Exaggerating the Importance of Good Governance


Faculty Researcher Merilee Grindle, Mason Professor of International Development Harvard Kennedy School Paper Title Good Governance: The Inflation of an Idea

China would rank poorly on most scales of good governance, yet it has experienced growth and development over the past decade. So if China can flourish without good governance, what does that imply for the concept of good governance in general?

Good governance is an idea that, while useful, has become inflated to the point of clouding development thinking for academics and practitioners, Merilee Grindle writes in “Good Governance: The Inflation of an Idea.” Born out of an anti-statist era in the 1980s, the concept initially provided a technical framework for reducing corruption and leadership failures while enhancing accountability and political engagement. Today, too many causes have latched on to good governance, argues Grindle, making it difficult to develop realistic agendas. According to one count, 45 different issues were associated with good governance in 1997; by 2002 that number had grown to 116. This “idea inflation” has led to long agendas that hinder results. To become more effective, good governance must be rethought.

There are real-world examples that demystify good governance and its link to democracy. Certain Latin American countries are democratic but have high corruption, while certain East Asian countries have extremely limited democracy but exhibit good governance. Bangladesh has recently experienced growth despite little governance of any kind. The United States, a country known for good governance, exhibited a failure in that area with its response to Hurricane Katrina, whereas Pakistan acted speedily after the 2005 earthquakes. These examples, which dispute conventional wisdom, must be analyzed to improve understanding.

“These outliers suggest that when researchers conflate good governance with the capacity to grow or the existence of democracy, they are probably oversimplifying very complex relationships,” Grindle writes.

Certain countries have seen strong growth in the absence of good governance, challenging the assumption that good governance is essential for growth and poverty reduction. They must be accounted for when reevaluating the concept.

“China in the past 30 years is instructive,” Grindle observes. “In all likelihood, most Chinese citizens would benefit from better governance — but it is clear that the growth of the economy or foreign investment or poverty reduction have not been contingent upon this advancement.”

Complexity and diversity among countries make models for good governance difficult. A one-size-fits-all institutional blueprint is impossible to create because every country has a unique context and history. What worked for an Asian country in one era might not work for an African country in another.

“Explorations of historical experience can do much to illuminate issues of timing and complexity,” writes Grindle.

The inflation of good governance has made the idea too complex by adding so many issues to the agenda. As Grindle argues, the concept has grown too large to be reasonable. Researchers must truncate the agenda by prioritizing the issues. The focus should be not on perfecting good governance but, rather, on achieving “good enough governance,” a concept Grindle coined years ago.

To achieve good enough governance and counter idea inflation, researchers and practitioners must let theory inform practice and vice versa. Ideas are important for development, but they must evolve to accommodate constant change. Researchers should use developing countries for testing ideas, but also as a ground for spawning new ones. By focusing on the complexity of development, factoring in the historical experience of each country, and acknowledging the idea inflation of good governance, researchers can help make development research and practice more realistic, and thus more successful.

“Good governance is important; but like many other good ideas, it is not a magic bullet,” writes Grindle.

— by Jake Ackman

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