Responding to the disappointing results of the Good Governance agenda, the Africa Power and Politics Programme is exploring the scope for approaches which attempt to ‘work with the grain’ of African societies. This paper explores what this might mean. It identifies a core set of beliefs and values – concerning power, accountability and social morality – that are widely observed across sub-Saharan Africa, have proven extremely durable and remain powerful drivers of behaviour. Generally speaking, Western institutions sit ill alongside these traditions, while the institutions that work well in solving collective action problems and providing public goods are those that harness the motivating forces of family, ethnicity or religion. This confirms the relevance of the question: how might development efforts be redirected so that they stop working against, and start to build upon, the extant notions of moral obligation and interpersonal accountability in the region?