What is Good Governance?

by R.M.B Senanayake


Recently the terms "governance" and "good governance" are being increasingly used in development literature. Bad governance is being increasingly regarded as one of the root causes of all evil within our societies. Major donors and international financial institutions are increasingly basing their aid and loans on the condition that reforms that ensure "good governance" are undertaken.

What then is meant by good governance? Let’s first see what governance is. The concept of "governance" is not new. It is as old as human civilization. Simply put "governance" means: the process of decision-making and the process by which such decisions are implemented (or not implemented). Governance can be used in several contexts such as corporate governance, international governance, national governance and local governance. This is because the process of governance includes the common process of decision making. It is important to determine who takes the decisions in the State and how right they are. But how do we determine what is right and wrong about decision making in the State?

Since governance is the process of decision making and the process by which decisions are implemented, an analysis of governance must necessarily focus on the formal and informal actors or persons involved in the decision-making at the formal level and what effect such decisions have on the people as a whole. It must therefore focus also on the implementation of the decisions made, for otherwise the decisions will be empty rhetoric.

The decision making process has two aspects. There is the formal decision making structure and the informal influences on such decision making by interested groups who lobby the State authorities. . So we have to examine both the formal and the informal structures that are in place which influence the formal decisions being made. It is also necessary to examine how the decisions are implemented for a decision which is not implemented has no practical value to the community.

Government is only one of the actors in the process of governance. Other actors involved in the governance process vary depending on the level of government that is under discussion. In rural areas, for example, other actors may include influential landlords, associations of peasant farmers, cooperatives, NGOs, research institutes, religious leaders, finance institutions political parties, the military etc. The situation in urban areas is much more complex. At the national level, in addition to the above actors, media, lobbyists, international donors, multi-national corporations, etc. may play a role in decision-making or in influencing the decision-making process.

 All actors in the process of governance other than government and the military are grouped together as part of the "civil society." In some countries where the enforcement of law and order is weak, other actors also exercise physical force in addition to the civil society such as organized crime syndicates. Such organized crime syndicates also influence the decision-making process, particularly in urban areas but even at the national level. So formal government structures are only one means by which decisions are arrived at and implemented.

There are also even at the national level informal decision-making structures such as "kitchen cabinets". Informal advisors may exist who although not exercising formal power do influence the process of decision-making since the key decision makers even in formal structures may listen to them.  So in urban areas, organized crime syndicates such as the "land Mafia" may influence decision-making. This is seen in several Latin American countries where feudal landlords still dominate although in much of the western world and even in the former colonies such power has been eroded through land reforms and new land settlement laws and practices as in our own country. But where land reform has not taken place and feudal land ownership principles and practices still prevail in rural areas, locally powerful families may make or influence decision-making even if the formal decision making process is with the government or local government. Such informal decision-making is often the result of corrupt practices or leads to corrupt practices.


Good Governance

Good governance has been identified by political science analysts and economists as having some major characteristics. It is participatory and consensus oriented meaning that the decisions are arrived at with the participation of all those within the particular decision making unit of the State either at the central government or at the local government level. For a long time slaves and serfs were not given the vote and they had no part in the decision making process of the State. This was so during the ancient period and even extended up to the Middle Ages in Europe. Voting by the ordinary people as a decision making tool in the process of government did not arise since power was confined to the king and the traditional feudal nobility. Entry to such feudal nobility was only by birth.

But with the growth in power of the commercial classes through the period following the voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century during which they made money through trading and accumulated wealth, they too demanded a say in decision making in the State. The King was often indebted to them for he had borrowed money from them to indulge in his fancies in addition to funding the State expenditure. So they too came to be co-opted into government decision making process for kings continued to borrow from them and failed to repay their debts.

Next came the emancipation of slaves. Slavery had been practiced for a long time since in the ancient world. The Greek and Roman civilizations had slavery as an institution and were economically dependent on slavery as an institution. So it was to take a long time before slavery could be abolished. But the agitation against slavery continued to gather momentum due to the efforts of the evangelical fraternity with persons like Wilberforce. The campaign for the abolition of slavery grew from strength although it was resisted by the landowners and the American colonists who needed slaves to cultivate their lands with cotton. But the opposition to slavery grew among the common people owing to the agitation of religious minded persons like Wilberforce.

Despite the landowners and colonists who wanted slavery to continue for economic reasons since they needed slaves for their continued economic activity such as the cotton and sugar plantations in the new World, the emancipation of the slaves did take place legally and the former slaves were given voting rights over time when their decisions came to be counted in the over-all decision making by the government. It took some more time for universal suffrage to be established. The women had long been deprived of their civic rights to participate in decision making in the State. But the feminist struggle for voting rights also grew with women demanding it stridently and willing to carry out a public agitation campaign. They won their voting rights after active agitation.

Government it is now accepted must not only be participatory but also accountable, transparent, and responsive to public opinion. We take our democratic rights for granted but we cannot forget that they were the result of a prolonged campaign of agitation. Universal suffrage is not an old institution but only a matter during the last hundred or so years.  It also came to be accepted that all people irrespective of their class, creed and social background should be treated as equal before the State and not merely as equal before the law, which had been accepted by the 18th century.

Government it is now accepted should be effective.  There are still large areas of the world where the authority of the government is rivaled by the power and authority of other classes or institutions. In the Middle ages it was the Church that was the only rival after the nation state came into being. The Reformation was a struggle to assert the authority of the State over the Church which was a powerful autonomous institution having survived the fall of Roman Empire. It had no rival authority until the nation states began to rival them.

It is also necessary that the State be efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. These conditions are required to ensure that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. Such a State must also be responsive to the future needs of society and not only be pre-occupied with the present.

Good Governance it is said has eight major characteristics. It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. These features alone ensure that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society. This should be our goal in politics.

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