Unwrapping Institutional Change in Fragile Settings: Women Entrepreneurs Driving Institutional Pathways in Afghanistan


Holly A. Ritchie. 2016. “Unwrapping Institutional Change in Fragile Settings: Women Entrepreneurs Driving Institutional Pathways in Afghanistan.” World Development 83: 39–53.

Author: Holly A. Ritchie


This paper elaborates on critical processes of institutional change and the implications for local economic development in fragile settings. Drawing on empirical research in Afghanistan, the discussion looks specifically at how local actors interact to reshape the ‘‘rules of the game” in women’s enterprise. The research has highlighted diverse actor negotiation in the transformation of (heterogeneous) purdah norms and development of enterprise institutions. This has crucially influenced the scope of norm development, and women’s engagement in business. The study shows that external actors (such as NGOs) may be able to both initiate and guide institutional change and development. Yet in challenging environments such as Afghanistan, there may be limitations to their endeavors, with strong resistance from local power holders, unpredictable entrepreneurs and disruptive (local) events. The use of liberal cultural/religious narratives has proved fundamental in permitting change processes. Emerging open-minded beliefs have unleashed a more democratic ‘‘narrative” on women, particularly if championed by progressive leaders, or credible outsiders in ‘‘receptive” local conditions. This has led to the evolution of new attitudes and preferences, with potential effects beyond the market, including increasing girls’ education and women’s property rights. The research has generated a micro-social perspective of institutional change, identifying key actors and conditions that may shape grassroots institutional processes in enterprise development. In emerging outcomes, the paper presents insights into the role of dominant entrepreneurs in driving (nested) institutional pathways. This may promote inclusive opportunities for (new) power and wealth through open institutions, in ‘‘productive institutional pathways.” Yet it can equally foster distorted economies if exclusive institutions are allowed to prevail in more ‘‘destructive institutional pathways.” To further develop micro-institutional theory, the paper argues for a greater appreciation of culture, religion, and fragility.

Keywords: Institutional change, fragility, social norms, entrepreneurs, local economic development, Afghanistan

Topics: Development, Economies, Gender, Women, International Organizations, Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Asia, South Asia Countries: Afghanistan

Year: 2016

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