Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Politics of Successful Governance Reforms

Now that I have come across Good Governance in my lectures and classes and, even attended a lecture by a fellow from DFID , I now know what the heck the 3rd floor back in UNDP Liberia was doing! For us the operational side of things (contract management, reporting to donors, monitoring projects, supervision of NGOs, fighting with donors, fighting with management), we never knew what anyone above us was really doing. Ha, now I know.

The lecture I attended was Politics of Successful Governance Reforms given by Mark Robinson from DFID on Tuesday, 18 November. The talk was a summary of research carried out on governance reforms being carried out with various DFID partners. The purpose of the research was to

- identify success in governance reforms: processes, impacts and sustainability
- analyse political and institutional factors that account for successful reforms

There are limitations to a technocratic approach as it outweighs politics and falls outside 'globalisation' and 'democratisation.'

The research hypotheses were that governance reforms are dependent on i) high levels of political commitment and bureaucratic capacity ii) governing elites and the depth of civil society iii) and the type, scope, level and length of reforms.


  1. Political commitment had a decisive role. Leadership, commitment and tactics of politics was key to successful reform. Political leadership has to have a vision of potential benefits, a willingness to consider reform options, and rely on technocrats (Brazil, Uganda).
  2. He went on to say that political competition generates bargaining and forces compromise over reforms but, cautious and attenuated reform can produce inertia and build resistance to change (India).
  3. Longevity of reform enhances credibility and predictability but undermines sustainability (Uganda).
  4. Non democratic context limits scope for mobilisation. Democratic political culture gives rise to strategies of bargaining and accommodation with vested interests (India).
  5. Incremental reforms with cumulative benefits build public support, minimise opposition, form vested interests and, strengthen political incentives for reform (India).
  6. Improved pay and conditions along with room for client feedback also helps reform (India).
  7. The assumption that traditional elites will resist reforms and formation of pro-reform conditions was not supported by the research findings.
  8. Civil society was usually not part of reforms.

Hence, the key conclusions are:

1) Centrality of political commitment
2) Technical capacity *
3) Politics of incremental ism

Implications for aid donors are that absence of domestic political commitment limits reform options and moderates donor expectations. Support for incremental reform is more rewarding over long term than ambitious reform initiatives with short term frames. Modest financial outlays and flexible lending instruments, selective technical assistance and compensation for losers are also important.

Wider implications are that politically feasible reforms require careful attention to institutional design, timing and, frequency. Incremental trade offs can entail trade offs between accountability and weaker efficiency games i.e. 'good enough governance.' The importance of long-term horizons and mutually reinforcing reforms with potential for achieving cumulative impact.

This is largely the summary of the talk given by the fellow from DFID. He did not really have a very engaging style of narrative and, bored a lot of people including me.

Good governance is a term that is now used by donors to speak of a transparent, accountable and efficient government. It is a very non-threatening, neutral phrase that really does not say a lot. However, its very banality and obviousness depoliticises the process by which governments would go about conducting reform whether they do it themselves or under donor pressure. Critiques of good governance agendas point out that this seemingly harmless concept is another form of neo-liberalism, that good governance is code for limited, efficient government which will allow free markets to function. Moreover, there is even the argument that neo liberalism has actually been internalised by heavily-indebted states.

The questions were interesting though and as you can see, even though they are questions, the answers are embedded in them:

  • doesn't corruption exist in developing countries?
  • why are we promoting privatisation in developing countries when it does not work here?
  • would political elites resist reforms only because of costs/benefits as explained by rational choice or would there be any other considerations?
  • weren't governance programmes social tranformation projects? how would it be possible to measure or evaluate this?

Mushtaq Khan, whom we have actually been reading in our classes, was among the audience. He asked what we actually meant by reform and was it not just service delivery. He said these reforms fail to see capture the bigger picture which includes class politics and conflict. In Pakistan for example, decentralisation by Musharraf created new structures that by passed the main political structures thereby creating tension and conflict. Morever, how do we measure political commitment independent of outcome in such research. Again, the question carried a lot of the answers within itself. Mark Robinson agreed with most of it anyway.

He also said that in today's world, the donors operate in a different way. After the Paris Declaration, donors are more diplomatic. We are in a post conditionalty environment. But again, as I mentioned before, there are arguments that the conditions have been internalised anyway in heavily-indebted states where the line between governments and donors have actually blurred.

All in all, I am glad I went to this talk to listen to the donor perspective on how they broadly see the success and constraints of governance reforms.

* Although this quite a paradox - what comes first, technical capacity or reform? If capacity were already there, would reforms even be needed?

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