Academic journal article Trames

'Good Governance': The Pliability of a Policy Concept

Academic journal article Trames

'Good Governance': The Pliability of a Policy Concept

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

For well over a decade, the notion of 'good governance' has served a s a general guiding principle for donor agencies in demanding from recipient governments adherence to proper administrative processes in the handling of development assistance and expecting them to put in place effective policy instruments towards that end. At the present time, however, donor references to the 'good governance' notion aimed at inducing reforms in the institutional environment of recipient countries appear to have had their longest day. Instead, changing donor preferences for new kinds of relations with aid-receiving countries are giving rise to a different use of the 'good governance' notion, notably to have it serve as a pre-condition to qualify for aid relationships. The present paper explores the conditions under which the idea of 'good governance' first became adopted as a donor policy metaphor and how successively it is being transformed into an instrument of 'selectivity'. Particular attention will need to be given in this regard to successive shifts in the relevant policy thinking within the World Bank.

As a background, it should be recalled that around 1989-90, all of a sudden, the 'good governance' notion became prominent on the international aid front. 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. Until that time, aid agencies and other development institutions had generally not been approaching their program relations with counterparts in terms of criteria of 'good governance'. Nor had, for that matter, the term 'governance' constituted a significant part of the vocabularies used in, say, political science courses at European or American universities in the decades before. For a long time the word had 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 rather grander than 'administration', less business-like than 'management', and with their 'political' concerns handled discretely but firmly.

But then suddenly, the notion of 'good governance' was there, now used to refer to the way in which whole countries, or cities or provinces for that matter, were being 'governed' or to be governed. Contextually, rather than intrinsically, it soon transpired that any references that were made to it somehow pertained to states and other entities in the South, and later to the countries emerging from the former Soviet bloc, rather than in Western Europe or North America from where the concept was being (re-)launched. Moreover, with the adjective 'good' added to it, it became unmistakably clear that the concept of 'good governance' could be used to invite judgment about how the country, city or agency concerned was being 'governed'. It enabled the raising of evaluative questions about proper procedures, transparency, the quality and process of decision-making, and many other such concerns (Doornbos 1995). The way these issues were at an early stage looked at from a donor perspective could be gleaned from a World Bank Staff Paper as follows:

Since poor countries generally have fragile polities and weak systems of accountability, with few autonomous institutions and little countervailing power to that exercised by the government at the center, external agencies are potentially key political players capable of exerting considerable influence in promoting good or bad governance. In raising the shortcomings of a country's governance, external agencies are calling into question its government's performance. Clearly, this goes further than a critique of a particular program or project (generally regarded as a legitimate concern of a financing agency), to touch on the ability of a regime to govern effectively in the interest of its citizenry (Landell-Mills and Serageldin 1991:13). …

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