Governance is arguing, shouting and, sometimes, getting to agreement

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ImageThe fact that whatever else governance is, it is a discursive, public arena practice is often underappreciated. Governance is partly technical, naturally, but it is also an argument, a fight, a shouting match, a negotiation, and, if you are lucky, sometimes an agreement. 

Not only is this reality underappreciated, many of those who work on governance for development initiatives are distinctly uncomfortable with it. Pressed, they would say: ‘Hey, we are experts here. We don’t do public arguments, fights, shouting matches and so on.’ So, let’s park the vexed question of who does what for a moment and simply reflect on the aspect of the practice that I am concerned to highlight.

First, governance reform is a public argument. Yes, some of it takes place in the shadows, as donor harmonization or policy dialogue with partner governments, but outside fixing the plumbing of state machinery, governance reform is a public argument. Now, I have had many a conversation with colleagues in donor agencies and technocrats in developing country governments during which people say to me: ‘You should keep most of the plans quiet. Even if you have to bring in the public later, try to keep things between officials for as long as possible.’ I usually ask them one question: ‘What if your reform plans leak? What do you think will happen?’ There is a cautionary case study here.

The point is that the country does not belong only to the Minister of Finance, or whichever official donors are doing business with. It belongs jointly to other ministers, members of parliament, civil society groups, reporters and commentators in the media, citizens. Eventually, somebody is going to have to explain what it is you are planning, why it makes sense, why alternatives were not adopted, why they have to lose a benefit -- and so on. Then it becomes an argument, a shouting match even, or a fight.

Second, there are many levels to the public argument. I hint at them as follows, adopting an in-country voice:
•Who says there is a problem to be fixed? Is it enough that the World Bank says so, or donors collectively?
•Even if there is a problem to be fixed, well, we have lots of problems in the country, why fix this one now and not something else? Who says we have to fix this problem at this time?
•The way the issue is framed, why should I care about it let alone support the effort?
•Why is this proposed solution the right one and not something else? And why are you putting the solution in my backyard? Why do I have to pay a special price to solve a national problem?
•What is in it for people like me? And why should I believe anything will change in this country where people like me always get left behind? As other members of the elite attack your plans, why should an ordinary fellow like me get off the fence and join the fight?

The questions point to why many reform initiatives do not produce the intended development results. 

Now, you will ask: who is supposed to do the arguing, bargaining and, sometimes – if forces align - getting to durable agreements? Answer: the people whose country it is. Where those in institutions like the World Bank often go wrong is in believing that the process of arguing, shouting and bargaining can be short-circuited because we bring money and technical expertise to the table.  It can’t. If we care about results we need to focus on what that means for how we work.


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