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Good Governance

An Upside Down View of Governance

Published by: Institute of Development Studies, Centre for the Future State

2010 University of Sussex

ISBN: 978 1 85864 9137

Pages:83, Price: Sterling Pound 14.95

Reviewed by: C. D. Bhatta, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

There has been plethora of writings on "governance" over the years positing it as main mantra to speed-up development and democratisation process particularly in the global South. At some point, it appeared that the concept itself was simply rediscovered by the donors whose major clients became countries of the global South. The discussion on governance stole more limelight when majority of the newly democratised states suffered the brunt of "intrastate conflicts" that ultimately led to the erosion in the traditional power of the state. To restore power of the states, they were repeatedly advised to improve on governance and were provided, one after another, options by the donors. Nevertheless all these efforts failed to produce tangible result and majority of the states fell apart. And reason cited, yet again, was bad governance. But to our dismay, scholars, policy makers and donors have failed to identify as what exactly is bad or good - governance. In contrast, they provided ritualistic advices based on theoretical nuances and tried to replicate same policies for all the states. They thought that what is good for the west is good for the rest and what is good in theory would be good in practice as well.

This generates some fundamental questions as what governance is all about. Why plethora of literature could not provide solutions to the problem that revolve around the issues of governance. Before we answer these questions, let us dig out the history of governance. The concept of governance itself is not a new and is as old as human civilisations. We can find discussion about "governance", in one way or the other, in all major religious literatures. For example, it has been discussed broadly in Bhagvad Geeta, the Islamic Sharia provides comprehensive governance rules and Christianity gives prime importance to the teachings of Jesus Christ's management style. Governance has also been broadly discussed in Kautilaya's Arthasasthra and used Plato, for the first time, in the politics of Greek city-state. Likewise, Adam Smith argues that political state had to build institutions that can ensure justice and security and political and civic culture that values ethical standards. By and large, the whole idea of governance is to create democratic and just society based on the interest and priorities of the people. Mick Moore Professor of Governance at IDS, Sussex, defines governance process through which states acquire and use their power and authority. For him, better governance comes from strengthening the responsiveness of states to the needs of their citizens, their accountability to citizens through rules-based mechanism which require them to answer for their actions, and through which they can be rewarded or sanctioned; and state capability - both political capability to determine needs and manage competing interests, and bureaucratic capability to design and implement policy, and enforce authority (IDS Policy Briefing Issue 34).

If governance, theoretically, is all about empowerment of people through responsive states, why it has failed to deliver in the global south. Perhaps the time has come to reflect as where and how we failed and IDS through its recent publication "An Upside Down View of Governance" tries to answer some of these questions. The book is the product of five year long research carried out by the Centre for the Future State at the different parts of the world (from Sao Paulo to New Delhi). The book asks policy makers to come out of the box, close off their mental models of development, and look at what is actually happening in society and how it is composed of. It attempts to offer new 'drawing skills' and explores an open-minded way how elements of public authority are being created through complex processes of bargaining between state and societal actors, and the interaction of formal and informal institutions. It also suggests donors to change and discontinue recycling policies and people as it does not bring people centered change. Donors over the years in the recipient countries have simply promoted clientalism in society as well as within the donor community in the name of good governance.

The central argument of the book is that instead of prioritising reform of formal institutions, one should look at the structures, relationships, interests and incentives that underpin them. It suggests that informal and traditional institutions and personalised relationships should not be seen as governance problem but part of the solution, because in many occasions modern and formal state institutions are not accepted by the people - African states are case in point. It also argues that traditional Weberian ideas of the state capacity (monopoly of violence, a rules-based bureaucracy, and representative institutions, and clear distinctions between public and private spheres) look out of date. That said, the process of state-building alone is not enough to address problems brought about by the post-state challenges. The authors argue that instead of 'state building' and 'state capacity', think about creating 'public authority' i.e. institutions' (both formal and informal) that can undertake core governance functions. For them, 'state building' tends to evoke the historical experience of Western countries, notably France and Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and thus may not be suitable in other contexts. It goes on to argue that states are not the only sources of public authority. Governments today have to negotiate with a much greater diversity of actors, including an expanded private sector with transitional links. Also, in most poor countries the boundaries between 'state' and 'society' is unclear and the task of organising collective action to create public goods may be shared between state and non-state actors. Taken together, it underlines the need of creating accountable and transparent public authority by taking all the actors on board.

The book further argues that merely strengthening civil society, as done in the past, will not benefit poor people primarily because civil societies are found to have been strengthened merely to serve the interests of certain networks of actors and power centres. And in many cases elites and, to some extent, donors are also promoting their own civil society either merely to siphon off the fund or loath their agendas.
When it comes to the point of state fragility, the book emphasis, its not only the weak institutions and high level of corruption as enunciated, it by contrast, is the lack of elite incentives to create effective public authority or to accept the change. The book argues that weak governance and ongoing conflict has provided more opportunities and benefits to the elites than the stable and strong governance. Perhaps, this could be the reason among others, why elites do not push for the timely resolution of the conflict in Nepal which becomes what Garret Hardin terms tragedy for the commons.

When it comes to the point of creating effective and accountable public authority tax plays the vital role, which has completely been sidelined in Nepali context. That tax should not be seen just as fiscal issue but as a social fiscal contract between state and citizens. But bear in mind, tax can only develop the desired 'contract' when the state is dependent on citizens for tax and the tax collected is spent for the benefit of citizens. Hence, the issue of tax should also be seen from the accountable governance lense, underlines the book.

There are, however, problems with some of the suggestions provided in the book. For example, it does not prioritise the agenda of state building but focuses more on creating public authority. But the fact is that in a fragile state like Nepal the inclusive public authority cannot be created in the absence of functional state. Neither public authority can be drawn from the private sector nor through informal approaches. The public authority that mostly stems from the urban elites is sectoral and does not represent the real stakeholders of the society. This will only result in security deficit for the citizens, albeit elites can protect themselves by hiring private security forces who will not feel the need to organise for the cause of security of citizenry at large. This is so because those who wanted to change do not have the power and those who have the power do not want change. This also is the question of who represents whom. In a country like Nepal the desired power, wealth and capacity to implement change lies either with urban centered elites (who do not understand the problems) or donors who are co-opted by these very elites. Under these circumstances, there is no way that we can create an accountable public authority envisioned in the book. This certainly is the reason why Nepali citizens have failed to realise the change in real sense of term despite number of successful regime changes over the years. Hence, the only solution is to create the strong and functional state by adopting holistic approach and can bring about positive changes into the life of people. Finally, the book certainly could be good for the policy makers, donors and scholars as it provides new perspectives on governance.

[Appeared in The Kathmandu Post, dated 22nd May, 2010)


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