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Five myths about governance and development

Written by David Booth


In some areas of development policy, deep-rooted assumptions are extremely hard to dislodge. Like science-fiction androids or the many-headed Hydra, these are monsters that can sustain any number of mortal blows and still regenerate. Capable researchers armed with overwhelming evidence are no threat to them.

The importance of good governance for development is one such assumption. Take last month’s enquiry report on parliamentary strengthening by the International Development Committee (IDC) of the UK parliament. It references the UN High Level Panel’s opinion that ‘good governance and effective institutions’ should be among the goals for ending global poverty by 2030. It would have done better to reference the evidence in 2012’s rigorously researched UN publication Is Good Governance Good for Development?

Here are five governance myths about which the strong scientific consensus might – eventually – slay some monsters.

1. Good governance is important for development.

If this means that a large set of worthy ideals – including transparency in public affairs, accountability of power-holders to citizens, ability of citizens to make demands, absence of corruption, freedom of enterprise, secure property rights and rule of law – are necessary conditions for development success, the answer is clearly no.

The history of human progress, from 17th century England to 21st century China and Vietnam, is completely clear on this point: governance ideals are realised over time on the back of economic progress, not the other way round.

2. Governance improvement is a good entry point for developmental reform.

All experience tells us that institutions and social norms change slowly at best. Aid-supported institutional change has a well-documented tendency to produce either ‘capability traps’ or purely cosmetic improvements. History, especially the last half-century in Asia, shows that very significant gains in economic transformation and human well-being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems. Reform initiatives should surely aim to repeat those gains by whatever means are to hand.

As Matt Andrews and his colleagues have been arguing, reforms should be problem-driven and oriented to finding appropriate solutions. There is increasing evidence that problem-solving, adaptive methods can work, even when governments are largely unwilling partners in change. In contrast, donor ‘governance programmes’ contradict the idea of problem-driven reform almost by definition: even in the best of cases, their solutions are set out in advance.

That so many development reform efforts remain stuck in the governance ghetto is testimony to the ability of policy to ignore evidence. The evidence continues to grow nonetheless: the synthesis report from Initiating and Sustaining Developmental Regimes in Africa (DRA) continues the myth-busting, drawing on new research. DRA’s predecessor, Tracking Development, showed conclusively that the reason Southeast Asian countries are so much better off these days than comparable African nations is not about better or worse governance but policy priorities, especially in regard to agriculture. Building on this, DRA’s synthesis tackles three meso-level governance myths.

3. High levels of transparency, accountability, participation and competition sustain economic development.

In the IDC report, this view is attributed to the World Bank. But Tim Kelsall looked at comparative evidence on the sustainability of economic growth in the face of leadership transitions. He found positive effects for one particular kind of institutional variable, the presence or absence of a dominant party with a tradition of consensual decision-making. The institutional strength of the Thai civil service was the only similarly significant factor. Compliance with liberal-democratic governance ideals, David Cameron’s ‘golden thread’, did not seem to play any explanatory role.

4. Southeast Asian lessons about agriculture are non-transferrable because the Cold War is over.

There is an influential view that countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam gave top priority to raising rural living standards because of the threat posed by communist-mobilised peasantries. Plausible, but apparently false. Research by David Henley and Helmy Fuady showed that it is not consistent with the known facts.

Implication? It is time to do battle aggressively with some of the dominant policy prejudices in Africa. Ideas matter. We should not wait for exogenous shocks to jolt policy elites out of mistaken ideas about development in Africa.

5. African regimes can’t do problem-driven, adaptive development.

It may be too soon to rebut this definitively, but it is surely right to try. For DRA, Fred Golooba-Mutebi and I investigated what should count as a developmental regime in the context of Africa today. Prompted by Laura Routley, we tried to get out of narrow debates based on Korea and Taiwan, and draw on the wide body of comparative evidence now available.

Conclusion? Developmental regimes should be conceptualised at three levels: policy (are they serious about economic, especially agricultural, transformation?), policy process (are they actively searching for solutions?) and political settlement (does the prevailing settlement enable good policy-making?). Some country leaders are trying hard to put these elements in place, and international support should reflect this.