What is Governance?
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.
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:
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."
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.
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.
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
Signs of progress: Recent developments