When I started work in international development in London in the late 1990s, a more experienced colleague gave me the following insight. At some point, she said, I would either catch the bug and stay in the field or I would not and leave it to go and do something else. And it is usually some agenda within the broad field that would get you hooked, she added. She was right. I caught the bug and stayed in the field, and the agenda that excited my passion was and remains governance: efforts to improve governance systems in developing countries in order to do real and permanent good. The reason was obvious. I had moved to London from Lagos, Nigeria, having participated actively in the public affairs of the country; and I had left thoroughly convinced that unless governance improved in Nigeria there was no way that the abundance in the country would lead to improved welfare for the vast majority of its citizens. That remains my conviction.
In those days working on governance issues was exciting; for, it was like joining an army on the march, one that appeared ready to sweep everything before it. There was definite intellectual energy in the field. Practitioners had poise and confidence. Initiatives were being dreamt up by different donor agencies. Funds were pouring into the field. And we began to see a new breed of development professional: the so-called ‘governance advisers’. But behind it all, I suppose, was a powerful zeitgeist: the Berlin Wall was down, communism was on the ropes, and liberal constitutional democracy appeared to have triumphed with resounding finality.
But now, in late 2015, it all feels very different globally. In the words of the B.B. King classic: ‘The thrill is gone’. Or so it seems. And I pen these reflections because in the last month or two I have had conversations with practitioners in the field of governance from around the world in the normal course of an intellectual engagement with the issues, and the news seems uniformly depressing. I have been asked again and again: What do you think is happening to the agenda these days? First, there is a feeling that the intellectual energy behind the field is not what it used to be. Second, the commitment of leaders in international development seems to have waned. Units are being closed, initiatives wound down, budgets cut and so on. And practitioners do not seem like a powerful army on the march any longer. The old swagger appears to have vanished. In other words, the field is no longer seen as ‘hot’. Young recruits are not queuing to be a part of the field by any means necessary. They are targeting the current set of ‘hot’ issues in development.
So, what went wrong? From the conversations I have had here is a partial list of challenges:
There appears to be a values crisis. For the whole ‘good governance’ agenda really amounts to one of constitutional form: liberal constitutional democracy. Promoting ‘Good Governance’ is a way of not saying that bluntly. Yet the constitutional form and the values undergirding it are both suddenly bereft of confident and eloquent defenders.
The new authoritarianism seems triumphant. The claim that you do not need to have broadly democratic, accountable and responsive governments in order to deliver growth and lift millions out of poverty seems proven. And the new authoritarians are loud, assertive and seem set to sweep all before them. In contrast, the democracies seem in the main to have succumbed to lethargy, confusion and institutional arthritis.
The field of ‘governance’ has not been able to agree on what it is and what it means. Its internal splits are remarkable. People who want to promote democracy everywhere and those who work on the strengthening of media and civil society as well as those who believe that fixing the plumbing in state institutions is the right focus, all claim to work in the same field and often regard the others with contempt.
Improving governance systems, strengthening and reforming institutions and agencies, carrying out reforms in sectors and so on, all these things are fiendishly difficult. Reforms usually fail and are eminently reversible. Progress happens in fits and spurts. The problems are often intractable. Where success is possible it takes a long time for results to be both visible and credible. It is almost impossible to simply declare victory and go home.
I would argue that as a result of all these factors (and, perhaps, others) the field of governance seems stunned and exhausted at the moment. Perhaps the biggest evidence of this sad state of affairs is that current intellectual fashions in the field seem to shun ambition and have embraced a dreary incrementalism. Yet, while that incrementalism seems intellectually cogent and pragmatic it is not going to launch robust movements or coalitions for reform. It is not going to make transformations happen, it will not power leaps over ramparts, and it will not inspire feats of daring.
There is a place for prose. But there is also a place for poetry.
To survive, let alone regain its mojo, the governance agenda globally will have to find a potent mix of inspiring ambition and effectiveness under real world conditions.
Here is hoping that the moment arrives soon.
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Photograph from Romanian Revolution, 1989, by Denoel Paris and other photographers