Development and improved governance have tended to go hand in hand. But, contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence that success in implementing governance reforms leads to more rapid and inclusive economic and social development. In fact, it may be the other way around.
The focus on good governance stems from the struggle to restore sustained growth during the developing-country debt crises of the 1980s. Instead of reassessing the prevailing economic-policy approach, international development institutions took aim at the easy targets: developing-country governments.
Advising those governments on how to do their jobs became a new vocation for these institutions, which quickly developed new “technical” approaches to governance reform.
The World Bank, using well over 100 indicators, introduced a composite index of good governance, based on perceptions of voice and accountability, political stability and the absence of violence, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, the rule of law, and levels of corruption.
By claiming that it had found a strong correlation between its governance indicators and economic performance, the Bank fueled hope that the key to economic progress had been found.
The case was flawed from the beginning. The indicators used were ahistorical and failed to account for country-specific challenges and conditions, with cross-country statistical analyses suffering from selection bias and ignoring the interlinkages among a wide array of variables.
As a result, the World Bank badly overestimated the impact of governance reform on economic growth. To be sure, governance that is effective, legitimate, and responsive provides untold benefits, especially when compared to the alternative: inefficient governance, cronyism, and corruption.
But the focus on governance reform has not proved nearly as effective as promised in fostering development. In fact, this governance-focused approach may have actually undermined development efforts.
For starters, it has allowed international institutions to avoid acknowledging the shortcomings of the new development orthodoxy of the last two decades of the twentieth century, when Latin America lost over a decade, and Sub-Saharan Africa a quarter-century, of economic and social progress. It has also complicated the work of governments unnecessarily.
With good-governance reforms now a condition for international aid, developing-country governments often end up mimicking donor expectations, instead of addressing the issues that are most pressing for their own citizens. Indeed, such reforms can even undermine traditional rights and customary obligations worked out among communities over many generations. Moreover, the required reforms are so wide-ranging that they are beyond the means of most developing countries to implement.
As a result, good-governance solutions tend to distract from more effective development efforts. Another problem with governance reforms is that, although they are formally neutral, they often favor particular vested interests, with grossly unfair consequences. Reforms aimed at decentralization and devolution have, in some cases, enabled the rise of powerful local political patrons.
The conclusion is clear: the development agenda should not be overloaded with governance reform. As Harvard’s Merilee Grindle has put it, we should be aiming for “good enough” governance, selecting a few imperatives from a long list of possibilities. But selecting the most important measures will not be easy. Indeed, advocates of governance reform have rarely been right about the most effective approach.
Recognizing that governance improves with development, the international community would be better served by pursuing reforms that directly advance development, instead of a broad agenda that may have, at best, a small indirect impact.
Many of the good-governance agenda’s key goals – empowerment, inclusion, participation, integrity, transparency, and accountability – can be built into workable solutions, not because outsiders demand them, but because effective solutions require them.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram is Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Michael T. Clark is Special Adviser on International Governance at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.