Poor Rich Countries and Isomorphic Mimicry

A curious pattern can be found in subway construction costs around the world, based on GDP per capita. On the one hand, poor countries that have severe cultural cringe, such as former colonies, have high construction costs, and often the worst projects are the ones that most try to imitate richer countries, outsourcing design to Japan or perhaps China. On the other hand, poor-rich countries, by which I mean countries on the periphery of the developed world, have similar cultural cringe and self-hate for their institutions, and yet their imitation of richer countries has been a success; for example, Spain copied a lot of rail development ideas from Germany and France. This can be explained using the development economic theory of isomorphic mimicry; the rub here is that a poor country like India or Ethiopia is profoundly different from the richer countries it tries to imitate, whereas a poor-rich country like Spain is actually pretty similar to Germany by global standards.

What is isomorphic mimicry?

In the economic development literature, the expression isomorphic mimicry refers to when a poor country sets up institutions that aim to imitate those of richer countries in hope that through such institutions the country will become rich too, but the imitation is too shallow to be useful. A common set of examples is well-meaning regulations on safety, labor, environmental protection, and anti-corruption that are not enforced due to insufficient state capacity. Here is a review of the concept by Andrews, Pritchett, and Woolcock, with examples from Mozambique, Uganda, and India, as well as some history from the American private sector. More examples using the theory can be found in Turczynowicz, Gautam, Rénique, Yeap, and Sagues concerning Peru’s one laptop per child program, in Evans’ interpretation of Bangladesh’s domestic violence laws, and in Rajagopalan and Tabarrok on India’s poor state of public services.

While the theory regarding institutions is new, analogs of it for tangible goods are older. Postwar developmental states engaged in extensive isomorphic mimicry, building dams, steel plants, and coal plants hoping that it would transform them into wealthy states like the United States, Western Europe, and Japan; for the most part, they had lower economic growth than did the developed world until the 1980s. The shift within international development away from tangible infrastructure and toward trying to fix institutions came about because big projects like the Aswan Dam failed to create enduring economic growth and often had ill side effects on agriculture, the environment, or human rights.

How does isomorphic mimicry affect public transportation?

The best example of isomorphic mimicry leading to bad transit that I know of is the Addis Ababa light rail system. This is funded by China, whose ideas of global development are similar to those of the postwar first and second worlds, that is providing tangible physical things, like railroads. Unfortunately, usage is low, because of problems that do not exist in middle-income or rich countries but are endemic to Ethiopia. Christina Goldbaum, the New York Times’ transit reporter, who lived in East Africa and reported from Addis Ababa, mentioned four problems:

  1. Electricity is unreliable, so the trains sometimes do not work. In early-20th century America, electric railroads and streetcar companies built their own power supply and were sometimes integrated concerns providing both streetcar and power service; but in more modern countries, there is reliable power for urban rail to tap.
  2. Not many people work in city center rather than in the neighborhood they live in. This, again, has historical analogs – there were turn-of-the-century Brooklynites who never visited Manhattan. Thus, a downtown-centric light rail system won’t get as much ridership as in a more developed city.
  3. The train is expensive relative to local incomes, so many people stick with buses or ride without paying.
  4. The railroad cuts through streets at-grade, to save money, and blocks off pedestrian paths that people use.

The Addis Ababa light rail system at least had reasonable costs. A more typical case for countries that poor is to build urban rail at premium cost, and the poorer the country, the higher the cost. The reason is most likely that such countries tend to build with Chinese or Japanese technical assistance, depending on geopolitics, and therefore import expensive capital for which they pay with weak currencies.

In India, the most functional and richest of the countries in question, there is much internal and external criticism that its economic growth is not labor-intensive, that is the most productive firms are not the ones employing the most people, and this stymies social development and urban growth. I suspect that this also means there is reluctance to use labor-intensive construction methods, that is cut-and-cover with headcounts that would be typical in New York, Paris, and Berlin in the early 20th century, or perhaps mid-20th century Milan and Tokyo. International consultancies are centered on the rich world and recommend capital-intensive methods to avoid hiring too many sandhogs at a fully laden employment cost of perhaps 8,000€ a month; in India, that is the PPP-adjusted gross salary of an experienced construction worker per year, and if capital is imported then multiply its cost by 3 to account for the rupee’s exchange rate value.

Poor-rich countries

Poor-rich countries are those on the margin of the developed world, such as the countries of Eastern and Southern Europe, Turkey, Israel, to a lesser extent South Korea, and the richer countries of Latin America such as Chile. These are clearly poorer than the United States or Germany. Their residents, everywhere I’ve asked, believe that they are poorer and institutionally inferior; convincing a Spaniard or an Italian that their country can do engineering better than Germany is a difficult task. Thus, these countries tend to engage in mimicry of those countries that they consider the economic center, which could be Germany in Southern Europe, Japan in South Korea, or the US or Spain in Spanish America.

However, being a poor-rich country is not the same as being a poor country. Italy is, by American or German standards, poor. Wages there are noticeably lower and living standards are visibly poorer, and not just in the South either. But those wages remain in the same sphere as American and German wages. The labor-capital cost ratios in Southern Europe are sufficiently similar to those of Northern Europe that it’s not difficult to imitate. Spain even mixed and matched, using French TGV technology for early high-speed rail but preferring the more advanced German intercity rail signaling system, LZB, to the French one.

Such imitation leads to learning. Spain imported German and French engineering ideas but not French tolerance for casual rioting or German litigiousness, and therefore can build infrastructure with less NIMBYism. Turkey invited Italian consultants to help design the early lines of the Istanbul Metro, but subsequently refined their ideas domestically in order to build more efficiently, for example shrinking station footprint and tunnel diameter to reduce costs. Seoul has a subway system that looks like Tokyo’s in many ways, but has a cleaner network shape, with far fewer missed connections between lines. As a result, all three countries – Spain, Turkey, Korea – now have innovative domestic programs of rail construction and can even export their expertise elsewhere, as Spain is in Ecuador.

Openness to novelty

Andrews-Pritchett-Woolcock stress the importance of openness to novelty in the public sector, and cite examples of failure in which bureaucrats at various levels refused to implement any change, even one that was proven to be positive, because their goal was not to rock the boat.

Cultural cringe is in a way a check on that. Isomorphic mimicry is an attempt to combine agenda conformity and closeness to novelty with a desire to have what the richest countries have. But in poor-rich countries, isomorphic mimicry is real imitation – there is ample state penetration in a country like Spain or Turkey rather than outsourcing of state capacity to traditional heads of remote villages, and education levels are high enough that many people know how Germany works and interact with Germany regularly. A worker who earns 2,000€ a month net and a worker who earns 3,000€ a month can exchange tips about how to apply for jobs, how to prepare food, what brands of consumer goods to buy, and where to go on vacation. They cannot have this conversation with a worker who earns 10,000€ a month net.

Within the rich world, what matters then is the realization that something is wrong and the solution is to look abroad. It doesn’t matter if it’s a generally poor-rich region like Southern Europe or a region with a poor-rich public sector like the United States – there’s enough private knowledge about how successful places work, but what’s needed is a public acknowledgement and social organization encouraging imitation and lifting voices that are most expert in implementing it.

And for all the jokes about how the United States or Britain is like a third-world country, they really aren’t. Their public-sector dysfunctions are real, but are still firmly within the poor-rich basket; remember, for example, that despite its antediluvian signaling capacity, the New York City Subway manages to run 24 trains per hour per track at the peak, which is better than Shanghai’s 21. Health and education outcomes in the United States are generally better than those of middle-income and poor countries on every measure. This is a public sector that compares poorly with innovation centers in Continental Europe and democratic East Asia, but it still compares; to try to do the same comparison in a country like Nigeria would be nonsensical.

The upshot then is that implementing best practices in developed countries that happen to be bad at one thing, in this case public transportation in the United States, can work smoothly, much like Southern Europe’s successful assimilation of and improvements on Northern European engineering, and unlike the failures in former colonies in Africa and Asia. But people need to understand that they need to do it – that the centers of innovation are abroad and are in particular in countries that speak English non-natively.


  1. Nilo

    Would you then recommend South America try to imitate Spanish and Portuguese and Italian construction methods, while Africa should take a different path due to its far lower incomes?

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, and I specifically point out that the Quito Metro, which used consultants from Madrid, had lower construction costs than most of Latin America, and isn’t much more expensive than Milan M4.

      The low-income world should be studying up on early-20c American, French, and Germany techniques, mid-20c Italian and Japanese ones, and 1970s-80s Korean ones. Korea may be available straight from consultants, but the rest are only available from studying railroad history, and thus it is ideal that the Indian, Nigerian, Pakistani, Egyptian, Vietnamese, Kenyan, Bangladeshi, and Philippine carefully study how New York used to build its subway and pay close attention to the mass use of sandhogs in particular. Other old examples are useful as well for sanity checking – it would not be appropriate to imitate New York’s noisy steel els when Paris and Berlin’s contemporary concrete els are pleasant enough one can hold a conversation underneath a passing train.

  2. Gok (@Gok)

    > what’s needed is a public acknowledgement and social organization encouraging imitation

    Do we have records of public pronouncements by transit officials Spain, Israel, South Korea, Turkey etc that they didn’t know what they were doing and needed to copy what foreign countries were doing?

    • Alon Levy


      1. Turkey brought in Italian consultants for the early Istanbul Metro construction, and later diverged and used its own cheaper methods.
      2. Spain invested in high-speed rail in the 1980s and 90s as part of its cultural cringe and aimed at copying France and Germany wherever each was better.
      3. Israel seems relatively unaware of what railroads are capable of in more advanced countries, but its cringe is well-known domestically (the expression “unbroken country” or “advanced country” is ubiquitous), and the public communications by Israel Railways of its electrification project stress “like in Europe.”

      The only one you listed where I don’t know this for sure is South Korea, but South Korea has obvious Japanese influences in the shape of its network planning and so does higher-cost Taiwan.

      • Nilo

        Difficult to look at Seoul Line one and not see the the copying of Japan with the integration of services that are like 100 km out.

        • Andrew in Ezo

          Indeed, the initial section of Seoul Line 1 (construction started in 1971, opened in 1974) was built with Japanese soft loans and technical expertise. It arose from a request by the then S. Korean transport minister, Paik Sun-yup, to the Japanese government, which had previously shown appreciation to him for his restraint in the handling of the JAL flight 351 hijacking. Construction costs were kept reasonable mainly due to the cut and cover method, but apparently the initial order of 186 railcars had substantially inflated costs due to kickbacks provided to both Japanese and S. Korean politicians.
          Financing (if not technical assistance) of the Seoul metro system continued with Japanese govt. help at least through the late 1990s, as detailed by this JICA report:

          Click to access 01.pdf

      • yuuka

        I seem to recall Taiwan brought in the same British consultants as Hong Kong and Singapore in order to build the Taipei Metro. Japanese influence probably comes from cultural osmosis from the TRA, which dates from the Japanese colonial era.

        But I think operations-wise, Taiwan is starting to look more like the US with every local jurisdiction (and the TRA) building their own metro systems with no integration. Taoyuan Metro is a completely separate operation from Taipei Metro, there’s bickering between Taipei Metro and the New Taipei City transit agency over who should run the Circular Line, and I haven’t been able to tell what Keelung is doing but they were also going on about sharing tracks with one of the under-planning Taipei Metro lines.

        • Alon Levy

          On the other hand, Singapore is all-bored and I think so is Hong Kong, whereas Taipei built cut-and-cover…

          Taipei does have variations from the Japanese and Korean systems, like how it liberally swaps segments between lines, and how it has no integration with commuter rail. But Taiwan did electrify the main line recently, and is building an RER tunnel in Tainan…

          I feel weird about calling Taiwanese cities “local jurisdictions.” Taiwanese cities are single-tier governments, which means Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung have metropolitan-wide governance and no localism. Taipei stretches over four single-tier municipalities, and yes, the lack of integration between Taoyuan and Taipei/New Taipei is grating, but it’s still so, so different from the 950290022.3 jurisdictions one sees in an American metro area.

          • John

            Merging Taipei City and what was then Taipei County was discussed during the round of consolidations that created the current Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung, but politicians didn’t want to create a local government that would cover nearly 1/3 of the country’s population. The idea that Taipei walks all over the rest of the country and needs to be brought down a notch is a recurring theme that sadly drives a lot of politics here.

          • Herbert

            There is a lot of Berlin hatred in “the discourse”. Much of it “hurr durr, hedonistic, lazy Berliners who are far too left wing”….

        • Herbert

          I have heard but don’t know more about it, that Japanese colonial rule is not seen as negatively in Taiwan as one would expect…

      • Mikel

        2. Spain invested in high-speed rail in the 1980s and 90s as part of its cultural cringe and aimed at copying France and Germany wherever each was better.

        And then in the 2000s snowballed into the world’s 2nd-largest HSR network, while being like 30th by population and 50th by area. Now there’s reverse cringe, i.e. “we have way better infrastructure than we deserve and it’s way below capacity”, but the answer is usually “we should have built less* concrete” and not “we should run cheaper, more frequent trains on the world-class, super expensive concrete we now have”.
        *usually doesn’t apply to the Specific Provincial City Where I Happen To Live.

        Sadly, even though we did a good job of copying French concrete and German electronics, we never got around to learning from Swiss or Dutch or even Italian organization. There is a vague idea that operations are better “in Europe”, and activists push for fare integration at the regional level and for expanded regional and intercity service, particularly on the legacy network. But nobody really dares dream of integrated fares nor clockface schedules with timed connections at the national level — in order to get a train exactly every hour, you first need a train that comes roughly every hour, not every 3 or 5 or 24 hours…

        (that’s for the state-operated network; the region-operated networks are arguably better, albeit smaller.)

      • Herbert

        South Korea had a leading elite early on of whom many had served in the Japanese army. The North meanwhile had many who were trained by the Chinese (or in some cases the Soviets) so thinking the Japanese had something to teach Korea was kinda a natural process for many of them….

  3. Bindingexport

    I would be cautious with the “expertise” of an expat in a a country that doesn’t use a colonial language as its administrative language. Usage of AALRT is determined by ticket sales which only capture a part (like 70% of its riders) on the other hand quality issues with the vehicles have limited service level to 15 minutes on each line because over half of the vehicle were out of service to replace boogies and vehicle availability is only slowly picking up again. But even with all vehicles back in service they could at best run 10 minute service – to run the announced 6 minute service on both lines with 2-car vehicles they need about 100 in total (up from 41). That they manage to transport 200k people per day on a 30km system with just 15-20 minute service during peak hours with just 30-60 meter long units is in itself a testament to how big the demand is along the corridors.

    About affordability the affordability one of the few things users do not complain about (70% satisfied vs 15% dissatisfied) (check https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40864-020-00135-2) whereas crowding on train is something the majority of users complain about (70% dissatisfied vs 15% satisfied).

    • Alon Levy

      If 30% of passengers aren’t paying, that’s an unusual problem! Berlin has a subculture that believes fare evasion is inherently moral, and yet our overall fare evasion rate is maybe 5%.

      And yes, the limitations on frequency coming from rolling stock shortage and maintenance problems are a problem as well, it just wasn’t what Christina focused on.

      200,000/30 km is not that much. Parisian tramways do better, and they’re orbitals feeding into the main Métro system, not the primary city center-oriented trunk system.

      • BindingExport

        But the problems in Addis do not pertain to the wrong route choice or that people “do not commute” outside of their neighborhoods. The demand is there it just can’t be adequately serviced due to odd design choices. High floor platforms and longer vehicles wouldn’t have significantly raised costs (the only underground station already has 120 meter long platforms) – but because there’s no Stadtbahns in China – they either built a tram or full metro – the Ethiopians got a metro with 30 meter trams running on it instead of an effective LRT.

        Parisian tramways do better but they do run at frequencies higher than 15-20 Minutes. Overcrowding (as can be witnessed in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlbWA8wzwgQ) has caused a myriad of problems on the low-quality rolling stock – boogies failing due to pax load exceeding their load capacity. These can’t be replaced in Addis and the whole vehicle fleet is being rotated back to China because the depots in Addis don’t have the necessary equipment to lift the car body from the boogies – a real workshop is in the planning though. Vehicle availability dropped to a low of 27 out of 41 in 2018 i believe.

        The evasion numbers were given from an official to the authors of this paper: Alade et al 2020: A Sustainable Approach to Innovation Adoption in Light-Rail Transport.

        • SB

          “These can’t be replaced in Addis and the whole vehicle fleet is being rotated back to China because the depots in Addis don’t have the necessary equipment to lift the car body from the boogies”
          Are boogies are going collapse again after the repairs or the repairs going to address structural problems?

      • df1982

        Something tells me that the percentage of people who can’t afford the fare is somewhat higher in Addis Ababa than it is in Berlin. 70% of passengers buying tickets is probably a good result on an overcrowded transit system with POP in a Third World country.

  4. fjod

    I am not sure the UK’s state capacity is akin to the poor-rich basket (per your last paragraph) to be honest. It’s not good at building public transport, yes. Partly this is due to a failure in state capacity at the local level, which the UK has comparably little of (though this is, of course, something you advocate). But I do not think you could make a coherent argument that the UK’s public sector looks more like Turkey’s (or even Spain’s) than it does like that of France or Germany or Japan. I am open to being convinced otherwise.

  5. seangillis78

    As a Canadian urban planner I have been hugely guilty of looking at very few Canadian examples, plus a few ‘usual suspects’ abroad (New York, Boston, London, Paris). Most of my reference cities have been in the ‘Anglosphere’. Thank you again Alon for both your posts and pointing outside the Anglosphere to the true leaders in urban transport: Germany, the low countries, Austria, Korea, Scandinavia, Japan, etc. Comparing German cities to Canadian counterparts of similar size is shocking – much, much, much more urban rail service per capita, on top of all the inter-city service. This is truly something to strive for – not just to copy Montreal or Toronto which sadly are no longer best-in-class, if they ever were.

  6. SC

    I noticed that you mentioned several times now that Shanghai Metro only runs up to 21 tph. I assume you are referring to Lines 1-4 which use 90s era signalling systems that top out at 24 tph. Which they do run at today (2.5 min headways). However Lines 6, 7, 9 and 11 run at or over 30 tph during the AM peak. With Line 9 pulling 32 tph. Other city center lines hover in the high 20s. Currently work is underway to resignal Line 2 with a system to allow for up to 40 tph operations.

    • Alon Levy

      But Lines 1, 2, and 4 are the busiest… by the same token, New York is capable of 30 tph, but if crowding levels rise to the point that this is needed then there’s too much variability in city center dwell times and the signal system can’t do better than 24-25.

      • SC

        If I remember correctly Line 1 and 2 are the busiest but they are not the most congested. Line 4 in the grand scheme of the network is not particularly busy but parts of the non joint eastern arc are over capacity. According to the 2019 passenger throughput data from CAMET (China Association of Metros), with headways from the Shanghia Metro website and assuming each Type A railcar carries 310 passengers. The 2019 crowding numbers look like this:
        Line 1: 24tph*8cars*310pax/car = 59,520 pphpd
        Line 2: 24tph*8cars*310pax/car = 59,520 pphpd
        Line 7: 31.3tph*6cars*310pax/car = 58,218 pphpd
        Line 9: 32.7tph*6cars*310pax/car = 60,822 pphpd
        Line 11: 30tph*6cars*310pax/car = 55,800 pphpd

        Peak Loading
        Line 1: 57,500 pphpd/59,520 pphpd = 98%
        Line 2: 50,400 pphpd/59,520 pphpd = 85%
        Line 7: 54,700 pphpd/58,218 pphpd = 92%
        Line 9: 59,300 pphpd/60,822 pphpd = 97%
        Line 11: 59,500 pphpd/55,800 pphpd = 107%

        I could not find the capacities of Type C trains but from my understanding sections of Line 6 and 8 run well over 100% due to the smaller trains being used there despite the lower demand on those lines. Lines 3 and 4 are a bit messy due to the joint operation so I can’t tell which is what. But I suspect the non-joint sections which operate every 4 mins are the critical areas with over 100% loading. So as you can see from SHM perspective the fires in the network are not caused by low train thoughput on Lines 1 and 2. They are busy and congested but managable. It’s the small profile lines, the non-joint sections of Lines 3/4 (not signaling but operations constrained) and Lines 7, 9 and 11 who run at the tightest headways that are the real fires in the network at the moment.

        • yuuka

          I seem to recall there being a long standing plan to four track a part of the shared line 3/4 section, but I don’t know what happened to that.

          If you ask me there is no excuse for line 8, they run a mixture of 6 and 7 car trains when the platforms are supposedly built for 8 cars.

          A lot of it is solvable, but the Chinese preference to throw concrete first and talk later looks to be a major obstacle here. Then again, Shanghai Metro development is drastically slowing down compared to other cities.

          • Eric2

            Seems that “throw concrete first and talk later” is working well for China, given how their systems dwarf Western systems in ridership despite having built in only a few decades, while Western countries argue endlessly about whether or not to extend their systems by a handful of stations.

            My main problem with the Shanghai system is the missed connections they keep putting in…

  7. Herbert

    I’m not sure I’m buying your theory of (under-)development you outline here.

    Otherwise the following two examples should not have worked:

    1) a country has been shut off from most of the rest of the world for centuries engaging in virtually no foreign trade and near zero immigration or emigration. When a rising foreign power forces them to “open up”, they copy the administrative and legal structures of several European countries and rapidly industrialize. Within a few decades they beat the historically dominant regional power and a few years later they beat a second rate western power in war. That country, of course is 19th century Japan

    2) a country has emerged from war and colonialism dirt poor. Its political instability and region with historically inimical neighbors make for a bad prognosis for the future. In addition, there is little to no natural resources and the population by and large does not speak particularly useful foreign languages. A military dictator decides, lack of coal or iron ore notwithstanding, that to be a military might to face the hated northern foe, one needs a steel industry and orders some general to set up a steel company. That country of course is 20th century South Korea which is nowadays home to one of the world’s biggest steel producers and also one of the world’s biggest ship builders.

    China meanwhile has quite diligently studied what the European powers did during the phase of China’s history when China was forced to sign very disadvantageous treaties and now does in Africa and Asia (and to a much lesser extent in Latin America) what the European powers did there during the Belle Epoque…

    Also, what I find interesting is that you admit Spain’s operations is shite yet do not explain why they do not copy a Taktfahrplan from the Dutch, the Swiss or the Germans…

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