Deconstructing the governance discourse

Working with the Grain: Integrating Governance And Growth In Development  Strategies: Levy, Brian: 9780199363810: Amazon.com: Books“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.”  All quotes are from Working with the Grain: Integrating Governance and Growth in Development Strategies. (Oxford University Press, 2014) pp. xii- xiii; 6-7; 205, 208-9.

“In 1989, when I joined the World Bank, it was unimaginable how profoundly the world would change within a few short years – and how profoundly these changes would affect the discourse between  development agencies and developing countries….. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the resulting (temporary) triumphalism of the dominant Western liberal democratic powers coincided with an increasing emphasis in the academic literature on the ways in which good policies, and a well-performing economy, rest on a foundation of governance institutions. The result was that the quest for  good governance came to center stage in the discourse of development reform….

“In response, a new sub-specialty of academics, of consultants, and of staff in development agencies emerged –  protagonists of public sector governance reform. At first,  these governance reformers  (a group of  which I was a part…..)  took  the reform challenge to be the engineering-like  one of putting  in place “good governance”, through a comprehensive redesign of the governance system in all facets….

“For some, getting governance on the development agenda in this comprehensive way was a matter of deep conviction…. But there were also some darker reasons for the rise of the good governance agenda. There is a deeply-rooted tendency for people to find ways of thinking well of ourselves by setting standards, viewing ourselves without much self-critical reflection as worthy exemplars of those standards – and then judging others for their supposed shortcomings. This is part of what happened on the governance front….

“In focusing on the governance dimensions of development we are, 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.”

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Anti-Corruption for Adults « WORKING WITH THE GRAIN: Integrating governance and growth

  2. Pingback: “Collective Action, meet Political Settlements” « WORKING WITH THE GRAIN: Integrating governance and growth

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