In good governance circles, we love to champion accountability tools: citizen score cards, civil society-local government linkages, participatory budgeting, etc. They sound wonderful on paper, and frequently work well off paper, but one can sometimes detect a certain weariness on the part of the supposed recipients/beneficiaries of these tools. These initiatives may be effective at times, but they simply don't address the underlying power structure, development practitioners often hear. What is one supposed to do about the shadowy but real network of frequently unaccountable elite, particularly in the context of a developing country that features a culture of impunity and lacks deeply rooted institutions of accountability?
That's why this Guardian story on UK Labour MP Tom Watson caught my interest - for the quote featured in the last paragraph, the relevant portion of which is reproduced here:
"When I was first elected, I was a completely naive and gauche politician. You look at the pillars of the state: politics, the media, police, lawyers – they've all got their formal role, and then nestling above that is that power elite who are networked in through soft, social links, that are actually running the show. Why didn't I know that 10 years ago, and why didn't I rail against it? Why did I become part of it?"
For me, that short quote sums up the reasons why those of us who focus on achieving real-world good governance outcomes must necessarily look outside our comfortable boxes to be ticked, to begin to address real issues of power imbalance, cronyism, influence and politics. If a professional politician acknowledges this to be an issue in such a long-established and relatively well-functioning liberal democracy as the UK, how can it possibly be addressed in a developing country context, particularly one where the intertwining of formal and informal power structures is even more complex?
In an email conversation, my colleague Sina Odugbemi suggests that in a mature democracy, the elite fears activated public opinion as the only real check on its power outside intra-elite struggles, whereas in many developing countries, a divided citizenry and undemocratic public sphere prevent the formation of that activated public opinion, further consolidating the culture of impunity. This would suggest that scrutinizing the impact of the public sphere, and public opinion specifically, might help address the issue of elite accountability. It's a fascinating hypothesis, and one that deserves more attention - not as an outlier to good governance practice, but as a central component.
Equally important are the questions this broader issue raises for the trajectory of good governance as a crucial subfield of development. If we are serious about achieving actual good governance outcomes, we as development practitioners must accept that there are real and thorny issues that cannot be "solved" through assiduous application of technical fixes. We must acknowledge both the official, institutional components of good governance and the informal 'rules of the game' in the countries we advise, particularly when those rules of the game directly impact the political aspects of good governance. Indeed, we must simply acknowledge that achieving good governance IS politics - as much as that word may be anathema in some circles. In doing that, maybe we'll help push the envelope a little further in devising real solutions to real governance issues.
Picture credit: Flickr user Newfrontiers