Social Institutions and the Development Process: Using Cross-Disciplinary Insights to Build an Alternative Aid Architecture

Michael Woolcock


The development process in any society fundamentally transforms social institutions – i.e. our identities, kinship systems, community organizations, religious sensibilities, norms, languages and networks. These transformations often occur in rather unsettling ways over non-linear trajectories, and thereby routinely (and perhaps inherently) defy technocratic attempts to anticipate, understand and respond to them. In both poor and rich countries alike, rising (and falling) wealth alters how people see themselves, how they regard strangers, the terms on which they relate to their families and communities, the accommodations and legitimacy they confer upon elites, and how the ‘social contract’ binding citizens and the state is structured and negotiated. Our contemporary international aid architecture, however, was not designed to address social institutional concerns, and often struggles to engage with them now that it finds itself needing to do so. For communities, nations and regions to prosper in ways that are (and are broadly perceived to be) legitimate and inclusive, a rather different approach to development is needed. Insights from theories and methods across the social sciences are giving rise to such alternatives (examples are provided); initial results are promising but it remains to be seen whether and how these can gain a more secure foothold.


aid architecture; Development; Social institutions

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