) But why does this matter?
If all rich economies are seen as institutionally alike, one would want to draw inspiration from only the most successful country, or a few at most. This helps to explain, for example, the prominent role that South Korea plays in the collective imagination of development practitioners. A “winner takes all attention” disposition makes slightly less successful country cases much less studied and used in development circles. And this means that the focus is put squarely on a relatively narrow slice of the experience of successful development.
Somewhat less successful cases may not even be seen as successes to begin with. To give an example from personal experience, when sharing that I was writing about Spain’s rise to high-income status, my interlocutors would often concede that Spain was an interesting case study but that, surely, I meant to say that I was writing about economic failure not success. This about a country, Spain, that is among a handful to have graduated into high-income status in recent decades and that in 30 years had been able to catch up 30 percentage points as a share of per capita output with that of the United States.
In the view of the world captured by the Anna Karenina principle, the economic history of rich countries is of little interest. Strictly speaking, the belief that all rich economies are alike does not necessarily imply the belief that their path to their current high-income status must have been similar. But in practice these two beliefs often go together. And when they do, they imply a loss that stems from overlooking a rich set of experiences that often look little like stylized institutional trajectories. Just like with biodiversity, there is much value in understanding how specific successful adaptations work in the development space. Not seeing that rich countries got to where they are through different paths is a missed opportunity to learn from truly diverse experiences.
Why is this important? In no small part because the successful adaptations of others can provide a springboard for one’s own adaptations. The dilemma of design in development projects, as Albert Hirschman put it, is balancing between elements of the status quo that have to be taken as unchangeable and those elements of the status quo to be disrupted. Escaping this dilemma is the art of project design and, as Hirschman noted, the fate of a project becomes a wager about getting that balance right. In doing so local context and knowledge can only go so far in informing what elements to disrupt because, by definition, some elements of the status quo are to be disrupted. Hence the value of looking to how numerous other countries addressed related challenges. Often a development challenge that a country faces has been solved by another country but on a different domain.
Taking solutions from one domain and applying them to another is a fruitful methodology, common for example in design thinking. In brainstorming techniques, the quantity of ideas generated really matters for the quality of the solutions created, not because it helps in the search of stylized facts or common features, but because it helps avoid functional fixedness and brings about more creative solutions.
Not only are all rich economies not alike but their paths to how they got there may prove to be full of insights. To return to Anna Karenina, it may not be its first sentence but its very last one, uttered by Tolstoy’s own alter-ego Levin, that may be more relevant after all: “my whole life… is not only not meaningless… but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which is in my power to put into it!”
Featured image by Didier Weemaels on Unsplash (public domain)