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The overrated discourse of good governance

Eyob Balcha, special to Addis Standard

Nowadays one cannot avoid the presentation of ‘good governance’ as a silver bullet that solves almost all the problems that we are facing in Africa. Keynote speakers at high level events, government officials, local level civil servants, local cadres as well as ordinary citizens never hesitate to associate the difficulties they are facing with “the lack of good governance”.

In Ethiopia not a single day passes by without state owned media echoing the level of ‘good governance’ that is needed as a remedy to almost every malaise the country is facing.

In this brief article, I would like to question whether the term good governance is an overrated discourse. I will also examine how these seemingly indisputable features of good governance have been pursued. More specifically, it is imperative to question the underlying assumptions that have been dictating the programs and interventions of good governance.

The authoritative origin
In 1989, the World Bank authoritatively declared the problems in Africa as “a crisis of governance”. Many institutions promoted the concept of governance in terms of the formation of formal and standardized rules and regulations that inform interactions among actors and decision in socio-economic and political spheres. The dominant discourses and practices during the structural adjustment period have also added the elements of accountability, transparency and the rule of law as essential elements of good governance. At this point it is wise to note that the normative notion of “good” added to the governance rhetoric as a crucial element.

One of the essential assumptions of the good governance discourse is the technocratic, administrative and managerial remedies that it promotes to cure every socio-economic and political malaise. It focuses on building or strengthening institutions and setting formal and procedural standards of doing business. Hence, most interventions focus on “capacity building” of this experts and also in copy-pasting “best practices”, usually with little effort to adjust to the context. When things do not work out, “lack of political will” is always presented as the most insurmountable deadlock hindering the aspired changes that good governance aims to achieve. Because no one dares speaking out loud about the elements that trigger the lack of “political will”, almost all efforts become empty slogans.

In practice, the limitations of the good governance discourse can be seen in terms of the two broad focuses it promotes. The first is usually echoed by institutions like the WB and IMF and focuses on ensuring public sector reform, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of economic institutions, facilitating the role of the private sector, maintaining the culture of transparency, accountability and expert-led and evidence based policy formulation processes. The second is promoted by UN institutions (mainly UNDP), as well as the EU and OECD countries and focuses on the political aspects of good governance. Here the focus is usually on institutional support and interventions during elections, decentralization, ensuring judicial independence, civil and political rights, tackling corruption and increasing government responsiveness.

Classic examples
The case of Ethiopia and Rwanda, the two African countries that are currently recognized for their remarkable economic growth, can be a good example to show the conceptual limitations of the good governance discourse. Both regimes are being applauded by international and continental development institutions for their success for maintaining a steady economic growth, and for their ‘pro-poor’ social policies. On the other hand, both governments are severely criticised for brutally suppressing civil and political rights of citizens, and the harsh political and ‘legal’ measures they take against freedom of expression and restrictions on plurality of political opinions.

If we examine the performance of these governments from the good governance point of view, what will be our conceptual parameter? Are we going to turn a blind eye to the improvements in both countries in decreasing maternal and child mortality rates and the provision of education and health services to the wider population because of their brutalities in handling civil rights?

Human rights defenders have multiple reasons to point their fingers on the incumbent regimes both in Ethiopia and Rwanda; but “development partners” such as the WB and African Development Bank (AfDB) have equally convincing reasons to take these two countries to attest that Africa is indeed “rising”. At best, the good governance viewpoint may help us to describe what is going right or wrong because it has clearer normative frameworks. But it can hardly explain why it is happening this way.

The Politics of non-formal relations
Way beyond the power of formal governance and administrative procedures, non-formal relations among people make systems function more effectively. In the case for Ethiopia, for example, these non-formal relations are the ones that mediate the negotiations among people who want to pursue their economic and political interests. Nowadays, whenever someone wants to take care of business either in a private or government offices, the most logical, probably strategic, starting point is to question “who do I know in that office?” or “ do I know someone who knows somebody in that office?” Non-formal relations, conversations and negotiations happen at the local levels of government when a person goes to the kebele (the lower administrative office) asking for service as well as at the highest levels of international and multi-national organizations. It is not uncommon to hear people referring to the power of “corridor diplomacy” or conversations during social gatherings producing significant decisions that would not have been easily achieved if the rules and procedures good governance written on papers were strictly followed.

The good governance discourse is too formalized, technocratic and teleological to accommodate the complex features of these relationships and negotiations among individuals. Political alliances, networks, associations and disassociations play significant role in the effective functioning of systems. Unfortunately, it is also through these relations that corruption is institutionalized, insulated from the eyes of the public or presented as a negligible problem. The various layers of clientilistic relations that have their own chain of command from the individual to the higher level officials are the ones that have the power to dictate ‘the rules of the game’ in town.

While the good governance agenda worries about setting the rules of the game, a nuanced focus on non-formal relations and ensembles of political practices goes a step further to understand the rules of the game while the rules of the game are set. The petty corruption at an individual level can be exaggerated and severely punished while a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal is tolerated because of the heavy weight political and economic elites benefiting from it. The outcry from citizens for the lack of good governance and the associated rosy vocabularies of transparency and accountability can hardly curb this malaise. Rather it is the capacity to understand the complexities of non-formal relations and creation of political alliances that should inform any effort to redress it.

While saying this, I cannot emphasise more that accountability and transparency are necessary values that we need to uphold. However, they are not sufficient. We cannot address the pervasive nature of corruption, nepotism and opportunism by loudly preaching for transparency to prevail and the rule of law to govern. Political and economic interests of the elites matter significantly for the written laws and the highly regarded normative values to govern.

To conclude, particularly with the case of Ethiopia, it is ironic to hear both citizens and the ruling party senior officials equally complaining about the “lack of good governance” as the root cause for the current socio-economic and political problems. For the majority of the citizens it is indeed a bottleneck that they need to deal with each and every day. It is already a public knowledge that those with influential connection and wider network of people can manoeuvre through the system so easily while others often meet the dead end. For the ruling party elites, non-formal relations constitute the unwritten laws that are subtly informing both the political alliance making and the economic dominance. Given that the country’s economy is expanding there is a burgeoning economic and political interest that is deeply knotted. In such context, principles of accountability and transparency are less important. The centre of attention will remain whose political and economic interest is at stake and who is getting what.

It is inherently ineffectual to challenge the ruling EPRDF for its failure to put in place the principles of good governance. EPRDF can present its own failure to uphold these principles more succinctly than anyone else. The approach to effect change in the socio-economic and political governance processes should start from recognizing the crucial role that non-formal relations are playing, understanding and analysing the “political will” they either trigger or hinder and then to cautiously make them stepping stones towards the aspired change. This will also make any effort to address the structurally embedded problems of the country to be more realistic by having time bounded objectives in the short, medium and long term periods.

The writer is a PhD Researcher in Development Policy and Management at University of Manchester and can be reached at

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