An upside down view of governance

Development practitioners… need to close off their existing assumptions and mental models about governance and development.

Their default position is to look at the world from the perspective of a ‘developed’ country, aspiring to introduce governance reforms that would align the institutions of poor countries in the South more closely with those of an OECD state.

The goal includes an elected executive and legislature, a rules-based bureaucracy, an independent judiciary, a security apparatus under civilian control, and a regulated market economy – in short, effective, accountable public institutions that can support a broad range of civil, political, economic and social rights.

Informal institutions and personalised relationships are usually seen as governance problems, but the research suggests that they can also be part of the solution.

…Programmes to improve the investment climate, strengthen the rule of law, or fight corruption do not fail just for lack of ‘ownership’ or attention to politics. They fail because they make the wrong starting assumption: that progressive change consists in, and can be achieved through, strengthening formal, rules-based institutions that reflect a clear division between public and private spheres of life.

The key to making progress in the short-to-medium term may not be direct external intervention to orchestrate and support rules-based reform, but more indirect strategies to shift or influence the incentives and interests of local actors.

From a recent IDS report to DFID. A view to which I am very sympathetic.

7 thoughts on “An upside down view of governance

  1. Thanks in large part to Elinor Ostrom, we are already well-advised not to rule out the efficacy of local institutions in solving political or environmental or economic problems such as management of common pool resources. What is not clear is the ability of such informal types of institutions to carry structural transformations which African countries badly need. Additionally, the above-mentioned study appears to engage in cherry picking, particulary in its analysis of the case in Ethiopia. In quite a number of instances, African leaders romantize local institutions not on grounds of efficiency or equity but as an effective means to counter genuine demands for better governance. When donors call for reforms of formal institutions such as the judiciary we are aware that the benefits spread to a large section of society. As an Ethiopian the very thought of the ‘all-knowing donors’ aiming to incentive and disincentivize local elites is a nightmare I prefer to live without. Thanks, But No Thanks!

  2. There has been a great outpouring of research on ‘upside down governance’ (better known as ‘bottom-up’ governance) recently, largely as a result of 4 DFID-funded research programmes coming to a close this summer. The details of which can be found through the following link (including all the research outputs!!!): http://tiny.cc/7d6sq

    It struck me from reading about these research programmes on R4D what an impressive contribution these programmes have made in bringing the debate on governance forward within the development arena (but it is equally worth noting that numerous academics have been getting behind ‘bottom-up’ governance now for some time now). The challenge will, as ever, be getting this research into practice! I also found the following blog on R4D entitled ‘The Future of governance research looks upside down’ – might be worth a look? http://tiny.cc/o7sue

  3. It’s a fairly good study – excellent in comparison to other actually. I just have one pressing problem, which is the this rigid definitional divide between formal and informal institutions. The authors are excused in so far as this is a very very common mistake. (imo)

    The conclusion I’m missing is that while the authors make it clear that people happily draw on and combine formal and informal institutions, they (seemingly) fail to acknowledge that that is a reflection of the ‘fact’ that institutions, formal or informal, inhabit each other. Once scrutinised, institutions are produced/organised by means of other institutions, which are again produced/organised through others and so on. The problem then becomes one of understanding that formal institutions are not at all as formal as one would like to think — not that informal ones bypasses these and how to mould these informal institutions.

    Perhaps it doesn’t matter that much since the recommendation to move focus from institutions to their interaction should probably soothe my concerns. I’m sceptical however. In the (over)simplified version, it could easily become a bit like studying the relationship between two dependent variables.

  4. Informal institutions and personalised relationships are usually seen as governance problems, but the research suggests that they can also be part of the solution.

    An obvious case for this is Angola. It ranks very badly on the ease of doing business index because one has to keep the MPLA machine oiled to do anything there. And yet, quite a lot of people are doing business there, quite easily.

    The goal includes an elected executive and legislature, a rules-based bureaucracy, an independent judiciary, a security apparatus under civilian control, and a regulated market economy — in short, effective, accountable public institutions that can support a broad range of civil, political, economic and social rights.

    A signifcant part of the problem is Westerners’ tendency to lump all ‘authoritarian’ regimes together. As if there’s no important difference between a civilian party-state and a narrow military dictatorship. There is, of course. They might be equally bad on human rights, but party-states are clearly better at providing public goods and probably at not out-and-out looting.the public treasury.

    An independent judiciary is more problematic than Westerners tend to think. There’s a reason why many of the 3rd World poor favor traditional systems of adjudication – civil courts are seen, often rightly, as inaccessible and biased toward the urban elite.

    That’s not to say that none of those goals are important ones, but there are degrees of urgency. Having the military under civilian control, I would say, ought to be the first priority, even in absence of formal democracy.