Well-meant is the enemy of the good. Western good governance concepts and the reality in developing countries

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2015

72 Pages

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Table of Contents

I. A brief history of Western good governance programs

II. Criticism of development aid and the evaluation problem

III. Decentralization - a favored instrument.. of development cooperation

IV. Theories of Modernization

V. Cambodia - Decentralization reforms à la Hun Sen

VI. Cameroon - Tribal society instead of local autonomy

VII. Indonesia - Autonomi Khusus in Aceh and the windfall winners

VIII. Some remakes to decentralization programs in Central Africa

IX. Fukuyama’s End of History and Parson’s evolutionary universals in society

X. Overall result

XI. Bibliography

I. A brief history of Western good governance programs

As the German scholar Ulrich Menzel has pointed out in his book chapter on the theory of development2, for most of the time human development was primarily conceived as a purely economic process. As a consequence Western development aid, which was created in the aftermath of the Second World War as a kind of global "Marshall Plan" for colonial states on their way to independence, initially was understood as a means to support economic progress in less developed countries. The lack of success of the development assistance programs of the 1960s and 1970s, and the debt crisis in developing countries which emerged in the 1980s, however, pointed clearly to a strong correlation between economic achievements and the overall policy framework. As a consequence the World Bank and the IMF administered structural adjustment programs for highly indebted Third World countries in order to replace the exuberant and ineffective state structures by market mechanisms. However, these programs did not achieve the desired results.

But things changed again when in 1989 the report "Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth,” commissioned by the World Bank, was published. The main conclusion of this report was that Africa's development problems are not so much caused by the poverty of the African States. The report stated that they are rather the result of a "Crisis of Governance,” in particular the consequence of too powerful elites, corruption, abuse of power and violent conflict resolution. Thereby it became clear that the solution was not simply to downsize the government apparatus in favor of free market mechanisms. A state able to provide reliable institutions (in the sense of "rules of the game") which are necessary to run a functioning market economy, in short the "capable state,” became the new goal. The governance model of the capable state was initially understood as a purely technical concept. However, soon it was tied to the call for human rights, the rule of law and democratic reforms, and by adding the adjective "good" to the term of governance, it was transformed into a normative concept.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the calls of Western states on governments in developing countries for a policy according to this concept of good governance became more intense due to the fact that their risk of drifting into the Communist camp was now banished. Moreover, this occurred at the same time that industrialized countries felt they were in position as the sole financier of development aid. Western development bureaucracy tried to size this hour. Suddenly it seemed to them that it might be possible not only to foster industrial production or the construction of hospitals, or to support the training of workers or doctors. By the means of development assistance, also fighting against authoritarian and repressive regimes in the beneficiary countries, identified as a major obstacle to development, seemed to be feasible. The Paris Declaration from 2005 officially turned the development aid system of the past into a development cooperation where donor and receiver countries are considered to be development partners. The idea behind this move was to grant development aid on the basis of mutual contracts under which governments in developing countries agree to conduct good governance reforms in exchange for financial support. It was assumed that Third World country governments would be interested in Western aid programs, because the aid could help to improve the welfare of the population and in this way, contribute to the stabilization of their regimes. In addition, a system of so called “conditionalities,” linked to aid programs, was sought to make even authoritarian and repressive ruling governments willing to conduct democratic reforms and to adopt the principles of the rule of law. The term “conditionalities” refers to a system of mechanisms starting from special incentives up to sanctions, such as reducing support or the termination of the cooperation.3

But was it really realistic to believe that the prospect of receiving some donor money would change the mindsets of the leaders of "bad" governments who have made it a policy - in some cases over decades - to channel the country’s revenues into their own pockets and accumulate a fortune of billions of US$? Was it likely that civil servants in these countries, who have benefited from this kind of governance and have been shaped over decades by practicing corruption and embezzling public monies, suddenly will stick to the principles of the rule of law? And perhaps even more serious, can we assume that a population, badly educated and mostly living in tribal structures without any experience in the rules of democracy and any perceptions of modern law, will be able to take over the role as an electorate that can effectively control the government? In contrast Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand for example, where a phenomenal economic growth occurred after the Second World War and lifted the quality of living close to European standards, entered the development race with nothing more than the human capital of their population and the spirit of their leaders, but neither under a democratic rule nor with the helping hand of Western good governance programs.4

Looking at these questions from the perspective of a Western adviser and counsel in Indonesia, Cambodia and Cameroon for more the 9 years, my answer is clearly "no." But the answer "no" also admits that there is a wide gulf between the objectives and the reality of the current Western good governance programs. The following analysis has the details.

II. Criticism of development aid and the evaluation problem

The US President Harry S. Truman stated in a famous speech in 1949: “More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas. For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering of these people.” It is assumed that this speech was the starting point for modern Western development aid and remains still its justification and guideline. Hence, it is safe to say that the main objective of development aid or nowadays “development cooperation” is to improve the standard of living of the population by fostering the development of their countries. This means bringing democracy and the rule of law to developing countries cannot be the final objective of development cooperation, and it is of course up to the people of every country to decide whether they prefer to live in a liberal democracy or not. Democracy and the rule of law are at best only stages of a path which the majority of Western societies believe will lead to economic prosperity, but without having clear evidence for this assumption.5 But development bureaucracies obviously have lost sight of the ultimate goal and tend to apply the maxim of Confucius "the journey is the reward" instead. Therefore the idea of good governances has become an end in its own right. This results frequently in development aid programs designed to install government concepts and practices in the Third World which might have stood the test of time in the OECD-world but hardly fit societies in countries with totally different historical and cultural backgrounds and stages of development.

Amazingly, precisely those donors and development bureaucrats, preaching the concept of good governance, don’t like to listen to such critics when it comes to their own system of governance. It is undeniable that the number of voices, claiming on the basis of different arguments that this kind of aid has no sustainable impact on poverty but tends to stabilize corrupt government regimes, has mounted during recent years increasingly. However, among development bureaucrats we can only observe a strong tendency to follow the motto "let's close our eyes and ears and press on.” This is why for people who wish to do an honest job in context of development cooperation, the question becomes more and more pressing, whether current Western-funded governance projects are really able to improve the living situation of the poor or have become entirely a nice playground for donor organizations and their employers. Brigitte Erler in her book "The Deadly Aid"6 had asserted already in 1983 that development aid is obviously doing more bad than good. But a good answer to the question, what precisely goes wrong with good governance programs, is hard to find. Is it only the single project that fails? Is it the weakness or incompetence of donor organizations to implement good governance programs? Or has the whole concept proven to be unsuitable to developing countries?

Composing an essay to give a satisfying explanation is a more complicated undertaking than it seems at first glance. The main reason is a certain “micro-macro-puzzle.”7 If we try to look at the problem from the macro perspective it is practically impossible to trace back the chain between the activities and the impacts of a single good governance program activity due to the complexity of society. For example, we can look into statistics about the national or regional poverty rate or the education level, or in reports about the accessibility and quality of the health service. But even if these figures are reliable and point to improvements, the correlation between these factors and the program activities remains widely unclear. On the other hand, if we try to look at the results of certain activities at the spot, the conclusions we are able to draw from our findings will be very limited and will not allow us to judge the impact of poverty-relevant political or social changes on the macro-level. Therefore the results of evaluation reports which frequently try to follow impact chains are in most cases completely based on speculations.8 Hence, the monitoring system is open for whitewashing and manipulations.

At least among scholars, it is generally acknowledged that for example the change from a tribal society to the model of local autonomy is not only a technical or administrative issue but foremost a question of social change.9 Following the Theory of Communicative Action of Jürgen Habermas10 we can conceive social change as the result of a communication process among social actors, who are trying to push through their interests and world images, whereby the assertiveness of the actors involved plays an important role. If we use this concept to analyze the question, whether or not the essay of development programs to export Western-styled good governance concepts to tribal societies will be successful, the answer can be given in an easier way than established evaluation systems. The outcome of this analytical approach will depend on the factor, whether the Western concept will meet the needs of different actors in the society and therefore will find sufficient supporters. Only if the result of the analysis is “yes," the further question arises, whether or not it will be meaningful that donors provide technical and financial support to overcome the remaining hurdles. In contrast to the speculative tracing back of impact chains used in evaluation reports on development-aid programs, these facts are accessible to the instruments of social research. Therefore a feasible option to come to reliable results is not to find and verify causal chains between donor activities and observable events but to look on the likelihood that the stakeholder/actors of the respective society are willing and able to adopt Western concepts of good governance.

The following analysis is based on this approach and is looking at good governance projects in Cambodia, Indonesia and Cameroon, and it gives a brief overview of other projects in Africa, particularly in the area of decentralization. The results will show us that these donor activities are dammed to fail.

III. Decentralization - a favored instrument of development cooperation

Decentralization, here understood as the delegation of central government functions to subnational or local units, has been promoted in the context of good governance approaches and became one of the most favored instruments of development cooperation. Decentralization programs have been launched in roughly one hundred countries in the world, even in the war- riddled South Sudan in 2013. The concept of decentralization seems to promise a solution to numerous problems. Corresponding development policies are perceived as being omnipotent, and are assumed to deliver considerable contributions in regard to poverty reduction and democratization.11 To look at the impacts and outcomes of good governance programs, decentralization seems to be an appropriate and manageable field of research regarding the success of donor activities in this area. As donors point particularly to the poverty-reduction impact of decentralization programs, the question at the outset is: Is decentralization, as a concept, likely to reduce poverty, and can we therefore expect that decentralization will have at least in theory some positive effects on poverty alleviation?

It is safe to say that a more effective government system will lead to less poverty. Hence, the question then is: Is it likely that decentralization makes government systems more effective?

The list of reasons why decentralized government systems are an effective way to govern and administrate public affairs on the local or subnational level is long,12 and the literature, pointing to these advantages fills the shelves of libraries. As a result of the insight that "all knowledge is local," the main argument is that decentralization will solve a lot management problems caused by information gaps of central governments. Decentralization is also believed to mitigate the principal-agent dilemma and to improve the transparency of decision-making processes. On the top the accountability of local governments will become significantly higher compared to central governments due to the proximity between local politicians and their electorate. Finally, it is usually much easier to activate private resources in favor of public affairs on the local level, not only from civil society organizations and individuals but also from private companies or the local elites. So there is strong evidence that decentralization in general can improve the effectiveness of the government system and in this way can contribute to poverty alleviation.

But of course this effect will only take place if citizens can substantially participate in the local decision-making process and feel they have a voice in local affairs. Therefore the delegation of functions to local branches of state agencies or the transfer of power to governors or district heads appointed by and accountable to the central government is not enough. Instead, a delegation of power to freely and fairly elected and largely independent local or subnational governments seems to be indispensable (so-called political/democratic decentralization) in order to benefit from the potential advantages of a decentralized government system.

However, having in place the political and legal framework for such a system is not only a necessary but an insufficient prerequisite for the success of decentralization reforms. The second and mostly neglected precondition is the characteristic of "portability" of concepts about social systems between different societies. In this context, the term portability refers to whether the decentralization-concept, which requires powerful, democratically elected and largely independent local governments, will work within in any society or not. The idea of local autonomy and municipal self-administration for example had taken root in Germany long before the famous Preußische Städteordnung (Prussian local government code) from November 19, 1808, and the reforms of Freiherr vom Stein had been practiced already hundreds of years before in largely independent medieval cities with municipal legislative, administrative and judiciary bodies.

Based on these long-time experiences, a coherent system with different government levels, shared competencies, fiscal-transfer and revenue-sharing mechanisms and sophisticated supervision functions was developed step-by-step. To run a system like this requires not only thousands of highly qualified administrators on all levels but also an army of engaged and well informed volunteer commune and district councils, devoting their leisure time to local politics. Needless to say, a complicated government system with hundreds or thousands of semi- autonomous entities needs a certain environment to function properly. The state-building process must be completed otherwise the rules for power and revenue sharing will not be respected. To avoid serious friction between stakeholders on different government levels, a certain understanding and tradition in regard to local autonomy is required. Therefore it is not enough that the quality and capacity of the government apparatus has reached already a very professional level. Stakeholders must be also feel bound to a culture of Max Weber’s bureaucracy, where administrators and government officials are used to working neutrally and unselfishly in line with the law and in common interest. Last but not least, we need a high degree of civil society, a party system and free and independent media in order to interlink local governments and the individual citizen.

By contrast, in most developing countries the situation is quite different. The state-building process started only after independence and is not complete. Outside the capital, government functions remain in the hands of local strongmen, often operating in a legal limbo between traditional and state power. Albeit only a part of the power therefore is centralized and transferred to the state level, a tradition in regard to local administration doesn’t exist. Instead of this, mostly tribal/clan structures still dominate, but they are not comparable to the model of municipal self-administration. Due to education problems the quality and capacity of the government apparatus, particularly on the local level, is low. Power of political leaders is mostly exerted not within the formal system stipulated by the law, but by the non-corporative structures of patron-client relations. What counts in the eyes of the population is the personal power of their leaders and not the formal competence a person is assumed to have according to an official position. The legal system therefore has only limited authority and the state bureaucracy isn’t neutral. Instead the administrators are working in favor of their patron leaders. The idea of a civil society and party system is new to the population because authoritarian regimes have tried to quell their formation.

The gaps between Western societies and societies in developing countries in regard to precondition for a decentralized government system are evident. Hence, the question is: Is it possible to close this gap with the means of development cooperation or will at least the effects of evolution and globalization in the foreseeable future automatically lead to an assimilation of social orders in the "Third World?"

IV. Theories of Modernization

For long time in Europe, history was understood as a single, coherent and evolutionary process. Karl Marx, whose concept of history and development was based on Hegel’s mechanism of dialectic used words like "primitive" or "advanced," "traditional" or "modern," when referring to different types of human societies. The preface to the English edition of Das Kapital stated that "The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future." For Hegel and Marx, there was a coherent development of human societies from simple tribes once based on slavery and subsistence agriculture, through various theocracies, monarchies, and feudal aristocracies, up through modern liberal democracy and technologically driven capitalism. This evolutionary process was neither random nor unintelligible, even if it did not proceed in a straight line, and even if it was not possible to question whether people were happier or better off as a result of historical "progress" when taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times.13 This 19th century perception was still present when industrialized countries started their development aid projects in the aftermath of the Second World War. Probably the most influential among these theories was Walt Whitman Rostow’s theory about the five stages of economic growth,14 published in 1960. Similar to Marx, he postulated that economic growth occurs in five basic stages: traditional society, preconditions for take-off, take-off, drive to maturity, and age of high mass consumption. The last stage characterized modern Western societies, where the “take-off,” marked by urbanization, industrialization proceeds and technological breakthroughs, occurred in the 19th century and took about 20 years (vanguard Great Britain: 1783-1802). This perception of development as a unilinear evolution process from "traditional" to "modern" societies made development bureaucrats believe that programs on financial and technical aid can speed up the developing process and the problems can be fixed with the same “toolbox kits” in all developing countries.

Even this view was criticized early on for its "euro-centrism" by several scientists. The real turnaround occurred only since the beginning of the 1990s. On one hand then the understanding had grown that development is not only about economics and that reality is much more complex as all models of stages could explain. The recognition prevailed increasingly that different ways of development are possible and that we cannot assume that developing countries follow the same path Western countries have taken in the past. The general conclusion from this is: We cannot simply rebuild Western societies in developing countries.

Nowadays scientific approaches don’t try to deliver an encompassing theory of development anymore, but like transformation theories they attempt to explain certain mechanisms mostly on the base of the theory of action, going back to Max Weber. From this point of view it is more important to try to predict what stakeholders are going to do in the particular situation of their country than to explain the tide of history. Following this approach the basic assumption is that decentralization reforms and other Western concepts like democracy, rule of law, etc. will only be successful in developing counties if stakeholders in these countries feel attracted to the underlying ideas. This raises the question of whether the fact that these concepts have proven to make the government system more effective and therefore promise to improve public welfare is sufficient to convince stakeholders in developing countries to undertake huge social chances. But before we turn to the problem of indicators and criteria for their willingness to put this kind of reform project on the agenda, we have to answer the question of whether or not it is possible at all to predict their further behavior and actions.


2 Menzel, 2010.

3 Further details: Becker, 2014a; Kielwein, 2007.

4 Fukuyama, 1992, p. 101

5 Fukuyama has already in 1992 in a convincing and comprehensive way demonstrated that democracy is not a precondition for prosperity. As countries like China, Taiwan Singapore, South Korea or even the Soviet Union (until the end of the 1960th) indicate, up to a certain level of development authoritarian regimes have huge advantages by fostering economic growth (Fukuyama, 1992, S. 124 et seq.).

6 Erler, 2003.

7 Merkel, 2010, p. 467 et seq.

8 This has even been admitted by a GTZ-report looking on evaluation reports of decentralization projects in 14 different countries (GTZ - Stabstelle für Evaluierung, 2009).

9 Talcott Parsons and Samuel N. Eisenstadt have addressed this problem of social change already very early and in a comprehensive way, cf. (Eisenstadt, 1973) .

10 Habermas, 1984, cf. also Roschmann, 2003.

11 Steinich, 1997.

12 See Manor, 1997, for a representative view.

13 Fukuyama, 1992, S. 68.

14 Rostow, 1960.

72 of 72 pages


Well-meant is the enemy of the good. Western good governance concepts and the reality in developing countries
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Development, Third World, Development Cooperation, Decentralization, Cambodia, Cameroon, Indonesia
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Prof. Dr. Peter Becker (Author), 2015, Well-meant is the enemy of the good. Western good governance concepts and the reality in developing countries, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/301649


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