A New Inspiration to Make Governance Truly Crosscutting

The road from Udatenna to Mahiyanganaya is an ADB-supported project in Sri Lanka.
The road from Udatenna to Mahiyanganaya is an ADB-supported project in Sri Lanka.

By Claudia Buentjen

Governance specialists should be a bit more adventurous, cut down on attention to internal bureaucratic processes, and engage more vividly with partners.

Working as a governance specialist, you sometimes are put in a corner where governance is something separate from other issues, or limited to specific ones such as anti-corruption, transparency and accountability, or apparently technical issues of public financial management and procurement. Sometimes it is expected that these issues be dealt with in a technical manner to provide more effective governance in sectors and across governments and government levels.

A recent governance learning event in Manila co-hosted by ADB, the OECD-DAC’s GovNet and GIZ took me out of the corner, underlining how the challenges of aligning institutions, incentives and interests to serve inclusive development are indeed crosscutting.

Governance is of course not everything, but the challenges of governance are everywhere: institutions may not perform effectively, distorted incentives may impede collective action to address shared problems, and interests may be so diverse—or even opposed—that the prospective of brokering a powerful coalition of change may be bleak. Power and politics matter, as they are both the sources of positive energy of change and of the resistance to that change – be it at the national, subnational (or even supra-national) level, or within organizations of any size and shape.

Refreshingly, the new ideas we discussed based on the newly published OECD Governance Practitioner´s Notebook turned out not to claim to be that new. Approaches to support governance reform need to be based on a deep understanding of the context, including of the configuration and dynamics of power and politics. They need to be flexible and adaptive; attempt to solve the problems at hand rather than to install a pre-defined solution from elsewhere. Development partners—given the shape of their own internal incentives, interests and institutional particularities—always run the risk of becoming short-term guests to the party, pursuing over-ambitious agendas, and not giving enough weight to ensuring coherence and alignment to sometimes excruciating complex and slow national reform processes.

Reform is thus a journey – not a destination. Reforms do not end in ‘problem solved!’ but rather in a new configuration of challenges that the next steps in the permanent development process will try to reconfigure.

But if this is not new, and if it is still a daunting challenge to find the sensible path ahead that balances all the incentives, interests and institutional issues at hand, the good news is nonetheless that we can do development differently – not by institutionalizing a new orthodoxy (with accompanying tick-the-box checklists), but by adopting a mindset that constantly questions our assumptions, brings in alternative perspectives and listens to others, and supports the bold, yet humble leadership that is part and parcel of making reforms happen.

The other good news is that even if this is difficult, we had a number of case studies from colleagues in ADB, GIZ, USAID and the British Council that demonstrate how these sometimes a bit fluffy terms (governance, power, institutions, incentives) are constructively dealt with in practice. Politically-savvy coalition building between reformers at the local and national level to promote property tax and land management reform in the Philippines is one example, as is promoting effective road maintenance by combining political leadership and getting the civil service on board in Sri Lanka. In Indonesia, a problem-focused approach to encouraging teachers to work in underserved rural areas included convincing and supporting a local champion, who took the issue to heart and used it to frame a successful electoral bid. In Bangladesh, an unusual partnership between NGOs and prison and law authorities is finding ways to address the far-too-many cases where prisoners are held in custody for months or years waiting for trial.

Government and civil society representatives observed that development partners are still often unable to stay the course as long as it takes, and that their short operational cycles and focus on short-term results may disrupt promising processes that have not yet unfolded their potential. And while this is true, seasoned colleagues stressed that it is possible to sequence packages of support that combine a useful focus on shorter-term results with the long haul, and other agencies can take over support when funds run out due to changing priorities in other agencies – provided that the reforms are genuinely domestic and not induced by the particular agenda of a development partner.

Maybe the most inspirational and encouraging message was that we all now have a bigger space for acting differently than we may think. A space for being a bit more adventurous, cutting down on our attention to internal bureaucratic processes, and engaging more vividly with our multiple partners in our partner countries and elsewhere. A space to learn and share, as we did in the governance seminar.