Written by Gina Bergh, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute.
I touched down in my home country recently to attend the African dialogue on governance, the first regional event of the global conversation on how a new agreement post-2015 could help to improve governance for development. With a storm beating down on the roof of the Pan-African Parliament (the ‘PAP’), government and civil society representatives from across the continent gathered to express their views on this key strand of the fast-paced post-2015 debate.
Now more than ever aspects of governance, like accountability and public engagement, are being seen as essential to development progress – and in some cases as reasons behind lacking progress. This means that governance is high up on many lists for an MDG-plus future development plan, as an important ingredient left out of the MDGs that should be added to the mix of any new global goals.
The main fault line dividing the governance debate was almost buried amid the carefully crafted speeches of presenters at the PAP. But on each side there are two very different ideas on which governance arrangements work best for development.
On the one hand are those who see ‘democratic good governance’ – meaning elections, engaged citizens, and responsive institutions – as key. On the other are those who point to the successes of countries that have chosen rather more authoritarian political models, like the spectacular economic rise of China, or rapid MDG progress in the controversial case of Rwanda. Those in the latter camp may also view effective governance as important, but see little relevance of democratic politics to conversations on development, particularly if existing local institutions and systems for accountability can also support public services.
While regional and country positions on this debate are yet to be seen, there was a strong sense of agreement on some of the main problems that a future development agenda should tackle, like youth unemployment and gaping inequalities. Ideas followed on how governance could help spread development gains more fairly, responding to the fact that global and national averages have masked very uneven MDG progress so far. There was also much talk of strengthening accountability, by engaging citizens, improving institutions, and providing the political space needed for all of this. The hope is that such governance improvements would ensure public services are more effective and reach more of the poorest.
But these ideas raised some tough questions at the centre of the debate on governance and future development goals. Like how can globally agreed goals define solutions on matters at the heart of national politics? Or indeed, should they?
One option is for post-2015 plans to build on existing regional initiatives to gain support across countries and regions, like the African Union’s voluntary peer review mechanism on accountability and good governance. But even with a regional approach, there are challenges that can’t be ignored. For one, membership gaps remain large, with only 13 countries on board as peer-reviewed members of this initiative. Even more challenging is the fact that not all regions have such agreements for a post-2015 plan to build on. For instance, Southeast Asia’s equivalent of the AU – the ASEAN – doesn’t seem to have any similar agreements on governance.
This doesn’t mean that those seeking to help define a future development framework should give up the search for common ground, even on complex questions about the role of governance in development. But it does mean that on the road towards a post-2015 consensus there will have to be plenty of space for different actors to choose their own tracks.