Asia's transformation through better governance

A view of Manila, Philippines. Asian economies are fast rising, but many countries still rank poorly in measures of good governance. Photo by: Bar Fabella / CC BY

Asia is by far and away the global top performer in the pace of economic growth, but it is becoming clear the region can no longer continue pursuing growth at any cost and postpone social inclusion and the environmental care. As we now know, everything won’t come out in the wash. There is no universal strategy for pursuing a triple bottom line of high, socially inclusive and sustainable growth — but better governance is imperative.

Asia ranks low in some of the global measures of good governance. Southeast Asia fares poorly in control of corruption. In East Asia, the gaps are wide for voice and accountability, an indicator which captures perceptions of the extent to which citizens can participate in policy making processes and the accountability of governments. South Asia ranks low in political stability. Stakeholder surveys at the Asian Development Bank consistently rank poor governance and corruption as top threats to the region’s development.

Ordinary citizens and civil society organizations, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly vocal in demanding better governance from their decision makers and public institutions. Here in the Philippines, of course, the alleged misuse by high-profile politicians of billions of pesos in state funds for development projects has caused a national furor.

Multilateral development banks play an important role in helping governments understand their governance needs. For some, the priority is to implement and enforce better governance and anticorruption measures. In others, the primacy is for more open and accountable government.

A message that development practitioners are keen to get across is that good governance is not the exclusive business of governments. Persuasive information campaigns are needed to counter public apathy and non-cooperation and — most important of all — the influence of powerful interests.

Consider for instance the emerging crisis of climate change. The elimination of fossil fuel subsidies has long been advocated to cut back on the use of high carbon energy and free up funding for income-generating green energy projects. However, the political will to implement these reforms is continually weakened by a strong oil industry and general resistance to high fuel prices.

Studies show good governance plays a critical role in promoting inclusive growth by ensuring that public services actually reach the poor and disadvantaged. Development practitioners know all too well the deleterious effects on health and education of, say, absenteeism of doctors and teachers, especially in remote rural areas. NGOs often have the reach in these areas to monitor abuses, but they need to be heard in the right places. Indeed, a key aspect of how state–citizen relations define the structure and process of governing a country includes the political space for citizens’ voice and participation.

An example of how this works in the Philippines is KALAHI-CIDSS, a training project managed by the Department of Social Welfare and Development to involve directly communities in the poorest provinces in choosing the service delivery and poverty reduction programs best suited their needs. In doing so, community empowerment helps improve local governance. Contrary to the notion that the very poor have little interest in community affairs, this project demonstrates that given the opportunity they become strongly involved. An evaluation of the project found that it helped diversify sources of incomes, among other positive impacts. And since the program was started in 2003, community-driven development has become a national strategy in the national government’s 2011-2016 development plan.

Better governance clearly has many dimensions, but a centerpiece of the changes people want to see is better service delivery. Improvements in this respect are vital for achieving more socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable growth. Different levels of government, business and society make a difference to the quality of service provision. At the grassroots level, developing mechanisms to improve information sharing, transparency, and civic participation, and harnessing information technology to do this, has the potential to improve the delivery of services especially to the poor.

Good governance may not be a panacea for all the ills we face. Also, for the urgent concerns of today, be it social exclusion or environmental destruction, we need policy actions and investments spanning multiple fronts. But a common denominator underpinning these actions is better governance and control of corruption.

How to gain a better understanding of the processes by which good governance evolves — and latest interventions across the region in this area — will be discussed at an international forum attended by representatives from governments, multilateral development banks and the research community hosted by ADB’s Independent Evaluation Department at the bank’s Manila headquarters on 9–10 September. You can register online here.

About the author

  • Vt connecting the dots

    Vinod Thomas

    Vinod Thomas is director general of the Asian Development Bank's Independent Evaluation Department since 2011. Thomas also has 35 years experience with the World Bank, where his last position was director general and vice president of the Independent Evaluation Group.