"Good Governance": The Metamorphosis of a Policy Metaphor: "Governance" Quickly Became a Household Word, but as Is Often True of Buzzwords, There Has Hardly Been a Consensus as to What It Means, and Even Less of an Idea as How It Could Be Applied More Concretely

Article excerpt

For well over a decade, the notion of good governance has served as a general guiding principle for donor agencies to demand that recipient governments adhere to proper administrative processes in the handling of development assistance and put in place effective policy instruments towards that end. Currently, however, the use of the concept as a means to induce reforms within the institutional environment of recipient countries appears to have had its longest day. Instead, new patterns of interaction between donors and selected recipient countries are giving rise to new contents for the good governance metaphor, notably as a pre-condition to qualify for aid. This paper explores the conditions under which the criterion of good governance first became adopted as a donor policy metaphor and now appears to be transformed in favor of "selectivity." Particular attention will need to be given in this regard to successive shifts in the relevant policy thinking of the World Bank.

The concept of good governance became prominent in international aid circles around 1989 or 1990. First launched as a donor discourse, it came just as unexpectedly as the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened only slightly earlier, and in fact the two developments do not appear to have been entirely unconnected. Prior to these events, aid agencies and other development institutions had not approached program relations with counterparts in terms of good governance criteria. Nor had, for that matter, the term "governance" constituted a significant part of the vocabulary of political science courses at European and American universities. For a long time the word had a somewhat obscure dictionary existence, primarily carrying legalistic connotations, as in respect to bodies having boards of governors whose institutional role required a designation that was more grand than "administration," less business-like than "management," and suggested they handled their political concerns in a discreet but firm manner.

But all at once, the notion of good governance was there, referring to the way in which cities, provinces, or whole countries were being governed, or should be governed. Contextually rather than intrinsically, it soon transpired that these references somehow pertained to states and entities in the South, rather than in Europe or North America where the concept was launched. Moreover, with the adjective "good" added to it, it became unmistakably clear that the concept of good governance could invite judgment about how a particular country, city or agency was being governed. It enabled the raising of evaluative questions about proper procedures, transparency, the quality and process of decision-making, and other such matters. (1)

Looking back at the interval since the launch of the good governance discourse, it is striking to see how quickly the term "governance" became a household word, heading the list of concerns of aid agencies, government researchers and the media. As is often true with new buzzwords, though, there has hardly been a consensus as to its core meaning, and less and less of a common idea as to how it could be applied more concretely. Still, it is there, and it has gained a key function by virtue of its capacity all at once to draw attention to a whole range of often largely unspecified issues concerning processes of public policy-making and authority structures. In that sense it has appealed to the imagination of analysts as well as practitioners, and become a focal point for intellectual and policy discourses.

Today, almost a decade and a half after its rebirth, several questions persist about the use of good governance as a policy metaphor. What exactly was it supposed to mean? What is it used to refer to? Is it a universal concept or does it vary from context to context, and from one perspective to another? What meanings has the donor community, led by the World Bank, attached to the term and how useful has this conceptualization been? …


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