Beyond the “Good Governance” mantra

Alan Hudson
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By Alan Hudson — October 8, 2014.

I’ve worked on issues around governance for a number of years. So I’m totally signed up to the idea that governance – the institutions or rules of the game that structure the relationship between citizens and their states – matters. I’m very glad that over the last 20 years, the global development community has increasingly recognized that governance is a key driver of, or hindrance to, sustainable development. And, on balance, I’m pleased that the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals retained goal 16, a governance-related goal to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. However, I’m concerned that the use of the phrase “Good Governance” as a short-hand for describing the sort of governance arrangements that are desirable will ultimately damage efforts to support progress towards effective governance.

The invocation of “Good Governance” is something that happens a lot, including in ongoing discussions of whether and how governance – or governance-related issues – should be addressed in the post-2015 development framework. Rather than simply squirm uncomfortably every time someone invokes the “Good Governance” mantra, I thought it would be more constructive to explain – again (see here and here) – why I find the phrase problematic, and to outline why I think that “Open Governance” might be a more helpful formulation.

My primary discomfort with the “Good Governance” mantra is that it obscures and wishes away much of the complexity about governance. Few would disagree with the idea that: i) governance arrangements have distributional consequences; ii) governance arrangements play a role in shaping progress towards development outcomes; and iii) effective governance arrangements – forms of governance – will vary by context. But the “Good Governance” mantra, it seems to me, unhelpfully side-steps these key issues, avoiding, or at least postponing, a number of key questions: good from whose perspective, good for what, good for where?

Moreover, the notion of “Good Governance” risks giving the impression that “we” – which tends to mean people outside of the societies that they’re talking about – know what governance is good, and further still that “we” know what needs to happen to make governance good. On both counts, the evidence is that that is seldom the case.

These are not new points. A number of commentators including Merilee Grindle, Matt Andrews, Mushtaq Khan and, most recently, Brian Levy, have pointed out the problems with a “Good Governance” agenda for many years. But, despite their best efforts, in policy discussions, including around post-2015, their warnings are too rarely heeded.

However, rather than drop the language of governance entirely, I do think that there is value in a more flexible, perhaps less normative – or differently normative, more focused on function than form – notion of governance. One that centers on transparency, participation and accountability. One that is about promoting the ability of communities in particular places to address the governance challenges relating to the specific priorities that they face, and which puts people in those places – rather than outsiders – center-stage in improving governance in ways that work for them. Indeed, the targets in the Open Working Group’s Goal 16 include important elements of this.

The “Good Governance” mantra may be hard to shake, but I remain hopeful that open governance – a more flexible framing which is about empowering people and governments with information so that they can work together to tackle problems they prioritize, in their particular places – may yet win the day. The sooner that happens, the better.

Alan Hudson
Alan Hudson
Executive Director

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