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Encouraging leaders to do the right thing

Nicholas van Praag's picture

“Spare the stick, spoil the child.”

Rewarding the rewardable

That was the advice from proponents of the tough love approach to parenting that prevailed in Victorian times.


Plus ça change. Looking around the world today, encouraging leaders in fragile states to do the right thing, whatever that might be, is more about punishing them for erring in the performance of their governance duties than rewarding them for doing good.


There is a panoply of international sanctions to punish leaders who abuse human rights, undermine constitutionality or indulge in corruption. Some are regional, others global. Some are formal, others informal. Whatever their provenance or legal standing, the stick remains the instrument of choice.


Mechanisms to recognize or reward good leadership are few and far between. Yet leaders are human and, unless they are beyond redemption, they are more likely to respond to recognition and rewards than sanctions and reprimands.


The Nobel Peace Prize and the Ibrahim Prize are both strong incentives and could be emulated to acknowledge the contribution of leaders who consistently do well.  Why not find ways, for example, to reward ministers who make a lasting impact on corruption or top brass in the military who reform the security sector peacefully? 


Initiatives such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the Board of the Natural Resource Charter might want to find ways to boost the standing of leaders in government, civil society, and the private sector who improve the transparency of resource revenues and expenditures.  


International and regional organizations could use top jobs as incentives for national reformers. The United Nation’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations vets senior appointments for past human rights abuses.  Other multilateral organizations could follow suit and use recruitment to reward successful reformers while barring those who have violated international law.


Rewards are often carefully calibrated diplomatic gestures rather than signals of fulsome support. For example, we learned this week that President Obama has told Sudan that if it allows the referendum on the status of Southern Sudan to go ahead in January 2011, and then abides by the results, the United States will take Sudan off its list of state sponsors of terrorism. 


Realpolitik aside, if the carrot is to become mightier than the stick, we need to agree on what we can reasonably expect of leaders in countries scarred by violence and accept that it will take them a long time to show progress.


Without agreement on what is worthy of reward, we are unlikely to see much shift in the balance between recognition and sanctions. But then it took decades for British parents to stop beating their children. 


Submitted by Anonymous on
This entry struck me as interesting and prompted a couple of questions on implementation. For the Nobel Prize-esque proposal, how would this work in a government split between hard- and soft-liners, where it probably pays for soft-liners to act as silently as possible and for international support to be subtle? I'm thinking of some authors' conception of Mainland China here. Couldn't a reward system and the public attention to the actors being rewarded possibly undermine reform in areas where it's precarious (and thus most needed) while only picking up countries where there is already a certain consensus about reaching for international norms? Though, the mechanism would still be worthwhile in supporting states that want to "lock in" rule of law values the same way that international treaties are thought to be used in those states. And, following the same conception of a soft-liner carefully maneuvering within his/her system, wouldn't the proposal of using top jobs as rewards also only apply to countries already on the path to reform? Ie since there would need to be public attention given to the reform first of all, and second of all, since the international organization job would then remove the key person from the domestic office where he/she is doing some good? Your point about screening out international law violators is well-taken, of course. I apologize if none of this makes any sense or turns out to be actually overly simplistic. And, thank you for such a thought-provoking post in the first place.

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