The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was an unprecedented global health crisis. The international community was forced to respond with military and medical aid. But at its root the spread of Ebola was a consequence of poor governance. Countries with the weakest governance systems suffer the most from pandemics. Strengthening their governance systems — free flow of credible information, fair distribution of resources, functional health and emergency response systems — helps control pandemics and avoid the next crisis.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of State released its latest Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which, among many other priorities underscores the need to help countries around the world improve their governance.
While the new QDDR framework has yet to be translated into specific policies, even before the specifics appear, we know one thing: the funding to support the priority of better governance efforts will almost certainly fall short of the QDDR’s ambition. That’s based on one stark reality: between 2009 and 2015, the U.S. government shrunk its spending on programs that promote good governance around the world by as much as 30 percent.
Something’s got to give. If the U.S. government continues to scale back funding for good governance promotion initiatives, the consequences could be severe. That’s because good governance is a precondition for so many other dimensions of a country’s development and security.
Indeed, the biggest challenges developing countries face — such as terrorism and other kinds of civil unrest, illiteracy, health threats, economic malaise, environmental degradation and poor nutrition — are most often the consequence of weak governance. Ironically, though, funding for good governance has taken a back seat to countering violent extremism and major pushes to stop the spread of disease or increase education opportunities. This suggests a policy more intent on treating symptoms than the underlying chronic illnesses (namely, corruption and lack of accountability) that keep countries from ever getting well.
Good governance — that is, how public institutions manage public resources like money, minerals, land, water, fisheries, and government services and how they respond to their citizenry — is more than just a label in foreign assistance. It is an essential ingredient of a country’s human and economic progress and must not be hidden behind other priorities. Working to create accountable and effective institutions and rules rebuilds relations between governments and citizens. Greater participation creates greater access to resources and to mechanisms for resolving grievances.
How did we get to this point? Why are good governance programs getting less of the material support they need to survive?
First, policymakers have associated the concept of good governance with technocratic management. There has been a tendency to focus on management skills and institutional capacity needed to create fair and responsive public institutions. However, people and institutions operate in political ecosystems. Good governance is about power relations. In too many places, biased or useless institutions or rules based on lopsided political and economic power distort relations between government and citizens, elites and people. As a result, participation in important decisions is limited to a small number of insiders, access to opportunity is unequal, and the mechanisms for resolving grievances are unfair.
The social and economic cost of such skewed power relations is staggering: millions of people have little control over their lives, face deprivation, or live in fear. Even well-intended investments in health, education, or economic development have limited or unsustainable results or perpetuate injustice. Improving the quality of governance therefore means dealing with how power is shared.
Second, international development agencies have wrongly de-linked social, economic, public health and security threats from the quality of governance. Yet, again, most of the threats that the world faces are spawned by dysfunctional governance. Young people who feel excluded and join extremist movements react to corrupt institutions, injustice, or inequitable access to opportunity — all severe failures in good governance. Migrants who look for a better future in Europe or the U.S. to escape conflict or poverty are the result of broken governance systems. The plight of the poor in the world is a product of poor governance or vastly worsened by it. Ghana’s response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 was far more successful than that of Liberia not only because Ghana is a wealthier country, but also because Ghana also has a better governance system.
Third, democracy promotion is too often a substitute for promoting good governance. To be sure, democracy promotion is a critical element of any nation’s stability and prosperity, and it is a precondition to good governance and human rights. But democracy means essentially three things: mobilizing political will through functional political forces, exercising political will through free and fair elections, and exercising political will once a representative government is in place. It is not a substitute for good governance or the rule of law. Good governance is essential to economic and social prosperity and the realization of human rights. The education we get, the health care we receive, the opportunity we seek, the portion of resources available to us, how resources are divided, and how we resolve grievances flows from the quality of governance.
The result is a trend: development agencies address governance in a piecemeal fashion, adding a governance thread to social programs focused on education, health or other social services. In addition to being backwards, this approach usually translates into tepid activities to strengthen public institutions.
To be sure, reducing poverty, countering extremism, and mitigating climate change are important to security and human development. But if we’re to do anything about those issues we can’t also allow good governance programs to erode or disappear. At the moment, that’s precisely the path we seem to be following.
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