Five myths about governance and development

The World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation blog recently ran a post that questioned pretty much all the conventional wisdom about making Northern-style good governance the centerpiece of development efforts.  All five  points are worth a read.  Here are the first two:

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. This corollary might appear more defensible, but it isn’t. 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.

6 thoughts on “Five myths about governance and development

  1. No blogging yet for me- I think I created the account a while a go and didn’t know what to do with it!

    Your examples seem to suggest that economic development might lead to good governance in some cases – that’s a story I’m much more likely to believe than the one that works the other way around.

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  2. I love a good myth debunking. Another important question to ask is “what do we mean by development?” Some people (but not many, I’d imagine), might just say GDP growth- plain and simple. My guess is that most answers would involve economic growth, but also descriptions of “good” institutions, access to services, absence of corruption- in short, many things we might also describe as good governance. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that it’s easy to say that good things lead to good things, but I just wonder if all of these good things are part of the same basket and are actually the same dependent variable after all.

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    1. I think economic growth and governance reform can certainly proceed independently of each other in the short run, but in the long run they’re definitely strongly intertwined, if not necessarily the same DV. I don’t think we have a very good understanding of the interplay between these two things, though. There’s clearly merit to the idea that giving people an economic power base independent of the state (i.e. through the market) often leads them to call for better governance, in the sense of less abuse and more accountability. It’s the story of the creation of the English parliament. But then there are other places where growth doesn’t seem to lead to large changes in governance (arguably China), or where govenance reforms take place for reasons that don’t seem strongly connected to public pressure from people benefiting from growth (Rwanda).

      By the way, are you going to be blogging now? Excited to follow along!

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