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Five myths about governance and development

David Booth's picture

In some areas of development policy, deep-rooted assumptions are extremely hard to dislodge. Like science-fiction androids or the many-headed Hydra, these are monsters that can sustain any number of mortal blows and still regenerate. Capable researchers armed with overwhelming evidence are no threat to them.
The importance of good governance for development is one such assumption. Take last month’s enquiry report on Parliamentary Strengthening by the International Development Committee of the UK parliament. It references the UN High Level Panel’s opinion that ‘good governance and effective institutions’ should be among the goals for ending global poverty by 2030. It would have done better to reference the evidence in 2012’s rigorously researched UN publication Is Good Governance Good for Development?
Here are five governance myths about which the strong scientific consensus might – eventually – slay some monsters.

1. Good governance is important for development. If this means that a large set of worthy ideals – including transparency in public affairs, accountability of power-holders to citizens, ability of citizens to make demands, absence of corruption, freedom of enterprise, secure property rights and rule of law – are necessary conditions for development success, the answer is clearly no.
The history of human progress, from 17th century England to 21st century China and Vietnam, is completely clear on this point: governance ideals are realised over time on the back of economic progress, not the other way round.
2. Governance-improvement is a good entry-point for developmental reform. This corollary might appear more defensible, but it isn’t. All experience tells us that institutions and social norms change slowly at best. Aid-supported institutional change has a well-documented tendency to produce either ‘capability traps’ or purely cosmetic improvements. History, especially the last half-century in Asia, shows that very significant gains in economic transformation and human well-being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems. Reform initiatives should surely aim to repeat those gains by whatever means are to hand.
As Matt Andrews and his colleagues have been arguing, reforms should be problem-driven and oriented to finding appropriate solutions. There is increasing evidence that problem-solving, adaptive methods can work, even when governments are largely unwilling partners in change. In contrast, donor ‘governance programmes’ contradict the idea of problem-driven reform almost by definition: even in the best of cases, their solutions are set out in advance.
That so many development reform efforts remain stuck in the governance ghetto is testimony to the ability of policy to ignore evidence. The evidence continues to grow nonetheless: the synthesis report from Initiating and Sustaining Developmental Regimes in Africa (DRA) continues the myth-busting, drawing on new research. DRA’s predecessor, Tracking Development, showed conclusively that the reason Southeast Asian countries are so much better off these days than comparable African nations is not about better or worse governance but policy priorities, especially in regard to agriculture. Building on this, DRA’s synthesis tackles three meso-level governance myths.
3. High levels of transparency, accountability, participation and competition sustain economic development. In the IDC report, this view is attributed to the World Bank. But Tim Kelsall looked at comparative evidence on the sustainability of economic growth in the face of leadership transitions. He found positive effects for one particular kind of institutional variable, the presence or absence of a dominant party with a tradition of consensual decision-making. The institutional strength of the Thai civil service was the only similarly significant factor. Compliance with liberal-democratic governance ideals, UK premier David Cameron’s ‘golden thread’, did not seem to play any explanatory role.
4. Southeast Asian lessons about agriculture are non-transferrable because the Cold War is over. There is an influential view that countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam gave top priority to raising rural living standards because of the threat posed by communist-mobilised peasantries. Plausible, but apparently false. Research by David Henley and Helmy Fuady showed that it is not consistent with the known facts. Implication? It is time to do battle aggressively with some of the dominant policy prejudices in Africa. Ideas matter. We should not wait for exogenous shocks to jolt policy elites out of mistaken ideas about development in Africa.
5. African regimes can’t do problem-driven, adaptive development. It may be too soon to rebut this definitively, but it is surely right to try. For DRA, David Booth and Fred Golooba-Mutebi investigated what should count as a developmental regime in the context of Africa today. Prompted by Laura Routley, we tried to get out of narrow debates based on Korea and Taiwan, and draw on the wide body of comparative evidence now available. Conclusion? Developmental regimes should be conceptualised at three levels: policy (are they serious about economic, especially agricultural, transformation?), policy process (are they actively searching for solutions?) and political settlement (does the prevailing settlement enable good policy-making?). Some country leaders are trying hard to put these elements in place, and international support should reflect this.

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This post originally appeared on the Comment section of ODI website
Photograph of bicycle traffic in Hanoi, Vietnam by Simone D. McCourtie via World Bank Photo Collection


Submitted by Brian D Levy on

David's post usefully encourages us to move beyond comfortable nostrums and bring fresh, careful thought to how governance and development interact. I agree strongly with some of his central points -- but would frame others somewhat differently.

First, David is exactly right that we need to slay the dragon-myth that "good governance is important for development". It is inconsistent with the historical experience; confuses the journey with the destination; and frames the development discourse in a polarizing, maximalist direction. BUT

Second, while I agree with David and others that a problem-driven, adaptive (rather than 'best practice', blueprint) approach can be an especially powerful way forward -- especially useful is the way these approaches redirect attention to practical, often micro-level development initiatives -- I would frame their potential more broadly than he does. Contra David, my reading of the evidence is that sometimes governance improvement CAN be a useful micro-level entry point. Targeted initiatives to improve financial management, or to create the space for a small cadre of upper-middle technocratically skilled professionals within the civil service comprise two of many possible examples.

Third, even where the focus is on narrowly-developmental, micro-level initiatives, "small-g" governance -- often including participation and transparency -- can be important parts of the agenda. Micro-level development initiatives do not proceed in a vacuum, but in broader governance environments which can be difficult, perhaps even predatory vis-a-vis the intended development purpose. As I explore in depth in my recent book, Working with the Grain (Oxford 2014)( ), their success can require consciously building a micro-level incentive environment which crowds-in and empowers champions of the development purpose. This is indeed a governance challenge -- though one which is very different from the usual 'good governance' discourse.

Submitted by Michal Cenker on

Thanks for this article that challenges some of our common preconceptions. However, it seems that you equate development with economic progress/economic development, which in my view is an inadequate reduction.
e.g. "If this means that a large set of worthy ideals – including transparency in public affairs, accountability of power-holders to citizens, ability of citizens to make demands, absence of corruption, freedom of enterprise, secure property rights and rule of law – are necessary conditions for development success, the answer is clearly no."
As if these are only "worthy ideals" and not "development"...

Submitted by David on

Thanks, Brian and Michal,

I have also been challenged by colleagues at ODI who are disturbed by my blanket rejection of governance as a good entry point for development work. As you rightly infer, Brian, my objection is to initiatives that choose their entry point on the basis of a pile of ideology about how progress happens, rather than problem-driven diagnostics. I am open to persuasion that some micro-initiatives addressing governance challenges don't suffer from that limitation, although I suspect that in the examples you give, the particular issue has been prioritised for some specific reason concerning wider development blockages. I liked the theme of last week's report by ICAI - the UK's independent aid evaluation body - that DFID security and justice work should focus on finding solutions to specific problems, such as excessive pre-trial detention, and stop rolling out all-purpose police and courts programmes that have shown poor results.

Michal, you can, if you want, treat all of my "worthy ideals" as components of development, but at the cost of making the argument completely circular and therefore not very helpful for practical purposes. I would prefer to agree that the development outcomes that matter are about basic freedoms, with economic, social and political dimensions, including dignity, security and long life for all. My arguments are about the conditions under which those things - as measured by human development and other indicators - are typically achieved. The argument is not narrowly economic.

Submitted by Geir Sundet on

Good post. Having worked for a couple of decades as a governance advisor, I agree that the governance policy agenda is often little more than a game of make-believe, more about appearances than substance.

However, at the risk of going all circular. What about Amartya Sen's point that development is ultimately about freedom? Freedom (to speak, associate, print, broadcast, demand) is the goal of development, not the road to get there. And isn't it just a little bit to easy to say that one should first seek the economic kingdom and to rest assured that the political one will come riding on its back?

The irony of much of the well researched and argued myth busting about governance, is that it sometimes replicates the exact same failures as it is exposing - a linear and depoliticised view of human development.

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