Deep Structure: Tensions in the Emerging Governance Agenda?

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New Directions in Governance
With Mario Marcel, Senior Director Governance Global Practice, World Bank, and Jonathan Hargreaves, Head of Governance, Open Societies and Anti-Corruption Department, UK Department for International Development (DFID)
Photo Credit: ODI

From September 17-19 the World Bank’s Governance Partnership Facility (GPF) and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) hosted donors, researchers and consultants in London to look back at the GPF’s experience, and forward at ‘new directions’ in governance. The ‘governance crowd’ broadly agrees that their work, to be valuable and valued, must be connected to politically informed programmes, better services, and ultimately development outcomes. This consensus now even extends to the bastion of public financial management.

In practice, this connexion involves understanding political factors that drive institutional change and development, and using these understandings to improve development assistance: ‘thinking and working politically’. There are now many tools for political economy analysis, and there is a growing literature on what politically informed development programming can achieve, including a recent World Bank volume, and case studies from ODI, the Asia Foundation, and the Developmental Leadership Programme.

Politically informed and locally-led programming requires changes in the ways that donors work, for example by combining traditional with riskier projects, or empowering intermediate agents of change. At Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, merging diplomatic and aid cadres have created opportunities – after all, the bread and butter of diplomats is knowing the politics. The UK’s Department for International Development, for its part, is reforming to streamline projects, create space to innovate and respond to context, and learn from failure.

The World Bank’s Governance Global Practice (GGP) was in listening mode, and left London with strong steers on breaking out of their ‘super-silo’, the need for analysis to be owned by counterparts and integrated throughout operations, and the importance of responding to change. However, the discussion of these reforms allowed some more fundamental challenges to rear their heads. Here are three:

  • People, time, and money: Political economy analysis (and Theories of Change) is best used through ongoing dialogue and adaptation – not a one-off application of a tool. Monitoring politics, identifying and adapting to opportunities, and working across sectors require the time of knowledgeable and empowered staff. Yet behind reforms lie the reality of budget cuts and realignments: the World Bank Group has already undertaken a number of cost-saving measures, with more to come over the current fiscal year. Doing and especially using governance analysis takes staff time: it will require a combination of creative solutions – expanding governance skills outside the ‘profession’ and using partners or existing resources– and serious lobbying.
  • Systemic and organizational incentives: There has been a lot of discussion – and some action – around how career structure and culture in development organizations reinforce risk aversion and limit cross-sector work. However, behind these issues lie more fundamental questions: what are the incentives for development agencies at systemic and organizational levels? However they try to ‘change their DNA’, donor agencies remain guardians of the public purse, transmitters of national interest, and brokers between taxpayers and recipients. Analysis of the limits to reform – such as that conducted for SIDA in 2001 – is needed in light of changes such as new development actors and changing distributions of poverty.

These tensions have a ‘deep structure’ quality: they cannot be wholly resolved with a clever policy tool or reform. They require negotiation, coalition building, and diversification of staffing and funding modes. As several speakers reiterated through the conference: “Governance should be a way of thinking about development.”  In other words, in embracing politics, development may become more like politics itself.


Hamish Nixon

Research Fellow, ODI

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