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Key Text Governance for Development in Africa: Building on What Works

Author: David Booth
Date: 2011
Size: 4 pages (635 kB)

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How can a 'best fit' approach to governance improve development effectiveness? In its present form, 'good governance' is not evidence based. This brief highlights the need to build on the strengths of existing institutional arrangements when supporting governance reform in developing countries. It argues that governance assistance should be refocused on nurturing developmental leadership.

Several influential thinkers agree that the 'universal best practice' approach to governance for development is bankrupt, and that a 'best-fit' approach is needed. Research suggests this means supporting an enabling environment for initiatives that are both technically sensible and locally anchored; that is, driven by local problem-solving.

In turn, this implies making good use of the 'toolbox' of local culture, as it is too costly in social terms to invent everything from scratch. Thus, arrangements that work generally borrow institutional understandings from local society, combining them with modern professional standards in practical hybrids.

This approach means relying less on the congenial assumption that the solution to chronic development problems is more political democracy and greater citizen participation. In fact what is needed are leaders who can both construct sufficiently inclusive coalitions, and show that they can get things done:

  • Democracy is a desirable goal and an effective way of improving public policies in the long run. However, the social and economic preconditions for democracy to flourish are not yet in place in most poor developing countries.
  • The results obtained from client empowerment by promoting information dissemination have been over-sold through a partial reading of key pieces of evidence. Studies show that 'voice' is a weak source of accountability unless accompanied by strong top-down pressures.
  • External actors need to be capable of recognising developmental leadership, becoming more attuned to different types of regime and how they work. In this, they should resist assessing country policies using norms applicable to advanced capitalism.
  • Most African states are 'neo-patrimonial', meaning that they blend modern bureaucratic and more clientelistic forms of authority. However, under 'developmental patrimonialism' the ruling elite has the disposition and capacity to use rents productively to enlarge the national economic pie, rather than obtaining the largest slices from it in the short term.
  • Donors should support the aspects of prevailing institutional arrangements that work well enough to facilitate development.

A more realistic approach to the concepts of country ownership and aid alignment is urgently needed. Research findings suggest that:

  • However desirable democratisation and civil society mobilisation may be, they are not relevant criteria of ownership. Country ownership depends on the orientation of political leadership and its willingness and ability to articulate a national vision and take charge.
  • It is time to abandon the polite fiction that politicians in charge of most poor developing countries are committed to development. Donors should instead focus on how and in what form developmental leadership might become more common in Africa.
  • Working in a context-sensitive way can be a challenge for aid agencies, which are under pressure to disburse funds and demonstrate results with fewer staff. It also requires time, local knowledge and specialist skills. Well-articulated research findings can help.
  • Aid agencies need to adapt to meet development needs, and not the other way around. Donors cannot make this change on their own, however. They need to convince ministers, parliaments and the voting public in donor countries that development problems are as much about institutional blockages as they are about funding gaps.

For further information on the Africa Power and Politics Programme, visit

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Source: Booth, D., 2011, 'Governance for Development in Africa: Building on What Works', Policy Brief 1, Africa Power and Politics Programme, Overseas Development Institute, London
Author: David Booth , d.booth[at]
Organisation: Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP),