Deconstructing the governance discourse

(extracts from pp. 205, 208-9)
“When we look beneath the rhetorical discourse and focus on the realities of governance, what we see can be startling, even dispiriting. But this should not come as a surprise.

“The goal of governance reform is to establish the institutions, the rules of the game, within which economic and political processes play out. When the rules are clear, and their monitoring and enforcement mechanisms are in place, they can recede into the background, and the focus can be on the game itself. But when the rules themselves are contested, and there is as yet little mutual agreement as to how they will be enforced, then what can more often come to the fore are the most unruly and difficult dimensions of human nature.

“Consider the way in which two Nobel Prize-winning economists, Douglass North and Oliver Williamson, define institutions and governance. According to North, institutions are ‘humanly devised constraints which govern human interaction’. Willliamson builds on this, suggesting that ‘governance is an effort to craft order, thereby to mitigate conflict and realize mutual gains’. In focusing on the governance dimensions of development we are thus, by definition, seeking mechanisms of addressing a struggle between our better and our baser natures in a manner which facilitates co-operation. So it is unsurprising that when we look closely – and especially when we look at settings where the restraints themselves are still being contested – we see this struggle in action, with the outcome profoundly uncertain.

“Sometimes we see an ongoing struggle between enforcing and reneging on agreements. Sometimes we see an effort to bring order by appealing to self-interested, self-seeking motivations which, if not addressed, threaten to bring down the entire edifice of co-operation. And sometimes we see the lust to dominate – or, perhaps, the effort to fight fire with fire, by repressing opponents whose perceived desire to dominate is what we fear. Confronting such primal uncertainty is profoundly discomfiting, in all of its messiness and all its ambiguity. So, instead, we embrace ways of escape.

“The avoidance of challenging realities seems especially acute among holders of the purse-strings of foreign aid – the United States Congress, and parliaments throughout Western Europe, Japan and elsewhere in the democratic, industrialized world. They surely recognize the challenging realities. It is hardly as if their countries, where checks and balances institutions are strong, are entirely corruption free. But in the face of widespread skepticism among voters in ‘northern’ countries as to the benefits of aid, they had little appetite for explaining these complexities to their constituents. On the contrary, in the polarized politics that increasingly prevailed within some donor countries, any effort to address complexity – indeed, any acknowledgement that results might fall short of perfection – risked playing into the hands of opponents, who were all too ready to characterize aid as wasteful support for ‘corrupt dictators’.

“In consequence, instead of an engagement with complexity, the mainstreaming of governance into the development discourse resulted, for the most part, in a ‘doubling down’ on simplistic responses. The response of the development community to governance-related criticisms of its effectiveness was to say ‘yes’:
Yes – public management will be fixed.
Yes – behind shortfalls in public management are weaknesses in accountability, and behind these are failures of checks and balances institutions – good governance will take care of these. And
Yes – corruption is a cancer, for which there will be zero tolerance.
Yes: Insofar as there was not already a perfect world, the efforts of the World Bank and other donor organizations (working in partnership with people of goodwill everywhere) would make it so.”

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