The future of governance research looks ‘upside down’

July 13, 2010

Governance research has taken great strides forward over the past decade. The changing global political economy and the rise of new emerging economies in the South have challenged the OECD-centred model of governance. The historical ‘default position’ of the development community – to look at the world from the position of a ‘developed’ country – is no longer applicable. The Centre for the Future State (CFS) has made a major contribution to governance thinking over the last decade and with its recent publication, Upside Down View of Governance.

Mick Moore and his team at CFS interrogate the extent to which informal institutions and policy networks are hurdles to good governance. They point to donors’ limited success in trying to improve the investment climate, reform public services and fight corruption in poor countries by strengthening formal, rules-based institutions.

But while the programme’s main findings are clear – that informal institutions and personalised relationships are pervasive and powerful and can contribute to progressive outcomes in poor countries – they play out differently in different contexts and change over time.

Informal local institutions can be quite flexible and plastic; they change a great deal over time. Their ‘traditionality’ may lie more in the ways in which they are legitimated in the eyes of the people they serve than in any actual historical continuity. This makes it difficult for policymakers to effectively support ‘good governance’ processes and structures.

Informal power relations can work for development and be part of the solution. For example in Somaliland, clan elders were responsible for selling the idea of disarmament to the main clans, and for negotiating the representation of other clans. But they can also be deployed and exploited for ignoble ends – e.g. in Bolivia, Fiji, India and Uganda, where support for traditional institutions has been a way for politicians to mobilise ethnic, regional or caste constituencies.

Evidence on taxation shows that bargaining between the state and its citizens can help create effective and accountable governance mechanisms. This builds upon CFS research by showing how bottom-up processes can lead to highly positive governance outcomes in the longer term. Studies in Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia show how governments’ need for tax revenue has driven formal and informal bargaining with citizens, with the potential to enhance accountability.

In the current climate of financial uncertainty OECD governments are seeking to improve international financial regulation and reduce opportunities for tax evasion. Informal bargaining between citizens and government on taxation policy plays a lead role in increasing civil society engagement, this in turn plays a pivotal role in raising government accountability and responsiveness. In order for the research community to begin and use this thinking there is a need to continually ask ‘What informal local institutions are at work, and how are they influencing development outcomes?’ It is then up to donors to bring a new understanding to policy making, and a more reflexive approach to its implementation, as a means of bridging the gap between research findings and current practice.

This article comes from the daily newsletter produced at the Politics of Poverty conference held June 21st and 22nd 2010. The  newsletters have a wide range of information on DFID-funded governance research over the last ten years. If you think they could be of interest to a colleague or friend why not pass them on via email or Twitter (using the hashtag #politicsofpoverty).

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