Opinion: Don't give up on government

A woman shows one of the ballots for Sudanese president during the counting process in Ta'heel Tarabawi Polling Station in Sudan. Photo by: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

Debates about governance and institutions in far-flung countries used to feel otherworldly. Not anymore. Peer behind the headlines and America’s institutions are due a spell in the spotlight. Whatever your take on the early days of the Trump administration, it’s hard to ignore that the apparatus of governance — courts, congress, park authorities and more — will have a central role to play in the months to come.

You could be forgiven in the midst of recent democratic palpitations for missing the launch of the World Bank’s flagship World Development Report.

“So what?” You cry. Well here’s what: This year’s report makes the case that politics plays a critical role in development, but it mostly ignores the way that government leaders can harness politics as a force for good. If we choose to see government as an actor to be constrained or bypassed rather than supported, we will fall short of the Sustainable Development Goals.  

How can we get better at working with governments?

The existence of mature democratic institutions that are expected to perform an active role in civic life is a sign of deep democratic roots yet to grow in many developing countries. The eventually-peaceful transition of power in the Gambia (following in the footsteps of Ghana) is a cause for optimism, but elections are merely very important moments — it’s how you govern when elected that matters. The wider machinery of government is still too often slow and ineffective.  Without sustained and committed support to develop government institutions and their staff, it will take developing countries much longer to get to the point where governance is a part of the solution at least as often as it is currently part of the problem.

The WDR argues that the main entry points to national politics for development organizations are to shift the rules of the game. For example, aid groups can help empower local civil society and boost transparency and accountability so that citizens become agents of change. There is much here to commend, but also, dare I say, a little to amend.

The complexity of politics actually creates more entry points for international actors than just supporting active citizens. Even if an overhaul of governance isn’t possible, there are plenty of short and medium term gains to be had from working with government.

If we default to the view that government and politics are a problem to be fixed, then we would see our role as working to influence the government to improve its behavior. It can be more effective to work collaboratively with government. The Africa Governance Initiative’s team in Rwanda, for example, recognized that an unrealistic 1,000 megawatt national target for energy generation by 2020 was too high, causing government and investors to fail to finalize agreements about power projects. We worked alongside the ministries of finance and energy to halve the target and unlock projects like East Africa’s largest solar power plant.

Here are four ways development organizations and funders should work with governments as a partner:

1. Invest in political relationships at the country level and recruit staff with the soft skills needed to broker difficult conversations. When staff understand the incentives and personalities at play among political actors, it’s easier to get results.

2. Give greater weight to the existing plans and priorities of government partners. By being government-led, there is greater potential to work with the grain of local politics and achieve results. Equally, service delivery and capacity building are problems that can be tackled in tandem rather than isolation.

3. Be willing to explore more flexible models of support. The Doing Development Differently movement has already highlighted some of the ways this can be done, whether through problem driven, iterative approaches to programs or by giving in-country staff more autonomy.

4. Recognize that government leaders in challenging systems can still deliver meaningful reforms. That’s how Liberia arrived at a job creation strategy that focuses on one set of national priorities and doesn’t compete with the priorities of aid donors. It’s how Rwanda is addressing the need to increase its exports through the development of ICT expertise. And it is how Guinea has managed to double the supply of electricity to Conakry in the last year.

The WDR offers a compelling new vision of what governance means. But if a result of the report is major development organizations stepping back from supporting governments, it will be citizens around the world who will lose.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Jonathan Tanner

    Jonathan Tanner is head of communications at the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, where among other things he produces their podcast. He previously worked at the Overseas Development Institute and can be found on Twitter at @tannerjc.