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April 28, 2015

Responding To: Week 13: Responding to Tony Blair

The Dilemma of “Fixing” Governance

Tasmia Rahman

Good governance has become more prominent than ever on the development agenda. The effectiveness and impact of the billions of dollars of aid pouring into developing countries each year is frequently stifled by issues of governance, ranging from bad public sector management to poor institutions and policies to corruption. Tony Blair’s talk last week on his organization, Africa Governance Initiative’s (AGI) work in this area highlighted the many potentials and challenges of promoting good governance in development countries. Two questions came to mind as I thought about the challenges of improving governance as external actors:

  1. How fluid is the transfer of expertise in governance from the West to developing countries?
  2. Is focusing on government, particularly when they are corrupt, necessarily the right approach?

Context and cultures vary significantly across countries, particularly between the West and developing countries. Throughout history, the development trajectories of countries have been similarly varied. While neoliberal market reforms, endorsed and prescribed by the West through the Washington Consensus, have been adopted by many, they haven’t been the only path to development (as evidenced by China’s influential alternative growth model- often referred to as the Beijing Consensus), nor have they been the most successful. Given this diversity of development approaches and institutional norms, transfer of knowledge and expertise from the West, particularly when it comes to working with governments, may be somewhat limited in scope. In fact, it can and has led to tension when the “expert” ideas and best practices of the West did not fit or come into conflict with local approaches and norms. While this should not dissuade the West from extending governance assistance to developing countries, it does mean that the terms of engagement need to be dictated by context rather than preapproved Western ideologies.

There is always a question of how intrusive governance aid can be when it comes to the internal political matters of a country. Corrupt governments, which plunder away aid funds and burden their constituents with debt servicing, plague much of the developing world, and pose a particularly difficult challenge to address from outside. In such cases, directing more aid to the government may end up exacerbating the problem. Efforts to improve governance could benefit from investments into building grassroots demand for better governance. This can be done by supporting and strengthening civil society to encourage active citizenry and capacity building of non-government actors to engage in policy dialogue.  Creating pressure from below- i.e. the constituents- is a more effective way to ensure accountability and improve efficiency and performance. It can force governments to rethink policies and improve institutions and, if needed, seek assistance from experts elsewhere who have experience dealing with the specific challenges they are looking to solve. It creates the opportunity for a bottom-up approach to governance assistance that is driven by local context rather than prescribed best practices elsewhere.

Tasmia Rahman is a first year Master of International Development Policy student at Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy, where she also works as a research assistant for Gui2de. Previously, Rahman worked with BRAC in Bangladesh for two years.

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