What is Governance?

"'Good' or 'democratic' governance exists when the authority of the Government is based on the will of the people and is responsive to them."

When most people hear the word "governance" they think of "Government". After all, both have "govern" as their root word. But governance is about more than just Government. It is a complex yet universal force that exists in all societies. People use governance in their daily lives to manage human relationships, just as corporations and countries use it to manage their interaction and activities.


When we speak of the quality of a country’s governance, however, we mean the degree to which its institutions (such as parliament) and processes (such as elections) are transparent i.e. not susceptible to corruption in international business transactions, and accountable to the people, allowing them to participate in decisions that affect their lives. It is also the degree to which the private sector and organizations of civil society are free and able to participate. "Good" or "democratic" governance exists when the authority of the Government is based on the will of the people and is responsive to them. It is when open, democratic institutions allow full participation in political affairs and when human rights protections guarantee the right to speak, assemble and dissent. And it is when Government and Governmental institutions are pro-poor, promoting the sustainable human development of all citizens.

The greatest threats to good governance today come from corruption, violence and poverty, all of which undermine transparency, security, participation and fundamental freedoms.


Today the quality of governance is attracting more and more attention within and among countries. The number of democratic regimes continues to rise and good governance has become an important criterion for a country’s credibility and respect on the international stage. Yet even as good governance takes hold, challenges to it also emerge. The greatest threats to good governance today come from corruption, violence and poverty, all of which undermine transparency, security, participation and fundamental freedoms.


How do you know when Governance is Good?

Because "good" can be a very subjective term, it is important to be specific in its use. Good governance has certain qualities to it. It promotes equity, participation, pluralism, transparency, accountability and the rule of law. And it is effective, efficient, responsive and sustainable over the long run. Governance must be rooted in these principles to move society toward greater human development through poverty eradication, environmental protection and regeneration, gender equality and sustainable livelihoods.


In practice, these principles translate into certain tangible things, such as:

  • free, fair and frequent elections;
  • a representative legislature that makes laws and provides oversight; and
  • an independent judiciary that interprets laws.


They also translate into the guarantee of human rights and the rule of law, and transparent and accountable institutions. When it makes sense, good governance also decentralizes authority and resources to local Governments to give citizens a greater role in governance. Finally, good governance ensures that civil society plays an active role in setting priorities and making the needs of the most vulnerable people in society known. In sum, governance is good if it supports a society in which people can expand their choices in the way they live; promotes freedom from poverty, deprivation, fear and violence; and sustains the environment and women’s advancement.


Why does it matter if Governance is Good?

Many countries argue that the quality of their governance is an internal affair, a matter of national sovereignty. According to this view, what happens within borders should not be of concern to the rest of the world. However, we know that in today’s interconnected, "globalized" world, there is no such thing as an insular state. The role of the United Nations is to help create conditions of stability and well-being that are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality of all its members, equal rights and self-determination of peoples. While on the one hand the UN Charter protects the sovereignty of peoples, on the other it was never meant as a license for Governments to violate human rights and human dignity. As the Secretary-General has stated, "sovereignty implies responsibility, not just power."

"..a country where the poor have a voice in their Government is more likely to invest in national policies that reduce poverty."


Beyond this principle, however, there are other compelling reasons for us to care about whether the quality of governance is good across the globe. For the good of their own people and for the sake of our common aims, we should help to strengthen the capacity of weak states to govern because countries that are well governed are both less likely to be violent and less likely to be poor. A country that protects human rights and promotes inclusion is less likely to have citizens who are alienated enough to turn to violence as a means of addressing their problems. And a country where the poor have a voice in their Government is more likely to invest in national policies that reduce poverty. When people’s interests, needs and human rights are at the center of governance institutions and practices, there can be real progress in combatting poverty. Good governance provides the setting for equitable distribution of benefits from growth. In short, more peaceful and more prosperous nations contribute to a more peaceful and more prosperous world.


Mali Forges Ahead with Good Governance


Mamadou Traoré has his work cut out for him. In September 1999 he became the first democratically elected mayor of the commune of Kaniogo, located in southwestern Mali, West Africa. Now he has to show that democratic governance at the grassroots can have real meaning—deliver better services and more dynamic development—than the old top-down system of Government inherited from the days of the authoritarian one-party state.

"The aim of decentralization is to bring resources and decision-making authority from the national Government, down to the level of villages and towns where they can directly affect people’s lives."


Largely arid and landlocked, Mali is one of the poorest countries in Africa. But since 1991 it has enjoyed political freedom under a multi-party democratic system. Over the past three years, Mali has implemented one of the most far-reaching programmes of political and administrative decentralization in Africa. The aim of decentralization is to bring resources and decision-making authority from the national Government, down to the level of villages and towns where they can directly affect people’s lives.


The success of this programme is now being put to the test countrywide in communities such as Kaniogo. Kaniogo faces huge governance challenges if it is to achieve long-term improvements in the standard of living among its people and the provision of health care and education. The mayor explains that the issues of concern to the people that he represents are basic development concerns—creating a sense of unity among villages and improving health, education and food self-sufficiency.

"Although it will not be easy ... the recent decentralization reforms represent a return to pre-colonial Mali’s past, when local communities had political control of their own affairs."


In Traoré’s village there are only two health centers and three health dispensaries to service a population of more than 11,000 people—malaria, cholera, polio and dehydration are common problems. Most villages do have primary schools, but teachers are in short supply and must often look after two classes at once. Some classes have as many as 120 children. One solution to this problem that was tried locally was to give each schoolteacher a field on which to grow food. Each year members of the community came with their oxen to plough it. When the children of the community passed the primary school graduation examination, the people showed their gratitude by providing extra help in the teachers’ fields. Gradually word of this local support and enthusiasm spread at the national teachers’ college in the capital and encouraged new teachers to seek positions in Traoré’s village.


The programme of decentralization now being implemented all across Mali has the potential to release such energy and ideas at the local and regional level, giving people a more direct say in the development of their communities. Although it will not be easy to meld modern notions of democratic governance with traditional authority structures in a country like Mali, the recent decentralization reforms represent a return to pre-colonial Mali’s past, when local communities had political control of their own affairs.


The Building blocks

  • The Charter of the United Nations was signed in 1945 at the conclusion of the United Nations Conference on International Organization. Article IX of the Charter calls for the United Nations to promote higher standards of living, conditions of economic and social progress and development, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.


  • In 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which roots freedom, justice and peace in the world in the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.


  • In 1966 the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights were adopted by the UN General Assembly. These documents underscore that the ideal of free human beings enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want can be achieved only if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his/her civil and political rights, as well as his/her economic, social and cultural rights.


Signs of progress: Recent developments

  • The 1997 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) introduced a new dimension to the concept of human poverty. It argued that if income is not the sum total of well being, lack of income cannot be the sum total of poverty. Assessing human poverty, then, should not focus on what people do or do not have, but on what they can or cannot do. This implies an opening up of the society to the pleasures and opportunities of life to more and more of the population.


  • In 1997, the United Nations held the International Conference on Governance for Sustainable Growth and Equity. This conference found that good governance—encouraging politics of inclusion, accommodation and tolerance—is essential to human development and poverty alleviation. Elections may be a crucial step in the democratic process, however, democracy must be deepened far beyond elections to encompass functioning parliaments, judiciaries and human rights institutions.


  • The first-ever Emerging Democracies Forum took place in July 1999 in Yemen and brought together political, civic and economic leaders from transitional democracies. These countries produced the Sana’a Declaration, which reaffirmed developing countries’ commitments to democracy and good governance, and urged the international community to renew its commitment to countries working to build democratic institutions and processes and dedicate resources for this task.


  • In April 2000, the Group of 77 -- the largest coalition of developing countries within the United Nations—held the South Summit in Havana Cuba. At the event, the Group of 77 declared its commitment to "a global system based on the rule of law, democracy in decision-making and full respect for the principles of international law and the Charter of the United Nations."


  • In June 2000, a Ministerial Conference on "A Community of Democracies" and a non-Governmental conference on "World Forum on Democracy" took place in Warsaw, Poland. These two events reaffirmed developing and developed countries’ commitment to common democratic values and standards. These include the belief that "the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of Government, as expressed by exercise of the right and civic duties of citizens to choose their representatives through regular, free and fair elections with universal and equal suffrage, open to multiple parties, conducted by secret ballot, monitored by independent electoral authorities, and free of fraud and intimidation."


  • International Institutions—organizations like UNDP, the World Bank, the OECD and many others—recognize the importance of governance in making people’s lives better. Between 1992 and 1999, UNDP allocated over 50 % of its resources to promote good governance and good management of public resources in developing countries. The World Bank promotes good governance and anti-corruption. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of 29 member countries that provides Governments a setting in which to discuss, develop and perfect economic and social policy, has made governance a key area of its work.


  • Individual countries have made great progress in the area of governance. Two of the world’s most populous developing countries—Indonesia and Nigeria—both made transitions to democracy in 1999. East Timor, long a province of Indonesia and now a United Nations protectorate, is in transition to full sovereignty and Nigeria returned to democratic civilian governance after almost four years of military rule. Many other countries made modest or significant progress in promoting and protecting civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.


  • Civil society is everywhere on the rise. (The notion of civil society includes a wide range of organizations and groups from the private sector with varying interests and objectives, such as professional, business, service oriented, religious, recreational, etc.). Development assistance funds channeled through civil society organizations have increased significantly and now account for approximately US$10 billion annually. The number of civil society groups in any one developing country could sometimes be over 100 (for example, in Bosnia there are about 180 non-Governmental organizations [NGOs] and in Mozambique, nearly 100).


  • Multi-actor partnerships have grown in number and frequency in the area of governance. Today organizations within the United Nations system are collaborating on governance issues, just as they are collaborating with large donors in this field. UNDP, as the UN agency most closely concerned with governance, has also developed partnerships with the World Bank and inter-Governmental and non-Governmental governance groups at both the national and international level.

"it is important to remember that—despite fits and starts—human liberty has been on an upward trajectory throughout the twentieth century. When viewed from the perspective of the century as a whole, democracy and civil liberties have made important and dramatic progress."

Freedom House Survey,1999