Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Readings in Decentralization: Food for Thought - A Definition of Governance - Series Note: 5

The following email note is publicly available. Here is a good discussion on the definition of governance. The information is taken from this link.

From::::: paul.lundberg@un.org.pk
To::::: magnet@undp.org
Date::::: Fri, 19 Sep 1997 21:20:42 PKT
Subject :: Re: Food for Thought - A Definition of Governance

Dear Magnet,

Some of our colleagues have argued, vociferously in one case, that
defining governance is an academic exercise that should not concern
us practitioners. I disagree with that view. I believe that it is
essential that we understand what we are talking about and agree
among ourselves about the nature of our subject.

To start my comment, I would like to submit an alternate definition
of governance. This definition was created by Dr. Elinor Ostrom, a
professor of political science and a lifelong student of common
property resource management issues. She defines governance quite
simply as the "regularized ways of ordering human societies at all
levels of organization from family units to entire societies".

Why did I think it necessary to submit an alternate definition? We
need to define governance as a function of society, not of
government, and without referring to intended results.
Unfortunately, the first sentence of UNDP's definition of governance
immediately creates an obstacle for those who see the influence of
civil society to be paramount. Governance should not be equated
with the processes of government. The "management of a country's
affairs" is an outcome of governance, not its definition. One of the
most difficult tasks I face when attempting to introduce the concept
of governance to officials and politicians is to get them to
recognize that, in a free society, it is the civil society, not the
government, that determines the principles under which institutions
are formed and function.

The second sentence in UNDP's definition helps to broaden our
view of governance, but I fear it comes too late because the
readers are already thinking about citizens in relation to their
governments. However, this sentence rightly addresses the fact that
civil society does not spend much of its time thinking about
political society. Most of the time people think about their
relations with other people. They think of government only when it
gets in the way or when it fails to protect their rights. (More
recently, people also think of government when they want something
they don't want to pay for, but that is a subject for a later
debate.) I would argue that it is the quality of individual
relationships that determines the quality of governance, not the
other way around. The decision making processes involved in the
management of a nation's development resource allocations will depend
ultimately upon the dominant approach of its civil society to the
management of family and community relations.

In support of this relational view of governance, I would like
to quote Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote in his classic review of
early American governance in the 1830's: "If men are to remain
civilized, or to become so, the art of association together must grow
and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is
increased". I believe the quality of association to be found
in a society is a key determinant that can be used to distinguish
good from bad governance. A valuable question to ask is: Do the
formal and informal rule structures extant in a society, and the
manner in which those rules are enforced, support or constrain the
ability of people to work together for common purposes.

Thus, the "ordering of human societies" in Dr. Ostrom's definition
is not a process that is done to societies, but by them in a
self-organized manner over time. The process of creating
lasting systems of governance is dominated by the interaction of
individual decisions. Fortunately, or unfortunately, when these
individual decisions are aggregated through social institutions the
emergent structures are rarely predictable.

Those of you who got this far may now legitimately ask what kinds of
governance support initiatives are possible to consider if the
evolution of governance systems is essentially a chaotic,
uncontrollable process. Obviously, we need to start by
deconstructing the definition into its component parts and
determining those that are appropriate for external interventions.
The results will differ greatly among societies. The late Nobel
economist, Fredrick Hayak, often referred to the "fatal conceit"
of those who believed that they could engineer societies. To avoid
this conceit, I suggest that we focus the bulk of our attention on
promoting those activities that enhance abilities at all levels of
society to work out their problems for themselves. If you are
looking for examples, MDGD's LIFE is arguably one of the best.

To conclude my assessment of UNDP's definition, I believe the
second paragraph is inappropriatly worded. A good definition of a
term should not be tied to the normative values of its definers.
This definition of "good governance" is inappropriate not because it
is eurocentric, but because it is UN-centric. It is too filled with
jargon currently in fashion in development circles to have much
general or lasting value.

As an alternative I submit the following: "Good governance occurs
when societal norms and practices empower and encourage people to
take increasingly greater control over their own development in
a manner that does not impinge upon the accepted rights of others."

Comments and criticism are welcome.

Paul Lundberg
UNDP Pakistan
lundberg@un.org.pk

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