Understanding the Concept of Governance

The concept of "governance" is not new. However, it means different things to different people, therefore we have to get our focus right. The actual meaning of the concept depends on the level of governance we are talking about, the goals to be achieved and the approach being followed.

The concept has been around in both political and academic discourse for a long time, referring in a generic sense to the task of running a government, or any other appropriate entity for that matter. In this regard the general definition provided by Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1986:982) is of some assistance, indicating only that governance is a synonym for government, or "the act or process of governing, specifically authoritative direction and control". This interpretation specifically focuses on the effectiveness of the executive branch of government.

The working definition used by the British Council, however, emphasises that "governance" is a broader notion than government (and for that matter also related concepts like the state, good government and regime), and goes on to state: "Governance involves interaction between the formal institutions and those in civil society. Governance refers to a process whereby elements in society wield power, authority and influence and enact policies and decisions concerning public life and social upliftment."

"Governance", therefore, not only encompasses but transcends the collective meaning of related concepts like the state, government, regime and good government. Many of the elements and principles underlying "good government" have become an integral part of the meaning of "governance". John Healey and Mark Robinson1 define "good government" as follows: "It implies a high level of organisational effectiveness in relation to policy-formulation and the policies actually pursued, especially in the conduct of economic policy and its contribution to growth, stability and popular welfare. Good government also implies accountability, transparency, participation, openness and the rule of law. It does not necessarily presuppose a value judgement, for example, a healthy respect for civil and political liberties, although good government tends to be a prerequisite for political legitimacy".

We can apply our minds to the definition of governance provided by the World Bank in Governance: The World Banks Experience, as it has special relevance for the developing world:

"Good governance is epitomized by predictable, open and enlightened policy-making, a bureaucracy imbued with a professional ethos acting in furtherance of the public good, the rule of law, transparent processes, and a strong civil society participating in public affairs. Poor governance (on the other hand) is characterized by arbitrary policy making, unaccountable bureaucracies, unenforced or unjust legal systems, the abuse of executive power, a civil society unengaged in public life, and widespread corruption."

The World Bank's focus on governance reflects the worldwide thrust toward political and economic liberalisation. Such a governance approach highlights issues of greater state responsiveness and accountability, and the impact of these factors on political stability and economic development. In its 1989 report, From Crisis to Sustainable Growth, the World Bank expressed this notion as follows:

"Efforts to create an enabling environment and to build capacities will be wasted if the political context is not favourable. Ultimately, better governance requires political renewal. This means a concerted attack on corruption from the highest to lowest level. This can be done by setting a good example, by strengthening accountability, by encouraging public debate, and by nurturing a free press. It also means ... fostering grassroots and non-governmental organisations such as farmers' associations, co-operatives, and women's groups".

Apart from the World Bank's emphasis on governance, it is also necessary to refer to academic literature on governance, which mostly originates from scholars working with international development and donor agencies. The majority of these scholars has concentrated almost exclusively on the issue of political legitimacy, which is the dependent variable produced by effective governance. Governance, as defined here, is "the conscious management of regime structures, with a view to enhancing the public realm".

The contribution of Goran Hyden to bring greater clarity to the concept of governance needs special attention. He elevates governance to an "umbrella concept to define an approach to comparative politics", an approach that fills analytical gaps left by others. Using a governance approach, he emphasises "the creative potential of politics, especially with the ability of leaders to rise above the existing structure of the ordinary, to change the rules of the game and to inspire others to partake in efforts to move society forward in new and productive directions".

His views boil down to the following:

  • Governance is a conceptual approach that, when fully elaborated, can frame a comparative analysis of macro-politics.
  • Governance concerns "big" questions of a "constitutional" nature that establish the rules of political conduct.
  • Governance involves creative intervention by political actors to change structures that inhibit the expression of human potential.
  • Governance is a rational concept, emphasising the nature of interactions between state and social actors, and among social actors themselves.
  • Governance refers to particular types of relationships among political actors: that is, those which are socially sanctioned rather than arbitrary.

To conclude, it is clear that the concept of governance has over the years gained momentum and a wider meaning. Apart from being an instrument of public affairs management, or a gauge of political development, governance has become a useful mechanism to enhance the legitimacy of the public realm. It has also become an analytical framework or approach to comparative politics.

"Governance Barometer: Policy guidelines for good governance" Website of South Africa's National Party
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Comments and suggestions to - hsrinivas@gdrc.org