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When Upside Down is Right Side Up: A New Narrative for the Governance Agenda

Antonio Lambino's picture

Prof. Mick Moore spoke at the World Bank a few weeks ago to share his views on, among other things, the future of the governance agenda.  He also talked about a publication entitled “An Upside Down View of Governance”, published earlier this year by the DfID-funded Centre for the Future State (CFS), which he heads at the Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom.  Prof. Moore made the case that the governance agenda requires a fresh narrative – one that revolves around public authority, the legitimacy of which derives from shared local ownership of change processes.

For external actors, such as members of the international donor community, cultivating legitimate and effective public authority means departing from state building projects based on normative models.  While these models may have worked elsewhere, they often have elements that are incongruent with realities of many local contexts.

Based on CFS’s “upside down view,” and in contrast to formal rules-based approaches, public authority draws its legitimacy from what’s available and already happening on the ground.  This alternative approach includes relationships, processes, and institutions that may be formal or informal.  And, in fact, the paper stresses the role of the latter: “informal institutions and personalised relationships are pervasive and powerful and can contribute to progressive outcomes” (p. 72). 

Following this line of thinking, said Moore, we need to focus on the functions of public authority more than its form.  For instance, how can governance reform initiatives provide opportunities for bargaining among local actors toward improved production and delivery of collective goods and services?  In this vein, session discussant Nick Manning, Public Sector Governance Advisor at the World Bank, said that this new narrative connotes the reopening of the bargain between public authority and citizens, a good example of which, from both Moore’s talk and the publication, is tax reform.  That is, when governments increasingly rely on citizen taxpayers as opposed to, say, foreign aid, to fund service delivery, citizens gain more power in their own political systems.  This shift can then lead to more accountable governance. 

A key source of the legitimacy of public authority, therefore, is cultivating a sense of ownership of and engagement in the political process by local stakeholders.  I believe that for many (but not all) colleagues in international development, this point is uncontroversial -- in theory.  In practice, it can be costly to walk the talk.  During Prof. Moore’s session, the open discussion kept coming back to the question of how this new governance narrative might be operationalized, and the constraints and incentives that militate against doing things differently.

The paper does include a section on practical implications.  Recommendations for strengthening the legitimacy of public authority include steps toward enhancing the capacity of local actors toward more informed opinion and collective action.  A subset is restated here (p. 77):

  • Empower local actors at all levels through good-quality research and support for data collection and policy analysis;
  • Play a role in facilitating local dialogue and debate; 
  • Ensure they (i.e., donors) are alert to ways in which all their actions can impinge (positively or negatively) on opportunities for constructive state-society bargaining.  Issues around tax reform and aid dependency are particularly salient…;
  • Reassess their (i.e., donors) strategies for supporting civil society… (toward a focus) on the capacity of different groups to take collective action.  This would involve extending engagement to a broader range of actors…;
  • Overall, show less concern with micromanaging aid, and much more with the political dynamics that influence its effectiveness.


Operationally, this new governance narrative translates to strengthening the capacity of local actors to: 1) produce and access better information; 2) engage with each other more thoughtfully; 3) build networks and coalitions to act collectively; and 4) navigate their own, sometimes treacherous, political environments more nimbly.  Save for the first, elements on this partial list call for reimagining development assistance a lot more broadly; to break free from engaging with mere shadows of reality.


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Image credit: Center for the Future State, Institute of Development Studies, as featured on DfID's R4D blog. 

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