We are increasingly—and more openly than ever—grappling with what to do about the problems of politics and government accountability. Much emphasis and faith seem to be placed on the role of information and transparency. Using information interventions to enable civil society to hold their governments accountable seems so eminently sensible that it’s become an end in and of itself, an “already known” and ticked box. Is it?
Like most of my friends from the Middle East, I have been glued to media reports from Tunisia, Lebanon, and now Egypt for weeks. What is happening is truly historical. Already, the region has changed in indelible ways. The Arab Street has come roaring back to life – but this time, it is not simply to vent anger and frustration, but also to demand good governance and dignity.
Moving away from ‘best practice’ thinking has profound implications for development policy work. The craft of policymaking is not simply about delineating the desirable: it is about finding entry points that are both feasible and value-adding. How is this to be done? After all, practitioners desire more guidance than the simple dictum that the answer is ‘country-specific’.
Recently, I was asked whether I thought Nigeria’s problems would be solved if only we managed to fight corruption effectively. I responded that this alone would not be enough. That while important for sure, other problems needed to be tackled as well. The next day a headline in one of the papers read “World Bank says corruption not Nigeria’s Bane.” After I had looked up what "bane" meant, I realized my response had been misunderstood.
The entity often known as ‘the international community’ has a touching faith in standard liberal constitutions and one-person-one-vote elections. Now, while those are outstanding human inventions, it is becoming clearer every day that in plural, deeply divided societies these inventions alone will not lead to settled systems of governance.
In my previous blog post, I examined how the system of oil revenue distribution in Nigeria is likely to weaken accountability and the results focus at all levels of government. Some of my colleagues actually wanted me to be more forceful than I was and close the door on the argument. However, I did not want to do so, for having lived in Nigeria for almost three years now, I have observed signs of change.
The mantra of the “country-specific solution” has become fashionable post-Washington Consensus. The consensus has shifted massively against simplistic economic theory that ignores country specificities. In fact, the rebellion has gone way further, encouraging theorists to abandon the search for big solutions, and practitioners to become advocates of ownership and participation -- thus enabling the new experimentalists to feel even more righteous about their focus on the small.
Taking governance seriously is profoundly discomfiting for development work. It forces each of us to examine critically and with humility what we bring to the development endeavor. The more we know about a country’s governance and political realities, the more we are confronted with the limitations – as well as continuing relevance – of our hard-won technical knowledge.
I am writing from Seoul, where I participated in the Economic Development and Impact Evaluation conference organized by the Korea Development Institute. Korean officials at the conference had a consistent and forceful message: aid works.