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Promoting good governance: some lessons from history and recent experience

Time (GMT +01) 11:00 12:30

Prof Richard Higgott
, University of Warwick; Roger Wilson, Head, Governance Department, DFID

James Putzel

  • Richard Higgott approached the question via recent work on globalisation (on which he heads an ESRC research centre at Warwick) and theories of extra-territorial governance. He developed the proposition that a dominant tendency in policy thinking has been to de-politicise governance.
  • In the colonial period, politics was de-emphasised for obvious reasons; decolonisation resulted in only a brief phase in which the legitimacy of politics as a route to modernisation was recognised, before the dominant tendencies of post-colonial public policy set in. In the last decades, two sub-phases can be distinguished: "Globalisation I" (broadly, the era of the Washington consensus) and "Globalisation II" - a time of growing intellectual and political questioning of economics and free-market ideas. Globalisation II signaled a return to normative theory and a revival of political economy. It generated new buzz-words such as civil society, social capital, capacity building and governance. However, the new policy ideas, such as the focus on mobilising and managing social capital, do not add up to a reversal of previous trends. Politics is still not taken seriously.
  • This applies to the debate about global governance as well as to thinking about countries. Interest in global governance continues to increase, with the recognition that increased global interdependence without corresponding institutions of governance is a deadly mixture. But such institutions need to be both efficient and accountable/democratic. There need to be answers to the classic questions of political science - who benefits? how is social cohesion to be achieved? etc. In these respects, the debate in the policy community tends to remain rather narrow, concessions to accountability being limited for the most part to consulting and seeking to incorporate non-state actors (NGOs, etc.). This may be unsurprising in so far as the debate is led by a de-territorialised transnational elite, but the complete lack of a vision of a global polity, in which communities are empowered by action from the bottom up, is full of dangers.
  • Roger Wilson said that his presentation might be seen as a specific case of what Higgott had been arguing (although he would be focusing on the issue of what to do about so-called poor-performing countries).
  • Various recent shifts had focused greater interest on politics and development: the end of the Cold War, the 2000 World Development Report, the debate around the World Bank's aid effectiveness research, and Sept 11th. There was now, among other things, more freedom for development practitioners to ask questions about whether formal democratisation has made a difference.
  • Two recent sources on "poor performers", one from the OECD/DAC and one from the Bank, identify criteria of performance, single out different sub-categories of poor performance and draw some depressing conclusions regarding the scale of the problem, the infrequency of cases where countries graduate from the category, and growing contamination risks. DFID's approach tries to go beyond searching for correlates of poor performance and bemoaning lack of political will or capacity in particular cases. It focuses instead on more generic features of the political systems of poor countries that make them unresponsive to the poor.
  • This draws on recent efforts to synthesise what is known from comparative history and political science about different kinds of state formation; the relationship between power and corruption; the importance of path-dependency and the role of conflict in change; and models of political mobilisation for the poor in pre-industrial settings.
  • An important question is how to apply this knowledge in DFID's practice. Governance Department's current strategy begins with trying to spread general understanding of these issues; applying more political analysis to particular cases (e.g. are countries that are privatising also reforming in a more general sense?); and doing a new type of sector analysis, "change forecasting". Results are also expected from two DFID Development Research Centres, at LSE and IDS, and from a Virtual Advisory Unit to be established jointly by the DAC and the Bank.
  • Some key issues in pro-poor change have been identified for particular attention:
    · the scope for "artificially constructed participation", via HIPC conditionalities
    · the importance of leadership, of different kinds
    · policy presentation - the room for re-presenting poverty reduction in terms of goals that have greater attraction to national elites
    · advocacy initiatives, recognising the real constraints to this where the framework is a "feckless democracy"
    · inter-generational changes that may be critical in the longer term
    · initiatives on business transparency, and against money laundering.
  • Some outstanding issues are:
    · is there still a role for "technocratic" governance reforms?
    · how much can regional organisations such as NEPAD contribute (bearing in mind that they are likely to be initiated by good performers)?
    · how to build on benign effects of globalisation (increased NGO linkages and expectations, etc.)?
    · how to reconcile all of the above with national sovereignty?
  • A wide-ranging discussion ensued. James Putzel, from the chair, wanted to know whether Higgott's Globalisation II was really a new phase, whether there had been real changes in Washington and whether DFID was prepared to act upon its new insights into developing-country politics. Simon Maxwell drew attention to the apparent willingness of donors to override the bottom-up politics of Afghanistan's Loya Jirga. Others offered the thought that Japan's recent political system has shared many of the features of "poor performers", and asked whether the narrowness of conventional governance concerns had not been a bit overstated - e.g. in India's electricity sector reform, politics proper is not the main problem.
  • The plea for a global polity seemed attractive to several participants, but how would a global politics work? How could it be institutionalised?
  • Sandra Pepera of DFID felt that the series theme of "putting politics back into development" was only about reversing donor attitudes, and that in countries politics was always central. Conceding this, David Booth asked whether donors had not been reasonably well behaved in connection with Wilson's "artificially constructed participation" - that is, prompting national political debate about poverty reduction strategy and then maintaining a hands-off attitude. Sheila Page doubted the ability of donors to draw reliable conclusions about what makes for success in development. Mistakes had been made in the past and would be repeated. In any case, was it possible to engineer new successes even on the basis of a good understanding of past experience?


What is "good governance" and can it be promoted? What are the pitfalls and the challenges? In this seventh meeting in the series on Putting Politics Back into Development, these questions were addressed by two speakers - one a prominent academic, the other DFID's lead adviser on governance issues.