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Answering the Right Questions

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

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.

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Picture credit: Flickr user Newfrontiers


Submitted by Diana Cammack on
This is a good starting point, and one that is well understood by members of the APPP team ( We have been trying for several years to analyze the public sphere - what incentives, logics and beliefs drive behaviours that impact on development. Further, we want to know how these are manifest through institutions - the norms and rules of society - to explain the way people behave. For instance, is the 'formal' rule of law strong and applied equally in a society, or are some people immune to it, standing above it? It seems that some elite are, but yet this is not deemed unusual or wrong by their people because hierarchy (as a belief & behaviour) is a norm rooted historically, and the elite are meant to behave differently than the common man. For instance, corruption might be seen as acceptable as long as the leader who does the stealing also distributes some of his wealth ... this is his role and it is considered normal for a good leader. These beliefs and behaviours underpin clientelism and patronage networking that have serious political and developmental implications too. So, it may be hard for western anti-corruption campaigners to accept such social norms but they do fit with that society's ways of doing things and are therefore hard to change. Our work has focused on exploring the 'informal' norms that drive various types of policies and implementation in Africa, and their impact on the delivery of development. I am sure my APPP colleagues will agree with me that further research on the public sphere is required. We welcome collaboration.

Thanks, Shanthi, for this interesting post. The case you cite is an interesting starting point, because this politician has acknowledged that he has been a poor one, and has spent the past year or so trying to correct that. In so doing he's had to battle the inertia and apathy of his colleagues, and of public opinion, which for a long time were against any action on the phone hacking scandal--politicians and public both being cynical of both his 'transformation' and of the likelihood his crusade would have any impact on the entrenched elite interests of politics, police and media ownership. Translating that into development, I see a lot of similar inertia. Particularly in 'new democracies' (I prefer 'newly rediscovered democracies'), where the hopes and dreams of elections have given way to a sense of deja vu and impotence. Governance for many people simply means justice--getting what they feel they deserve, not allowing people to get away with things they shouldn't, having some recourse if something doesn't happen that should--which may well have its roots in a more traditional democratic process within the community. This is not the same as accepting existing norms--'the way things are done'. These are often imposed norms, where new politicians have slipped into the bad habits of the people they replaced. Governance programs should be able to distinguish between these two kinds of practice. They may well ride the coat-tails of new laws, regulations and policies as they are applied beyond the walls of the capital, but they are likely to be most successful where they reach beyond the local politics (which is often the status quo, the norm) and embrace the community's sense of justice, fairness, recourse and support. The trendy jargon of development tends to conceal the long local history of these notions. I believe, by the way, that technology has a real role to play in this, but that's another comment for another day.

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