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Musings on Institutions by Noel Ihebuzor

  1. Recent events in our world are making us painfully aware that the institutions on which our societies are built are under threat. On-going efforts in a number of countries around the world, including attempts at muzzling the press, gimmicks by a president to delegitimize the outcome of an electoral process, the hijacking of parliaments in some countries, the use of deadly force against peaceful demonstrators and efforts at voter suppression all point to the dangers that society and institutions are increasingly facing in our modern world.
  2. Furthermore, the rising incidences of insecurity, poverty, hunger, injustice, systemic racism and gender-based violence, just to mention a few, are not fortuitous, but are rather signals that the institutions that are or were meant to guard against such are no longer functioning at their optimal levels. Ditto for failures in public procurement, declining standards in the regularity and quality of urban basic services and in collapsing municipal functions.
  3. The institutions that are meant to ensure that these services are provided or which were designed to protect our freedoms are now either becoming increasingly moribund or experiencing severe existential threats or are being exposed to severe bashing and or subversion, some subtle and some, frontal, brutal and unrelenting.
  4. The phenomenon of institutional bashing appears to be spreading all over the world from Asia, North America, South America, Europe to Africa, and if current happenings in God’s own country are anything to go by, would be seem to be gathering momentum and exercising a strong fascination for an increasing group of persons, converts and democracy iconoclasts.
  5. The aberrations mentioned above produce effects that lead to democratic backsliding, a backsliding that could then set off a vicious cycle of institutional weakening with deleterious impacts on a broad range of other institutions and this with major multiplier effects and compounded negative externalities and a number of social malaises.
  6. If these malaises can be blamed on weakening of institutions, what then are institutions? These non-random musings are prompted by a genuine desire to explore the concept of institutions, to unearth its meaning and the key assumptions that populate its vast and ever-expanding literature.
  7. These ramblings are structured thus – they start with an examination of the meaning of institutions and then move on to a consideration of the functions of institutions in society. From here, focus then shifts to threats to institutions and the ramblings end on what responsible citizens can do to check the attack on institutions.
  8. One needs to acknowledge from the outset that the literature in the area poses major challenges and which unless navigated with caution could represent conceptual landmines that stand in the way of shared understanding. Taking a leaf from North, all scholars in the field talk of rules of the game but most of the literature is quite fuzzy when it comes to giving concrete examples. For some, family is an institution, for some others, marriage. For some, Governance is an institution, for some others the constitution and the system of election are. People like me in search of clarity could thus be wrong-footed in this maze of definitional unclarity and inadequacies.
  9. Perhaps scholars need to come together to speedily address and resolve this unclarity. In such an effort, the definitions of sociologists, economists and administrators must be assisted to find common grounds both in content and in examples that they provide.
  10. For now, one can work with the following definition – Institutions are the formal and informal rules and norms that organize social, political and economic relations (North, 1990). Institutions are ‘the underlying rules of the game’. They are not the same as organizations.
  11. Organizations are ‘groups of individuals bound by a common purpose’. Organizations are shaped by institutions and, in turn, influence how institutions change. Some social scientists view organizations as the material expressions of institutions. Some see social groups such as government bodies, tribes and families as institutions. Some identify ‘primary’ or ‘meta’ institutions to be the family, government, economy, education and religion. North, 1990: 3, 5; Harper et al., 2012: 15.
  12. Key features of institutions are the following – They are brought to life by people and organizations (North, 1990; Leftwich & Sen, 2010).
    They provide a relatively predictable structure for everyday social, economic and political life. Institutions shape people’s incentives (or calculations of returns from their actions) and behavior. They establish a predictable, though not necessarily efficient or uncontested structure for human interaction (North, 1990: 6).
    Some argue institutions shape but do not necessarily always determine behavior (Leftwich & Sen, 2010: 9).
    They lead to enduring patterns of behavior over time but they also change. Institutions are constantly being reformed through people’s actions (Giddens, 1984). Institutional change structures the way societies evolve (North, 1990: 3). However, institutionalized behaviors can be hard to change.
    They produce positive or negative development outcomes. This depends on the kinds of relations and behaviors that institutions enable, and the outcomes for the enjoyment of rights and allocation of resources in society (Leftwich & Sen, 2010).
    Institutions are both formal and informal. Formal institutions include the written constitution, laws, policies, rights and regulations enforced by official authorities. Informal institutions are (the usually unwritten) social norms, customs or traditions that shape thought and behaviour (Leftwich & Sen, 2010; Berman, 2013). Development practitioners have tended to prioritise formal institutions, viewing informal ones as separate and often detrimental to development outcomes (Unsworth, 2010).
  13. In practice, formal and informal rules and norms can be complementary, competing or overlapping (Jütting et al., 2007: 36; Leftwich & Sen, 2010: 17). Whether they are relatively more strong/weak or inclusive/discriminatory is likely to depend on context (Unsworth, 2010). In some cases, informal institutions undermine formal ones; in others they substitute for them (Leftwich & Sen, 2010: 17; Jütting et al., 2007: 35-36). Informal social norms often shape the design and implementation of formal state institutions (Migdal, 2001; Jütting et al., 2007: 7).
  14. Let us note the following – Institutions should not be mistaken with buildings or physical structures. They rather refer to a set or series of rules, practices and procedures which govern the smooth functioning of societies. Institutions involve rules and norms, but some of these rules and norms are almost imperceptible and rely on a series of layered conventions and assumptions to maintain order and harmony in society. Concerning the link between development interventions and institutions, DFID argues that development interventions are more likely to succeed if they promote improvements at the wider level of institutions. (Without institutional reform, for instance, poverty alleviation programmes can fail – a basic truth that explains the glaring failures and indeed the poverty of most of poverty alleviation programmes in a number of third world economies).
  15. Family, marriage, government, banks, religious organizations, social clubs, parliaments, schools etc are all institutions. One can argue a certain biologism when examining institutions and their functions. Marriage as institution, for instance, functions to ensure social stability, reproduction and production. Places of religious worship function as defenders of morals, morality and social ethics.
  16. The age grade system in Igbo society is an example of a social institution that is society specific. The KKK is not an institution but an organization but the rules and norms of white supremacy and racial privilege on which it is built and sustained are aspects of an institution of systemic racism.
  17. The police and the criminal justice system are institutions designed to save society from anarchy, the rule of brute force and to ensure the protection of the weak.
  18. Banks, investment houses, the stock exchange are all institutions meant to sustain economic growth by ensuring greater predictability and protection in financial dealings and flows. The civil society, the industrial unions, the town associations are all institutions all designed to permit greater citizenship participation and ownership.
  19. In the domains of governance and politics, one comes across a vast array of institutions, each with a number of functions and some with overlapping functions, rules and norms Some scholars have isolated three sets of political institutions – these are the State, Rule of law and institutions that make for accountability.
  20. The state is defined as a structure that holds the monopoly of legitimate violence. In this view, the state represents a concentration of power and capacity for enforcement. The modern state is impersonal, best run on merit and talent and by an efficient bureaucracy. Rule of law represents an institution that allows for the power of the state to be held in check. According to Fukuyama, the rule of law is a constraint on the executive and embedded in a separate independent judiciary.
  21. The last in the tripod of political institutions are accountability mechanisms that cover issues such as procedural and moral accountability and responsibility.
  22. We can also say in a wider conception of institution that the judiciary is an institution, so are the legislature and the executive and these three need to be kept separate in good governance is to survive and thrive. The press is an institution, sometimes even called the fourth estate of the realm and is also vital for good governance.
  23. These four institutions must be kept separate to preserve societies from the menace of tyrants and dictators.
  24. Institutions thus have functions in society –
    They operate to safeguard society.
    They make for normalcy and for ensuring that all keep within agreed and often unwritten norms
    They define expectations, responsibility and establish accountability based on agreed division of labor. Institutions are interlinked such that one weakness in one can lead to weakness in another and in several others. While some are society specific, some have rules and norms that are universal.
  25. Institutional development is a complex process which draws from and build on local realities. The dynamics of institutional change are complex. Creating institutional change is a slow difficult process and some times involves changes in cultural beliefs, norms and assumptions. Such change can often meet with resistance. For this reason, it is important from the outset to establish the development outcomes of any proposed institutional change.
  26. It is critical to distinguish between the organizational changes and the changes in the wider institutional framework needed to achieve these outcomes. Organizational problems are usually visible and tangible while those to do with institutions may be invisible but determine how people operate in society.
  27. Institutional interventions (those that deal with institutional problems) can be divided into two areas: policy reform and improved service delivery. Organizational interventions, on the other hand, can be at three levels: structure, systems and human resources
  28. Successful interventions (be these at organizational or institutional levels) require the active participation of all the stakeholders in diagnosing the problems to be tackled and deciding on the actions to be taken. They also require the following i) Accessing important sources of information and research material to inform both the institutional and organizational appraisal ii) Identifying the key people in implementing the intervention along with their roles and responsibilities. iii) Designing an effective strategy and programme for implementation of the planned intervention, and taking action if a programme becomes stalled and iv) Putting effective evaluation and monitoring systems in place so that there will be clear evidence that the goals of the intervention have been achieved.
  29. Threats to the solidity to democracy that these three institutions contribute to begin to surface when topics like benevolent dictatorships, authoritarian modernizers and well-meaning authoritarianism are allowed to creep into the public discourse.
  30. Tyrants are very fond of such notions and they encourage the uptake of discourse that promote and justify them to creep and seep into the public domain. Things like benevolent dictatorships and authoritarian modernization are unsustainable and their presence in public discourse should be seen as red flags.
  31. For one thing, models inspired by such notions eventually build the cult of the strong man, and such a strong man is usually insensitive to and non-receptive of feedback.
  32. Such developments are red flags, and once these begin to appear, institutions come under threat – both in terms of solidity and stability
  33. Essentially such institutions are concerned with making power responsible and ensure that decisions taken by the executive serve the common good
  34. The rule of law therefore represents norms of justice that are applicable to all without exception
  35. Standard orthodoxy holds that social progress depends on the solidity of institutional arrangements
  36. Some development theorists have argued that development is impossible in the absence of strong institutions, that institutions safeguard development and make them sustainable.
  37. Some others have also argued that you do not really need institutions for development to occur, that institutions involve too many transaction costs and that development, any way, brings institutions in its wake. The questions that then emerges is a chicken and egg one – which came before the other. A related and often ignored question is that of the trade-offs involved.
  38. Each one of these two possible views implies a view of development – both in terms of its social drivers, the role of people participation in it and the whole question of sustainability. Though views on development may vary and clash, there is a strong consensus among development practitioners on the role of good governance in promoting development.
  39. Such an emerging consensus is now leading scholars and practitioners to devote more and more time to understanding those institutions that combine to enable societies to have all the benefits of good governance.
  40. Good governance is about public service that is efficient, effective, responsive, transparent, accountable, consensus oriented and participatory. These qualities of Governance all add up to contribute to society’s social capital. Social capital forms the structure on which most other capitals – economic, financial, knowledge, intellectual, legal – are built
  41. Tyrants and dictators whether of the left or from the right are the greatest threats to the stability of social institutions, and thus to good governance and ultimately to the sanctity and the rights of the citizen. A system of checks, balances and rules are usually put in place to keep such institutions functional and thriving. Dictators and tyrants do their best to undermine the functioning of such institutions.
  42. They try to do this by undermining and weakening institutions through a number of egregious acts that threaten and eventually undermine and subvert such institutions. They do or try to do through several strategies viz
    • They de-legitimize such institutions. They trivialize such institutions
    • They underfund such institutions.
    • They influence and corrupt the leadership of key societal institutions
  43. Other antics include the attack and demoralization of the judiciary and legislative institutions.
    • Parliament is bought over with generous and its members are seduced to soil their hands with generous gifts.
    • Anti-corruption agencies are converted to instruments for personal vengeance and attacks against opponents.
    • The corruption of anti-corruption agencies is a major feature of the demise of institutions
  44. Other institution bashing moves include the following:
    • some Institutions become co-opted as willing hatchet persons whose primary assignments and ultimate deliverable is the discrediting and eventual drowning of existing institutions.
    • The police and other law enforcement agencies are perverted.
    • organs of government, especially the judiciary are bought over and soon begin to deliver judgements that put their whole integrity and the credibility of their judgments in doubt.
  45. As these processes are unleashed on an indifferent or tolerant society, one begins to notice that the strong man who arrived as a liberator and reformer is gradually morphing into a tyrant. Most times, this strong man/woman rides in on a wave of public disenchantment with existing social stasis which he exploits to wrest extra-judiciary and legislative powers. He or she demonizes the leaders of institutions that they cannot buy over. Suddenly elections are decided by the courts and judges appointed by the strongman/woman. Soon justices, judges and magistrates court the friendship of their strong man/woman who eventually curtails their powers and tenure according to his/her whims and pleasures
  46. The strong man/woman unleashes a campaign of harassment and terror against such any institutional leadership that is bold enough to speak out. The strong meddles, pesters and slowly and subtly hijacks the organs and institutions of the state and converts these to attack dogs, rottweilers and agents of terror
  47. He perverts, through a series of accretions, the ethos and functioning of some institutions. The long-term objective is the hijack and personalization of Institutions of the state.
  48. New structures with hazily defined functions but limited accountability to the public are soon spawned. Constitutional provisions are ignored or spurned. A gradual attack on civil liberties with the complicity of an emasculated and perverted judiciary soon commences and pucks up speed. Civil society and the press are muzzled. Laws limiting freedom of expression and are rushed through to legitimize new and emergent forms of illegitimacy
  49. Soon a new norm, corrupt in intention, warped in its formulation and odious in its outcomes starts being installed. Decency is dismantled progressively and existing institutions soon begin to lose their internal autonomy. The structure and composition of some state institutions are soon changed by such usurpers. When institutions are forced and rushed through such changes, they begin to lose their credibility in the eyes of the public. They also become weaker. Weak institutions allow for further weakening and social abuse.
  50. Because institutions are organically linked and exist in some form of hierarchy, a weakening of one institution transmits some weakening to other institutions engaged in similar civic protection functions. For example, a weak legislative invariably leads to a weak judiciary, which in turn leads to a weakening of institution concerned with the protection of civil liberties
  51. One of the greatest threats to the autonomy of institutions is their personalization by such power usurpers. Features of such usurpation and perversion/hijack of functions of public institutions is their use to settle personal scores and not for the service of the people. Sadly, such selfish exploitation of the functions of public institutions is accompanied by the acquiescence of the public in the loss and suspension of personal liberties. The justification and rationalization of this loss of personal freedoms is usually done by invoking the idea that this is being done for a superior public good.
  52. Strong ambitious individuals are a threat to institutions of state. Insensitive individuals are the worst enemies of institution. Dictators hate institutions. Institution bashers hate institutions. Tyrants work to weaken institutions. Such persons can achieve these feats because of the lethargy and indifference of the public.
  53. The dismantling of institutions thrives in a situation where the public is lethargic Institution dismantling thrives in an atmosphere of stakeholder and citizen indifference. Africa has had more than its fair share of such institution dismantlers. In this regard, a reading of Michela Wrong’s “In the footsteps of Mr. Kurtz; living on the brink of disaster in Mobutu’s Congo” is most revealing and instructive. Mobutu was the institution dismantler par excellence.
  54. Often times, such dismantling is done in slow imperceptible stages such that by the time the public wakes up, a lot has been lost and is difficult to pull back. Such usurpers usually sell themselves to a gullible public as messiahs who have come to redeem society and restore its sanity. A cult of the person is carefully cultivated such the strong individual is easily allowed to usurp functions and roles that are not his/hers.
  55. Selfish individualism and an absence of social cohesion breeds anomie and criticism which then encourage institution dismantles of rashness and further knavery. Civic timorousness encourages usurper temerity. Fela said it well -“I no wan die”, “Papa dey for house”, “I wan enjoy” – are all attitudes which lead to societal indifference.
  56. Responsible citizens must all unite to resist the dismantling of institutions of democracy. They must overcome divisions that usurpers try to exploit. The common divisions that such usurpers appeal to are those of Creed and Breed. Such usurpers also appeal to Greed existing in society to recruit an army of followers who they use to advance their selfish and socially destructive purposes.
  57. Andrew Marantz in an article in the New Yorker of November 16 2020 identifies the key risks that institutional violators and power grabbers who I prefer to describe as progressive institutional rapists pose to democracy. Marantz goes on to describe how the actions of such persons can lead to the norms and rules of institutions growing weaker over years or decades without people noticing. He also points out that there often are decisive moments of contestation and confusion that such violators and authoritarian power grabbers stoke and exploit to steal power and damage institutions. Maurice Latey, in Tyranny, A Study in the Abuse of Power makes similar observations.
  58. When institutions are destroyed or perverted, the destroyer becomes stronger and the larger society gets weaker following the rapid loss of freedoms – society must therefore come together to challenge, resist and pushback. Your personal freedoms and liberties depend on such resistance as these institutions are the bulwarks for the defense of personal freedoms.
  59. Options for resisting such erosions of the protective power of institutions include strategic non-violent activism and civil resistance for security, rights and access. John Lewis’ concept of good trouble should inspire all civil rights defenders here, whether these be individuals protesting the perversion and conversion of agencies and institutions for citizen protection to instruments of citizen persecution, extortion and exploitation. Good trouble is a good way to protect those institutions that were meant to protect us from abuse. Silence is not an option.
  60. Acquiescing in the dismantling of such protective institutions therefore amounts to selling your liberty and freedom. Rights and freedoms must be defended.
    Noel Ihebuzor 18/11/2020 
    Useful sources on institutions
    DFID Guidelines on Promoting Institutional and Organisational Development (2003a) provide an overview of institutions and institutional change.
    Leftwich and Sen (2010) define institutions and their policy implications for donors.
    Giddens (1984) explores the role of structure and institutions in society.
    Harper et al. (2012) explain different understandings of institutions.
    Helmke and Levitsky (2004) summarise the literature on informal institutions.
    Jütting et al. (2007) summarise key issues on informal institutions and development.
    North (1990) provides a seminal definition of institutions and institutional change.
    Unsworth (2010) explores the interaction of formal and informal institutions. – « Inclusive institutions on the development agenda, How institutions shape development outcomes »


Development and policy analyst with a strong interest in the arts and inclusive social change. Dabbles occasionally into poetry and literary criticism!

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