'Good Practices' Are Sometimes Better Than 'Best Practices'


The sobering reality of “best practices” is that they are often only “best” where they are conceived. Unless the foundations for success where a practice first emerged are thoroughly understood and can be adapted to a different context, it is probably doomed to failure. Based on my experience, most development practitioners have become wary of importing “best practices” generated in contexts foreign to the locale in which they are working.

This is not a pessimistic view; but a realistic one. Why? Because context – culture, history, language, politics, religion, geography, economy – underpins the success or failure (or mediocre outcome) of any development initiative. Policies, laws, and planning processes all hinge on a specific context and what works in one country is unlikely to work in another unless it is adapted to that context. For example, many countries that are members of the Commonwealth (the United Kingdom and states that were formerly part of the British Empire and its dependencies) have governance and legal systems grounded in Westminster-style[1] democracy. Time and again, “copy and paste” application of these practices fall short, such as in building the legal framework in a developing country, or ensuring women’s participation in elections. Why is this? The history, culture, geography and economy of the recipient country are unique and not inherently similar to the British. Local processes are influenced by traditional and cultural practices, the translation of ideas across languages, limitations in communications technology and geography, to name but a few. Additionally, the structure and ideals of Westminster-style governance are at odds with traditional decision-making. “Term limits” is a foreign concept. In some places, village elders will vote on behalf of an entire village. Thus, good ideas generated in India in relationship to governance will not necessarily translate into success in Papua New Guinea.

This reality does not mean that translating good practice cannot be done. What it means is that the first step is identifying why a specific approach was successful, and understanding whether the foundations for success exist in the context where it may or may not be applied in some form. For example, success may have relied on strong and consistent local government leadership, a willingness to find ways to accommodate traditional practices and beliefs, and the presence of good communications and transport infrastructure. If these factors can be assured or worked towards in a different context, then there is a higher likelihood of success. Good practice does not mean replicating the same practice, but massaging it and adapting it to the local nuance. At the base, good practice is only “good” if it does not cause unintended, but detrimental, consequences. It should advise or guide innovative development ideas in close collaboration with local partners to leverage local resources, knowledge and experience to adapt “best practices” for success and relevance to local conditions.


[1] The Westminster system is a democratic parliamentary system of government modeled after the politics of the United Kingdom. This term comes from the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The system is a series of procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once used, in the national legislatures and subnational legislatures of most Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth nations upon being granted responsible government, beginning with the first of the Canadian provinces in 1848 and the six Australian colonies between 1855 and 1890.

Matthew Tyson