An Upside Down View of Governance

28 April 2010

Front cover of An Upside-down View of Governance28 April 2010 - Sue Unsworth

How should western policymakers respond to the challenges posed by weak or 'fragile' states across the developing world – states such as Sudan and Afghanistan that are unable to control their territories, provide security for their people, or deliver basic services?

Newly published research from the DFID-funded Centre for the Future State titled An Upside Down View of Governance  suggests that donors need to stop viewing the world through the lens of OECD experience, and instead look in a much more open-minded way at what is actually happening in a particular 'fragile' contexts.

Spurred by concerns for their own security and prosperity, as well as humanitarian goals, western policymakers are becoming much more actively involved in looking for ways of addressing these challenges posed by weak or 'fragile' states. Moreover, scarred by their recent experiences in Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, they have increasingly come to recognise that 'state building' is a local political process, that outsiders have limited influence on it, and that their security, diplomatic and development objectives need to be much better aligned.

Although this is welcome, the research findings reveal that underlying the new activism are two very unhelpful assumptions: that state building involves putting in place formal, rules-based institutions designed to protect civil, political, social and economic rights; and (despite their protestations about this being a local political process) that Western governments need to take a leading role in finding and funding solutions.

These assumptions are now being challenged. Researchers writing in An Upside Down View of Governance argue that by changing the way their perceive state fragility, donors will start to see elements of public authority being created in a great variety of ways, through the interaction of state and society, politicians and investors, formal and informal institutions. The key is to understand the incentives that drive elite interests, the way sources of revenue shape relations between governments and taxpayers, the relationship between people who hold political power and people who hold economic power, and the way informal 'traditional' institutions operate at a very local level.

While the orthodox approach of creating formal, rules based political and market institutions may be a valid long-term goal, it is ill suited to helping poor countries with weak governance to improve stability and security or to increase productive investment in the short to medium term. Viewing the world through an OECD lens, and assuming that 'west is best', can get in the way of discovering more unorthodox, incremental ways of making progress.

Sue Unsworth is an independent consultant working with the Centre for the Future State.

An Upside Down View of Governance presents the main findings of the Centre's five-year research programme led by researchers at the Institute of Development Studies and funded by the Department for International Development (DFID) between 2005-2010.

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