Best Practices

International organizations that talk about their programs in developing countries and regions are always using the term "best practices" when describing the advice they give to governments and companies in the region. The term itself goes a long way towards relating the history of such organizations in these regions, the problems they face, and their chances of success.

The phrase itself, "best practices" is a euphemistic step back from "international practices", which is a further euphemistic step back from "Western practices". From the perspective of the organization providing advice and assistance, it encapsulates the idea that a wise man learns from his mistakes and a wiser man learns from the mistakes of others. Often to those on the receiving end, it amounts to "we know better than you do."

Humility may very well be a virtue, but most likely because it is not a basic attribute of human nature. It is more natural to resist such advice, especially in the absence of a strong relationship that is somehow independent of the advice. So it's hardly surprising when what is, assuming good faith intentions all around, sincere advice, is interpreted as interference at best and colonialism at the worst.

In a region such as the FSU, this dynamic is often complicated by the divisions between ethnic groups that exist there; those who are of the ethnic extraction from which the recently independent states derive their names are likely to view international organizations as just another wave of foreigners trying to impose themselves on locals, an extension of what went on during the time of the Soviet Union. Those of Russian derivation who have chosen to remain in the area may hold a dim view of the possibility for success by such organizations, given the Soviet experience, or else find themselves allied with such organizations and thus being viewed themselves as foreigners, even if they have lived in the region all their lives.

Even if one is able to come to a point of agreement that other nations in the world that have more developed market economies have had experiences that developing nations may learn from, a hybrid strain of "Not Invented Here" syndrome seems to color the adoption of international best practice advice. The governments and companies of many of the developing nations have a psychology that describes their conditions as being categorically different from others, even when the similarities are, in fact, striking and obvious to outsiders.

Again the FSU states provide a valuable example. So far there have been two attempts at unifying the customs code of several Central Asian states, both of which have failed. Negotiations are currently underway to try and create another, as well as to create a common economic space, along the lines of the European Union, between Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and to have a common currency. Kazakhstan's chief central banker, Marchenko, has suggested the name "altyn" ("gold" in the Kazakh language) for this currency, and has furthermore threatened to resign if the ruble is chosen as the common currency. However, predictions for the success of such an economic zone are grim; partly because the legislative frameworks under which these economies operate-- their tax legsilation, customs codes, currency policies, etc-- are so different.

One could forgive an outsider from wondering why, a mere 12 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, four countries that were once part of one single political and economic unit have even bigger issues trying to harmonize legislation than members of the European Union, many of which had been economically and politically independent of each other for far longer than the existence of independence in Central Asia or the Soviet Union itself.

The answer, of course, lies in the perception that each nation has of its own uniqueness, however this can be justified. In the time when Soviet laws and policies were abandoned and replaced with something new, each nation colored its changes with these perceptions.

Of course, the bulk of the Soviet legal system remains and has survived in each country. However, not the same parts survive in each country, and major portions are subject to review on a schedule that seems almost annual. Currently in Kazakhstan there exists a new draft concept for a labor code, despite the fact that a new labor code was introduced only in 1991. It is rumored that the working group preparing this concept is borrowing heavily from the Russian labor code, itself a tip of the hat to international best practice, or at least a recognition of expertise that is valuable and relevant to the region.

Of course, along with that information came the admission that the working group doesn't want it known that they are using the Russian labor code as a template-- either because they want to suggest that the work is somehow their own, or because they do not wish to be seen as borrowing from Russia.

This resistance to accepting advice from the outside is significant and runs deep, and if I had to make a prediction I'd say that it will probably have to run its course-- probably resulting in each of these nations making similar mistakes that others have in the past, resulting in loss of time and resources-- before relenting. For aid organizations, that is probably a cynical and sobering remark, cutting at the heart of their purpose for living and working in the region. But if the motivations behind these suspicions are not addressed, then the fundamental relationships between these organizations and their clients-- which in the region could probably be best described as dysfunctional-- will not improve.

A few days after I began writing this piece, an article appeared on quoting Uzbekistan's President, Islam Karimov, stating views very much along these lines, in part:

"Over the past few years, since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, there have been increased attempts to come to our country and lecture us. Previously the Big Brother (Russia) from Moscow used to come to our country to lecture us, and now others are trying to do the same under some pretext. The only aim of theirs is to lecture us. The most important thing (in the negative sense) is that they are trying to teach us about freedom: freedom of speech, political freedoms and citizens' freedoms. They are treating us as if we were living in a desert area, in a far-flung corner of the world, and as if we were impatiently looking forward to getting their advice and instructions."

Of course, the response of most foreigners would be to say that Uzbekistan is in a far-flung corner of the world, and that given the history of the region, the only thing that prevents the governments and citizens therein from looking forward to outside help and advice is the victory of stubborn pride over logic. Both sides hold essentially ethnocentric positions. What's more interesting here is Karimov's use of the phrase "desert area" as a pejorative; as if democracy, freedom and civilization were somehow connected to agriculture even in the modern era, which is merely coincidental with the fact that Uzbekistan, of all Central Asian nations, has the single most fertile agricultural zone in the region (the Ferghana Valley).

Furthermore, Karimov's speech was a great example of "Not Invented Here" syndrome, where instead of accepting or even recognizing the validity of the so-called "international standards" that organizations promote compliance with, he wishes to set up Uzbekistan (and by extension himself) as an authority to judge whether or not those standards are appropriate for the country:

"Have not we achieved gradual progress in our country with regard to freedom and other things, compared with 1994? Yes, we have. No one in the world can deny this. But they still criticize us and say your country is not in compliance with this or that standard.

"What standards are they talking about? American standards, European or some other standards? Above all, you should ask us whether we approve of these standards. Do they meet our genuine requirements, the values which have been so deeply ingrained in our minds and souls?"

The casual way in which the advice of international organizations is spurned ("this or that standard", as if they were both multitudinous and irrelevant) is combined with a marvelous example of inferiority complex ethnocentrism; the idea that Uzbekistan has "genuine requirements" and "deeply ingrained values" that are somehow categorically different from Americans and Europeans, and cannot be addressed by these so-called standards.