Radically rethinking governance: a manifesto

Marta Foresti and Leni Wild
23 September 2014

What would a new direction in governance look like? There was much soul searching among the great and good (and the rest of us too!) working on governance who gathered in London last week. There was an underlying – and sometimes uncomfortable – feeling that we need to innovate and change if, as a community of practice, we are to make a real difference. 

There has never been a more opportune moment to rethink the way we ‘do governance’ in development. It is high on the policy agenda and hardly a day goes by without reference to the crucial role that institutions, politics and power play in determining development outcomes. Yet to seize this opportunity, we need to ‘do things differently’ in the governance field itself and to (radically) rethink our own ways of working – something we often ask of others.

While the governance community has gone from strength to strength in the last ten years, some bad habits have crept in too. So, here are four pledges for how we will do governance differently in the future, and our own mini ‘manifesto’ of good intentions to change practice: 

1. Get out of the governance bubble. While there have been numerous calls for governance practitioners to engage more in sector agendas, we often fall back on talking to each other, stuck within the comfort of governance circles. A lot of our work still treats governance as a self-contained field and not as a means of improving development outcomes. This happens despite the evidence that engaging in sectoral results debates is a good way of generating new and important insights about what to do differently.

We pledge not to hold any generic governance conferences or events for the next year and instead to use our resources to reach out to sectoral communities of practice, and to those working in areas like procurement or public financial management. (An operational agency could take this as far as banning ‘governance programmes’ and using the money to ensure that, say, health and education programmes are tough-minded and innovative in the way they deal with institutional change, political settlements and power!)

2. Embrace the challenge of demonstrating results. There is no contradiction between adopting a politically savvy and context sensitive approach to programmes and being able to demonstrate its development impacts. In fact, the opposite is true: programmes that fail to take the context into account typically fail. It is not the case that flexible and adaptive ways of working mean making things up as you go along either, or only result in small changes; there is growing evidence that politically smart, locally led interventions can lead to very tangible outcomes – and that this is measurable.

We therefore commit to document as rigorously and systematically as possible examples where doing development differently facilitates positive reform, avoiding any suggestion that evaluating politically smart interventions is inherently harder than evaluating any other programme that depends on changing behaviours.

3. Don’t be part of the problem, and look for the solution. One clear lesson emerging from ten years of research into the political economy of development is that aid agencies’ own internal incentives and ways of working are often part of the problem. Understanding what prevents – or encourages – more reflective ways of working, learning from failure and adaptive approaches is key to improving and changing practice.

We will work with and support those trying to document and change internal ways of working within development agencies. Rather than focusing only on constraints, we will look for examples where these have and can be overcome, and to share them with others.

4. Find different and better tools. While governance has become an increasingly visible field of work in many development agencies, this does not mean that it is a well-established discipline with clear or agreed definitions, tools and approaches. We still need a more robust and wider dialogue between economists, political scientists, sociologists and beyond to ensure that the governance agenda builds on the best theories and practices, and remains relevant in broader policy and academic debates.  While PEA can be a useful analytical tool, it too is only one among many others that could be better deployed to understand what drives or prevents change.

For the next year we will widen our own tool box to draw on disciplines like economics, history and ethnography, as well as complexity and systems theories. We will build alliances with those from a wide range of disciplinary and research backgrounds, with a shared interest in ensuring different – and better – development practice.

This is our manifesto – hold us to account for it over the next year, and add your own pledges in the comments below.

Marta Foresti and Leni Wild