Supposedly, I am an expert on governance. I thought I would share my thoughts on what that vague term means for me.
Governance work is so commonly mis-characterized that its name should be changed. Too often, the corruption issue dominates governance. This prompts many international development program managers to avoid the issue completely, because they think that by taking on governance they will offend government, who make the same association. Also, given the prevalence of corruption in programs, the managers are afraid that by inviting a governance lens, they will expose themselves to scrutiny that at the least represents a headache, if not a potential for the discovery of corruption issues. While most people agree that corruption – or rather certain types of corruption - are a major impediment to development, this strong association shifts attention away from numerous other organizational issues.
My own definition of governance relates to the health of organizations, particularly their efficiency. In other words, good governance is simply the organizational ability to fulfill the organization’s mandate. This includes a variety of basic organizational factors: on the formal side, it is an appropriate structure (decentralized vs. centralized), sufficient financing, good recruitment processes and other human resource concerns, formal internal and external accountability systems, etc.; on the informal side, it is productive institutional norms, esprit de corps, and social pressures for performance. This relates to all relevant organizations in a society, obviously including the government, but also NGOs and other non-state groups, whose governance is often neglected by international development institutions.
In my view, governance work is defined by its focus on improving these factors in a given organization. It is primarily distinguished from the central focus of international development work, which is the delivery of stuff mainly to citizens, whether money (scholarships), goods (nutrition supplements), or infrastructure. The result of the relative disregard by international development practitioners for a variety of organizational weaknesses at least partly translates into the continually poor quality of services. For example, while there are high praises for the increase in school enrollment found in many developing countries, often due to the provision of scholarships, the quality of education continues to be very poor in most developing countries (as well as the USA). A similar challenge arises in work on justice, where there are numerous legal aid programs that contribute to a case backlog due to the inefficiency of the courts. The incentives present in international institutions contribute greatly to this state of affairs, a topic that will be explored in future posts.