Political Society and Governance in 16 Developing Countries

Working and discussion papers
June 2003
Goran Hyden, Julius Court and Kenneth Mease

In a political process perspective like the one underlying our study, political society is perhaps the most critical link in the governance chain. It is the arena where citizens are represented and their views are aggregated and packaged into specific policy demands and proposals. As part of a project to undertake comprehensive governance assessments, we focus here on the nature of the rules (formal and informal) that affect political society. How political society is structured and how its rules are the subject of collective stewardship are critical for the stability of the political system at large.

This paper presents the findings for political society in 16 developing countries. Our study confirms that political society is the most difficult arena to govern. The political society arena is problematic in virtually all countries included in our survey. Many of the countries included in our sample are newcomers to a system in which political society is meant to play an important part in the political process. Institutions are only now being introduced or put into place. Many of the shortcomings of political society, however, are directly attributable to the behavior of individual members of the legislature. They do not necessarily live up to the expectations associated with the rules or, even worse, they outright violate these rules. We came across frequent references to elected representatives having abandoned their constituents or having engaged in corrupt behavior.

The study highlights a number of implications for practitioners in the international community. The first point is that in spite of all the money that has gone into strengthening legislatures and monitoring elections, remarkably little progress seems to have been made. This should not necessarily be a source of despair but an invitation to accept that any support of political society, whether the legislature or the electoral administration, is not merely a technical or 'capacity-building' issue. While greater capacity is needed in many countries, every gesture of support is highly political and will be perceived as such. Our study suggests that trust and social capital in the relationship between voters and their representatives - or civil and political society - are as important ingredients in what needs to be done as such inputs as training, staff capacity, or archives.