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Brian Levy’s ‘Working with the Grain’

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Working With the Grain by Brian LevyWhat are the proper ambits of an agenda for improving governance systems in developing countries? And what is the most sensible way of implementing governance reforms, or even thinking about them? If you have been involved with the subject you know that these are vexed questions. Just last week, I attended a book launch here at the World Bank and a senior official involved with governance made the following point. There is no agreed framework for the work in governance, certainly not one developed by political scientists. What we have, he said, is an agenda developed by donors and it boils down to a way of making simple normative judgements based on a linear framework.

That may well be the point of Brian Levy’s fascinating and readable newish book: Working with the Grain: Integrating Governance and Growth in Development Strategies (Oxford Universities Press, 2014). Levy is an esteemed thinker-practitioner who worked for the World Bank until recently and is now a member of the faculties of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University here in Washington and the University of Cape Town. He divides his time between the two schools.

The book is a summing up of sorts. Levy had tremendous field experience while at the World Bank, and he tells war stories with wit and some panache. It is also the result of his deep reading and reflection. As a result, Working with the Grain is part memoir, part polemic, part hard-headed political economy analysis.  

There is much to admire about the book. First, Levy develops and deploys a typology of political systems that provides a very useful way of thinking about the essential nature of a political system that you are studying or seeking to work in. You see it on page 16 and he plays with it throughout the text in interesting ways. Second, the sections on the evolution of institutions are very helpful indeed. Third, I admire the case studies: Korea, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Zambia and the Progressive Era in the history of the United States of America. Levy knows these cases well and pulls out arresting insights. Finally, the book is an excellent overview of the current debates in governance and political economy approaches to development. I have ordered a couple of titles after his tantalizing discussion of some of what they contain.

Levy’s main argument is a simple one:

“To work with the grain is to look for entry points that can unleash an ongoing, virtuous circle of cumulative change” (p. 32).


The book is a passionate plea directed at those working on improving governance systems around the world to concentrate on realistic and, therefore, incremental change.

What he attacks, and sometimes mocks, again and again is the ever-growing ‘good governance’ agenda. On pages 5 and 6 he lists some of the key ambitions of the ‘good governance’ agenda and concludes:

Taken together, these elements comprise the institutional characteristics of well-functioning, democratic states in affluent societies. To put it a bit more sweepingly (but hopefully not inaccurately): Good governance is nothing less than an institutional embodiment of the values of the Western enlightenment! (p.6)


Levy is right…up to a point. When I got involved with the governance agenda while working with the Department for International Development (DFID) in London, I was earning a doctorate in constitutional law at the time. And it seemed clear to me that when donors demanded ‘good governance’ they really meant the institutional essentials of liberal constitutional democracy that I was studying in the Law Faculty at the University College London. I felt that the (mostly) Western donors did not say this bluntly because they did not want to offend the leaders of developing countries. In the early days, only the Americans bluntly focused on democracy promotion, but by the time I joined the World Bank in 2006, DFID and other European donors were beginning to say bluntly that the ‘good governance’ agenda was really about liberal constitutional democracy.

In Working with the Grain Levy makes it abundantly clear that he disagrees with this approach. His case for incrementalism is eloquent and worth airing. Indeed, donors can hardly contribute to anything that will make dramatic changes or leaps possible, unless they have the powerful weapon of the European Union Membership Accession process in Europe. By the end of the book, though, the core dispute seems to evaporate. On page 223 Levy concedes that:
 

‘A vision of “good governance” is perhaps somewhat helpful as a north star that can help guide navigation, but it is no more than that.

That, I am sure, is something even the so-called democracy promotion crowd can agree with unless they so starry-eyed that they are not in full control of their senses.

In all, this is good book. It taught me a lot. It merits an encounter.



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Working with Grain published by Oxford University Press

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