More realistic approaches to governance: Expanding the spectrum of reform

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ImageThe technocratic (and ideological) ‘best practice’ approach to development intervention is indeed bankrupt. The world badly needs more imaginative and effective ways of engaging with the stubborn realities of governance in poor developing countries. As Brian Levy has argued, ‘working with the grain in a way that takes institutions and politics into account’ is the right approach. And a typology of realistic governance reform approaches is a good place to start.

The opportunities for more imaginative forms of engagement are, however, surely more diverse than this treatment implies. Brian distinguishes four types of intervention, running from the more incremental to the more transformational (as illustrated below). With due allowance for necessary simplification, I think this understates the range of politically informed and institutionally realistic ways of making headway in challenging institutional environments. I would propose amplifying the schema in two ways.


My first suggestion concerns what I will call Option 3 – Orchestrating stakeholders for policy reform. As currently described, this is located close to the ambitious and relatively unrealistic end of the spectrum – more likely to succeed than a head-on effort to improve a country’s formal accountability institutions (Option 4), but more daunting than either pursuing the line of least resistance (Option 1) or building islands of excellence (Option 2). The lack of realism derives, in this case, from the fact that a conventional stakeholder analysis usually reveals a highly unfavourable relation of forces between reform beneficiaries and opponents: even if the potential winners were to act in concert, they would be overpowered by the defenders of the status quo. So the scope for ‘orchestrating pro-reform forces’ appears quite poor.

But this neglects two possibilities: that there are, in the technical sense, collective action problems on the pro-reform side; and that there are opportunities for intelligent intervention in reform dynamics, on the lines laid out by Merilee Grindle in her studies of social sector reform ‘against the odds’. Conventional stakeholder analysis deals mainly with fixed positions. But in a world of unresolved collective action problems, interests and capabilities are not fixed, because such problems are in principle solvable. The intervention possibilities provided by complex interactive process unfolding over time are also likely to be underestimated in a standard approach to brokering alliances. Either it needs to be clear that ‘orchestrating stakeholders’ encompasses these possibilities, or we should amplify Brian’s schema by adding another group of interventions.

My second suggestion concerns Option 4, the big-G governance reforms. I suppose it makes sense to use this – the most supply-driven and normative of the approaches considered – to define the end of the spectrum of possibilities. But in that case we need to stretch out the spectrum a bit further. In its original form, the schema leaves no room for the most interesting and important question of all: are there ways of ‘working with the grain’ at national, sectoral or local levels by building incrementally on existing institutional arrangements, rather than trying to replace them wholesale? I suggest therefore that we need to recognise a new category of intervention between the original Options 3 and 4, as illustrated below.


Of course, building on the formal and informal institutions that exist in poor developing countries is bound to be more challenging than going around them, or finding spaces for improvement in their interstices. Neither the Bank nor the bilaterals are currently well set up for this sort of thing, an issue to which we need to return. But there is also a knowledge gap. Beyond the every-country-is-unique mantra, we know much less than we need to about exactly what might be worth building on in poor developing countries.

The Centre for the Future State has tackled parts of the question to good effect, but without providing enough in the way of generalisation or typology (see my review of "Upside-Down Governance"). Brian’s trajectory exercises, Mark 1 and Mark 2, take us in the right direction, but we need some theory focused on alternative directions of travel for countries facing similar governance blockages with a comparable set of socio-economic constraints and institutional legacies.

The Africa Power and Politics Programme is trying to fill this gap with particular reference to low-income Africa. It is attempting to build some empirically grounded theory about sub-types of neopatrimonial regime and about alternative patterns of local governance, focusing on incentives and capacities for the provision of developmentally critical public goods. We are finding answers to the question ‘what is there to build on?’ that are both unexpected and counter-conventional.



David Booth

Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

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