On ‘Governance’ and my year at IDS

I have always struggled with definitions. Back in school, we had to learn them by-rote. That was easy – we didn’t really have to understand everything that went into those long sentences. As I grew up, I began wanting to understand some concepts better. And definitions became very very difficult. Purely because I am not easily convinced that any one interpretation is necessarily the best one; and packing in a definition with all possible meanings for the concept/term made it unwieldy.

Definitions often represent a particular world-view. Particularly vexing are terms like governance, gender etc even without the adjectives or action-verbs (and other prefixes or suffixes) that normally accompany them. Just narrowing down on some of these are so damn hard!

To start – ‘Governance’. I am not even going into ‘good governance’ for now. A quick sampler –

From the World Bank Governance Indicators (WBGI) page:

Governance consists of the traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised. This includes the process by which governments are selected, monitored and replaced; the capacity of the government to effectively formulate and implement sound policies; and the respect of citizens and the state for the institutions that govern economic and social interactions among them.

From a note by Mick Moore, introducing MA Governance and Development  at Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex that gives two possible meanings of the term (and not strict definitions)

Governance 1: A general term to refer to the process or arrangements through which any set of actors (the staff of Oxfam, the market for fertiliser in Ethiopia, all the government organisations in Thailand, the population of Uexapoptyl village, etc.) are coordinated or ruled.  This includes ‘corporate governance’, the governance of value chains (in the analysis of how specific markets work), the governance of Malawi, the governance of cricket clubs, etc).  Note that governance can be accomplished in a very hierarchical (top-down) way, in a very decentralised and quasi-voluntaristic fashion, or anything in between.
Governance 2: The process through which a group of actors are coordinated/ruled to produce collective/public goods (i.e. things that benefit more-or-less everyone).  This is a bit narrower than Governance 1: it focuses on the use of authority to do things in the common interest, and effectively de-legitimates the use of authority purely to benefit those who have authority.

And helpful as ever, Google gives us all this. And here is Wikipedia.

I was interested in studying Governance, motivated by my desire to learn about how civil society organisations are governed; what the relationship with people they serve is (their ability to genuinely represent people); how better synergies could be achieved between civil society actors and the state (along with managing accountability in both directions); and exploring what I as a professional could do to improve outcomes/effectiveness of civil society organisations. My interest in the government was limited to the direct interface between the bureaucracy and citizens or civil society organisations. During my year at IDS, I realised how different that made me from someone who say, was motivated by a different definition of governance. For example, I had no serious/rigorously analytical views on global governance, on civil wars, state building etc.

The papers I wrote during the year centered around the NGO I had worked for, exploring various aspects of its structure, expansion plans, engagement with communities they partnered with etc. For example, I was interested in how IDS ran its courses – more than just an interesting topic of discussion, as an issue that I was interested in engaging with while I was there. My MA thesis was on ‘Implementation challenges to Democratic Decentralisation in Kerala, India’ – focusing on a state-led programme and the challenges that arose from within the structure of the state government (bureaucrats and politicians). I got interested in Decentralisation as a policy-implementation problem and quickly found a fascinating body of literature that explored this issue.

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