Moving the governance agenda forward: A new blog on development


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With remarkable rapidity, a commitment to ‘better understand and address the governance and corruption (GAC) impediments to development effectiveness’ as a basis for policy advising is taking hold among development practitioners. The implications for development work of bringing GAC to center stage are profound and unsettling – and only beginning to come into view. The momentum for GAC mainstreaming has two main drivers. The first comprises a recognition that the credibility of the aid endeavor depends on taking GAC seriously – as evidenced by the 2007 strategy paper, Strengthening World Bank Group Engagement on Governance and Anticorruption, and similar initiatives by other donors.

The second, and more fundamental, driver comprises a growing understanding of the limits of narrowly technocratic economic and engineering approaches to development intervention. This understanding has been driven both by increased recognition of the limits of ‘best practice’ approaches to policy prescription in the face of stubborn country-specific realities (Afghanistan and Iraq are only two of the many dozens of country examples that come to mind among practitioners working globally) -  and by academic research (by, among others, the Nobel laureate Douglass North, and Harvard economist Dani Rodrik) which consistently shows that while so-called ‘best practice’ reforms generally do not succeed, more modest, incremental approaches can yield far-reaching gains.

The goal of the new Governance for Development blog is to provide a forum among World Bank Group staff engaged in the GAC-mainstreaming endeavor and the wider development community for experience sharing, reflection and discussion as to the implications of GAC mainstreaming for development work. A decade ago, recognition of the critical role of the underlying rules seemed to point naturally towards a fairly straightforward (if ambitious) agenda of fostering ‘good governance’ institutions. The general idea was that the institutional characteristics of capable and accountable states are well known – so the reform challenge was to redesign a country’s governance system to incorporate these characteristics. But GAC work not only has highlighted the central role of institutions, it also has enhanced our appreciation of the relevance of politics in shaping and constraining ways forward. And when politics is brought into the equation, the implications of the insight that institutions matter become considerably more complex

Politics (stakeholders, and their power, incentives, skill, capacity to organize and constraints) inevitably shapes the dynamics of reform. A country’s economic, social and political institutions cannot be re-engineered from scratch. At any moment, each country has a specific point of departure, and evolves through search and learning. Changes in one part of the system evoke adaptations in other parts, in an ongoing, cumulative process. Effective action works with rather than against a country’s grain in order to nudge forward this interdependent, dynamic process. 

Working ‘with the grain’ in a way that takes institutions and politics into account calls for different approaches to engagement – and different ways of identifying which approaches make sense across different country contexts. The chart below lays out a spectrum of entry points. These comprise (moving across the figure from left to right, from less to more far-reaching):

  • A ‘feasible policy reform’ entry point – where the aim is to identify options for the specific development initiative under consideration that do not confront directly the interests of powerful incumbent stakeholders that have incentives to sustain the status quo. Though such options generally fall short of some notional optimum, they can both achieve gains in the short-term, and potentially build momentum for more far-reaching reforms down the road.
  • A ‘small-g’ governance entry point – focused efforts to foster participation in and oversight of the provision of public services by stakeholders with strong, unambiguous incentives to achieve good results. Space to pursue approaches along these lines often is open in otherwise constrained environments because it provides opportunities for leaders to pressure mid-level government officials to be more effective, or to build islands of effectiveness from the bottom up.
  • Orchestrating stakeholders for policy reform – with a focus on upstream rather than downstream processes. In contrast to approaches that work around incumbent stakeholders, the aim here  is to crowd potential ‘winners’ and other advocates of change into the dialogue on reform options, thereby building momentum for far-reaching initiatives.
  • At the most ambitious end of the spectrum are ‘big-G’ governance reforms to strengthen national-level institutions (elected legislatures, the judiciary, centralized auditing authorities, ombudsmen, a free and vigorous media, and the like) that hold government to account. In settings with weak institutions where leaders enjoy large discretion, their incentive to champion such reforms may be (to put it mildly) ‘mixed’.


What has been the experience of the development community with using these different approaches in different settings? What have we learned about what works, and what doesn’t across different settings – and why? What tools are available to help development professionals navigate this challenging new frontier – and how useful are they? What are the pressing research priorities?  The hope is that this new blog will become a vibrant platform for conversation among development practitioners the world over as we confront these and related challenging frontier questions.



Brian Levy

Professor at SAIS and University of Cape Town

Join the Conversation

Alan Hudson
October 27, 2010

Great blog. I look forward to learning from and contributing to this timely initiative.

What I liked most in this was the fact that you put front and centre the very important point that approaches to supporting improvements in governance will need to vary by context (reform space), rather than leaving that point hanging as a largely unexamined afterthought (a la "context matters").

The challenge - which development practitioners have talked about for years, with little progress - is to find a way of working on governance in ways that are sensitive to context but that are nevertheless systematic and allow for cross-country learning so that we can build the evidence base about whether, how and in what contexts donor support for governance improvements can be effective.

It's high time that we took up that challenge and moved beyond the mantras that governance matters and context is king.

Naseer Rana
October 28, 2010

I find this work more art than science, so precedence even within similar context has reletively uncertain probability of success. But having a tool box for what works in various scenarios is helpful though judgement needs to be exercised at every step, making it not suitable for risk averse personalities. Despite best efforts, many interventions will seemingly fail in the short-term, making evaluation on level of effort more meaningful than results.

Judgement is also required to understand the reform space and to distingush between an opportunity for a transformational change or to settle for an incremental approach. For years we focussed on best technical approaches to reform and produced reports or recommendations that never got implemented but were largely recommending transformational change. Now when we have embraced political economy analysis and temper our recommendations based on what is feasible given the political context, we find incremental change possibly leading to more transformational change going with the grain more acceptable.

My concern is that we do not lose sight of cases where reformers saw an opening to go against the grain, and with sheer determination made transformational changes possible, not necessarily through brute force but also with softer means of advocacy and social pressure. I think this judgement about feasible space is critical, and I would rather err on the side of transformational change and then roll back to incremental change as a back-up plan.

Doctor Michel ODIKA
January 06, 2011

The operationalization of governance reforms cannot be implemented as a blueprint or as a standardized package. Inherent in this stubborn fact is implicit recognition that providing a strong sense of direction to governance always requires a set of context-sensitive reforms that comply with the challenges of today and prepare for those of tomorrow. Otherwise said, the focus of these reforms goes well beyond the ability to describe the characteristics of well-functioning institutions and/or organizations.
What else? People’s expectations must find a voice within the policy- and decision-making processes. Consequently, citizens all over the world are becoming more vocal about governance as an integral part of how they go about their everyday lives.
In practical terms, the necessary reorientation of governance in a given country has to be based on sound scientific evidence and on rational management of uncertainty. This always requires delicate trade-offs and negotiation with multiple stakeholders that imply a stark departure from the linear, top-down and bottom-up models of the past.
For the most part, ultimately, I agree with the assumption that politics inevitably shapes the dynamics of governance reforms. However, I would go further to say that I invite comment on the following: That governance reforms are neither primarily defined by the component elements they address, nor merely by the choice of specific actions and interventions, but by the global dynamics that shapes societies and economies…

Doctor Michel ODIKA (Congo-Brazzaville)

Habib Ur Rehman Mayar
March 15, 2013

Governance agenda should not be to work from scratches, well said. While the business of Governance reform may look like art by the fact that it is different in different contexts, but beginning with a bit scientific and rational approach will save us from the risks of unfavorable surprises especially in countries in fragile situation. While working in these countries, we need an in-depth understanding of the nature of the contexts. The agenda of advancing governance can't be considered as a stand-alone piece of work. We can rather help more effectively, if we change our rules of thumb. In other words, if donors impose their standards of institutional system in these countries, we will be lost in chaos. To avoid this scenario, there is need of degree of flexibility in the golden rules and policies. We need to stay engaged and patient.