Re-thinking governance for development

Graeme Ramshaw, WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation, participated in the European Partnership for Democracy launch event of the World Development Report 2017  in Brussels last week. Here are his takeaways on what this means for democracy support.

The World Bank’s 2017 World Development Report “Governance and the Law”, encourages its readers to rethink governance for development. The authors are upfront in admitting that very little of its content is new and draws heavily on the efforts of those who have been arguing for a more political approach to development for more than a decade. But that the World Bank has taken the leap in endorsing a thinking and working politically framework is highly significant. For institutions like EU, the principal audience for the launch event last week, the opinion of the World Bank carries weight in ways that we as smaller implementers do not.

For those of us already converted to the political approach to development, the report offers a useful framework for challenging commonly held assumptions around the challenges of institutional reform. How many times have we heard these phrases?: ‘the reform failed because it didn’t follow best practices,’ ‘the reform failed because of a lack of capacity,’ or ‘the reform failed because of a lack of political will.’ These are the go-to excuses for many unsuccessful governance programmes and are littered throughout the copious evaluations of this sector. But how explanatory are they?

According to the WDR, not very. These statements do little to interrogate the underlying causes of stalled reform efforts and paper over serious gaps in our understanding of problems and our perceived solutions to them. By allowing ourselves to stop our analysis at this level, we are depriving ourselves of the real learning and depth of engagement that might bring about real change in future programmes.

To remedy this, the WDR suggests three principles for rethinking governance for development:

  • Think not only about the form of institutions, but also about their functions.

  • Think not only about capacity-building, but also about power asymmetries.

  • Think not only about the rule of law, but also about the role of law.

The WDR’s assertion that function matters more than form, in many ways is intuitive. In nature, form generally follows function, yet we, as development practitioners, have laboured for years on the premise that function follows form, particularly in parliamentary strengthening. This WDR asks why ineffective policies persist; a useful corollary might be why ineffective approaches to institutional development persist. For the democracy assistance community, the answer is likely to be one of the following:

Form is simpler than function: We don’t have an ideal parliament in terms of function; there is too much variation in how effective parliaments around the world conduct their business. What we do have are models of what effective parliaments/parties look like. This ‘good form’ is used as a proxy for ‘good function’ to reduce complexity.

“Form is simpler than function: We don’t have an ideal parliament in terms of function”

‘Best practice’ is more measurable/predictable: Work with parliaments and political parties is already viewed with scepticism by many in the development field, particularly in some donor agencies. Being able to present ‘best practice’ provides some reassurance that we can justify our programming and be held accountable for its performance in the context of heavy scrutiny of aid.

Nevertheless, the WDR argues that to see improvements in policies/outcome we need to change people’s behaviour. Rather than view institutions as monolithic entities, organisations like WFD should conceive of them as a conglomeration of individual actors, each with their interests, assumptions, and incentives. Change is likely to come not in transformational bursts but in hundreds of tiny shifts in how individuals think and behave. This is a welcome statement from an institution like the World Bank and validates a lot of what democracy assistance organisations have been arguing for some time. Incremental change is sustainable change.

So, how should WFD and others respond to these recommendations?

The WDR suggests three functions that institutions should master: commitment, coordination, and cooperation. These resonate with a lot of what WFD has highlighted in our theory of change:

  • Commitment – This is about building relationships, creating environment conducive to change. WFD has put this at the heart of its work for a long time, investing its relationships with parliaments and political parties; our new monitoring and evaluation tools now provide opportunities for these activities to be captured more rigorously.
  • Coordination – This is about changing expectations across institutions and individuals: change is the new normal. Parliaments, in particular, have a certain amount of inertia about them. Some new planning methods that WFD is piloting create opportunities for parliamentary leaderships to think creatively about the change they want to see. Our focus on bringing different groups together through networks and communities of practice also helps build momentum for change.
  • Cooperation – The goal of institutional reform is to induce voluntary compliance, encouraging scale up of change out of direct beneficiaries. WFD’s experience is that parliaments and parties respond best to peer learning and learning by doing. We have been working on mentorship programmes that link MPs and political party leaders with counterparts elsewhere. Following this up through alumni networks encourages these participants to share their experience more broadly.

What the World Bank’s WDR is proposing is not revolutionary. The Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice has long been championing a programming model that emphasises process and function. But if we apply the WDR’s logic on reform to changing development practice, this report represents a rallying point for progress toward coordination and cooperation around a political approach to governance work.

Prioritising function over form requires a change in programming for many democracy support organisations. Capacity-driven models, while remaining part of the toolkit, can no longer be the default option when designing interventions.  Rather we must move toward more adaptive styles that look to improve function by whatever means, in whatever form that emerges.

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