How good governance, accountability are crucial development

23May 2016
Muharram Macatta
The Guardian
How good governance, accountability are crucial development

ACCOUNTABILITY, transparency and good governance have emerged as crucial development aid priorities over the past twenty-five years.

Greater governmental transparency will allow citizens to determine where their political leaders are going astray and exert well-targeted pressure to put them back on track.

These priorities have been invoked by a change in the predominant thinking of development that occurred at major aid institutions in the late 1980s.
Some governments in developing countries have rhetorically embraced the value of accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion and joined international initiatives to further these principles.

The realisation that bad governance is often a key driver of chronic underdevelopment, and that the donor emphasis on market reform would only succeed if developing countries built capable, effective state institutions. Develop mentalists at the time framed this insight in politically neutral-sounding terms as “good governance.”

However, the political will to translate such commitments into substantive political reform is often lacking. Some governments remain fiercely opposed to incorporating these principles into the international development agenda, viewing them as entry points for illegitimate political meddling.

In the course of the past decade, the aid community has increasingly emphasized the importance of expanding recipient country ownership over development processes through greater donor accountability, transparency, and multi-stakeholder engagement.

The 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness launched this agenda by advocating for more inclusive partnerships between developed and developing countries to better incorporate civil society and private sector actors, and stressing the need to enhance “mutual accountability and transparency in the use of development resources.”

Successor declarations at subsequent high-level forums on aid effectiveness in Accra further affirmed that donors should engage in an “open and inclusive dialogue on development policies” in recipient countries, allow greater participation of local stakeholders in planning processes, and ensure that aid is transparent and accountable to all citizens.

How could anyone mount a principled objection to activities aimed at achieving greater accountability by the existing government towards its people, greater transparency by national institutions in their handling of public finances, active participation by citizens in development processes that affect their well-being, or meaningful inclusion of disadvantaged groups in socioeconomic life?

In short, an apparently powerful consensus has emerged in the international development community around incorporating accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion into work at the macro as well as micro level. These principles enjoy strong appeal as inherently, even unquestionably good things—basic ways of respecting human dignity and individual autonomy.

Proponents find in these four concepts not just intrinsic value but, just as importantly, a natural instrumental logic. National institutions that are accountable to their people will use their resources constructively rather than misspend or steal them.

Greater governmental transparency will allow citizens to determine where their political leaders are going astray and exert well-targeted pressure to put them back on track.

Increased public participation in governance processes on the local and national levels will provide those institutions with direct input on how to best respond to citizen needs and bring additional information about blockages and inefficiencies into decision-making processes.

The four principles together in effect form a new conventional wisdom about development, one with interlinked normative and instrumental rationales and one that promises to bridge long-standing divides both within aid organizations as well as between donors and recipients.

Moreover, uncertainty and disagreement persist both over whether these principles are intrinsically valuable elements of aid policy and practice and whether they do in fact help achieve economic development—a question that remains closely tied to the larger debate surrounding the role of governance in nurturing and sustaining economic growth.

Lastly, despite a seeming convergence around these values at the global level, many developing country governments remain only superficially committed to their application, and traditional rifts between donors and recipients over outside interventions in domestic governance matters live on.

Identifying and understanding these fissures makes clear that the apparently wide-reaching new consensus in development cooperation around the normative and instrumental value of accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion remains less solid than enthusiasts of these concepts might wish. Much more work lies ahead to turn these theoretically attractive principles into consistent and effective practice.

As we may still recall that governance work initially concentrated on public sector efficiency and competence, with a programmatic focus on public expenditure management, civil service reform, and privatization.

Yet this narrow conception steadily broadened to take on board the principles of accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion. This change occurred for multiple reasons.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the World Bank and other major donors began concentrating on corruption—which many aid providers had traditionally avoided confronting head on, viewing it as too politically sensitive—as a key obstacle to poverty reduction.

Public sector accountability and transparency emerged as crucial concepts in the effort to reduce opportunities for corruption and strengthen internal and external monitoring mechanisms.

The emergence in those years of transnational advocacy movements that were focused on government transparency and accountability further pushed the aid community to begin tackling these issues in their work.

Transparency International and other groups helped push anticorruption onto the agenda. Nongovernmental groups in developed as well as developing countries led a widening campaign for freedom of information that in many places produced new laws and regulation guaranteeing citizens’ right of access to government information.

More recently, the national civil society push for open government has further solidified attention to public sector transparency in domestic and international policy circles.

The gradual shift from project aid toward budget support also reinforced donor interest in accountability and transparency as prerequisites for aid effectiveness.

As donors channeled more assistance directly to central governments to strengthen state capacity and country ownership, they put greater emphasis on governance reforms that would ensure the responsible use of these resources.

In addition, frustration with the meager impact of the first wave of technical assistance to improve government effectiveness pushed donors to broaden their thinking about how institutional change might be achieved.

Faced with the recognition that technocratic inputs were not enough to overcome entrenched resistance to reforms, they began to look for ways to encourage greater citizen engagement, hoping that those groups suffering from the consequences of poor governance might constitute a more effective driver of positive change.

Participation, for example, is generally used to refer to input by citizens into governmental processes, including, for example, in the planning, design, implementation, or review of policies that affect them.

Yet such input varies widely in type, duration, and intensity—it can be formal or informal, sporadic or continuous, limited or far-reaching, local or national, and so forth.

Participatory measures can be part of broader vertical accountability efforts relating to public financial management and service delivery, forming an integral element of citizen attempts to exert a disciplinary role vis-à-vis the state.

Yet the term is also used to describe broader consultations and public input into decision-making processes that remain firmly in the hands of government or other stakeholders. A similar degree of variation holds for the other three concepts as well.

The intrinsic case for making accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion major pillars of development aid seems straightforward to enthusiasts of these principles: the four concepts describe a relationship between governments and their citizens that honors and reinforces basic human dignity.

As such, they are good things in and of themselves that should be understood as intrinsic elements of development. In other words, a society is more developed when its people are treated in accordance with these values and less developed when they are not.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly spoken about property rights, the rule of law, strong institutions, and the absence of conflict and corruption as an interlinked set of crucial conditions that “enable open economies and open societies to thrive,” and argued that “eradicating poverty requires the growth that is fueled by open economies, and open economies are themselves best ensured by open societies.

As a matter of convenience we therefore stress the importance of our nation’s capacity and cohesion, while rejecting a normative insistence on bottom-up pressure and accountability as a means to better government performance.

Following a similar line, we criticize the good governance agenda for prioritizing market-enhancing measures such as transparency, rule of law, and anticorruption in contexts with limited governance capabilities. Instead, we argue for a greater focus on growth-enhancing aspects of governance, such as the capacity to strategically attract new investment.

Linking these principles and practices is an overarching concern that a premature opening of political institutions and decision-making processes can exacerbate existing collective action problems, and a wariness of good governance approaches that assume state capacity and political will for reform where both are lacking.

In sum, the apparent consensus around transparency, accountability, participation, and inclusion should be understood as very much a work in progress, not a transformation that has largely already been achieved.

Enthusiasts of these principles should avoid the temptation to act as though the agreement around them is stronger than it really is—and they should be willing to face head on the many lasting fissures and look for ways to reduce them.
Some, like the debates over the legitimacy of the intrinsic case, reflect differences in the very core idea of what development is and are thus unlikely to be overcome anytime soon.

But others, like the continuing divisions between governance, human rights, and democracy practitioners or the problem of superficial application of the four principles, are much more amenable to practical solutions.

In other words, whether the consensus genuinely solidifies will depend greatly on how effectively its proponents deepen their understanding of how to put the four concepts into practice, share that understanding clearly across all parts of the assistance community, and bridge the divide between donors and recipients on these issues.

The degree of their success will be a major factor determining the shape of national development work over the next generation.