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I am reading the book Development Economics through the Decades: A Critical Look at Thirty Years of the World Development Report by Shahid Yusuf (2008). I struggle to understand the meaning of " functional" in the following sentence:

They are at best functional and at worst weak.

Here is the full context:

The interest of policy makers lies not in whether the state should be large or small or more or less interventionist; the interest is in what specific forms of intervention over a period of time yield the best results under similar external circumstances. The same is true regarding institutions. Everyone can see that market institutions in successful East Asian industrializing countries are at best functional and at worst weak and minimally supportive.

I would be grateful if anyone could explain meaning of the phrase in that last sentence.

marked as duplicate by Nathan Tuggy, ColleenV, Varun Nair, StoneyB, Alan Carmack Jul 21 '16 at 17:13

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The phrase "at best X and at worst Y" means no better than X and possibly as bad as Y. It's often used to describe something that is in bad shape by using two points along a spectrum.

Here are some examples of this construct from recent news stories or opinion pieces:

  • This would be at best a questionable activity, and at worst, a criminal act.

  • The vote now appears at best naïve and at worst negligent.

  • Many regard it as at best ignorant and at worst racist.

  • They at best ignored and at worst fostered a hostile environment.

In all of these examples, the writer is saying that something is bad, but is unsure of how bad something was. They are simply giving a range of possibilities.

In the last case, there was a hostile environment in the workplace. Management did nothing to solve the problem. At best, they simply ignored the problem. This would have been bad, but it would be even worse if a later investigation discovers they actually encouraged this hostile environment. Either way, management looks bad, but we don't know how bad until we do more research.

As for your sentence:

Market institutions are at best functional and at worst weak.

That's saying that institutions are not strong. At best, they are functional, but it could even be worse than that – the markets might even be weak.

  • Thanks. when you say that " it could be even worse" I think that "functional" is not the best and ideal. But my question is about the meaning of "functional" itself. What does "functional" mean hear if it is not the ideal situation? I'm baffled somehow. – jack Jul 21 '16 at 10:34
  • I'm no economist, but, when applied to a market, I'd assume functional would mean "operational and doing business, but not strong enough to be helping a national economy." An idiomatic equivalent would be limping along. – J.R. Jul 21 '16 at 15:00
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Functional, means able to function, or able to work.

When it says that something at its best, is functional, it means that if everything goes right and everything is good, that thing would work.

For example, if I say that "Cars are at best functional", I am saying that if everything is right and good, cars would work.

"and at worst weak" means that if nothing goes right and everything is bad, the person/thing would be weak.

So basically, the sentence means that "If everything is good, they will work. If everything is bad, they will be weak."

  • Thank you very much for your kind reply. Your guide help me a lot but I still somehow have problem in understanding the meaning. This is the whole sentence I am reading: The interest of policy makers lies not in whether the state should be large or small or more or less interventionist; the interest is in what specific forms of intervention over a period of time yield the best results under similar external circumstances. The same is true regarding institutions Everyone can see that market institutions in successful East Asian industrializing countries are at best functional and at worst weak – jack Jul 21 '16 at 8:44
  • It is saying that the best market institutions in successful East Asian industrializing countries are working well and with no problems and that the worst ones are weak. – MehranJ Jul 21 '16 at 8:50
  • Thank you again MehranJ. But i think its meaning is something like this: "he relationship of Science, Technology, English and Mathematics (STEM subjects) to E-Bac seems to be at best functional and at worst to have excluded technology". However I cannot understand my own sentence. Or something like this: "Normally I expect cafes in public buildings to be at best functional, however this cafe is anything but, they have a great choice of simple lunch time offerings. nice combinations for those that want to eat healthy. – jack Jul 21 '16 at 9:02

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