Thursday 22 Oct 2020 | 04:37 | SYDNEY
Thursday 22 Oct 2020 | 04:37 | SYDNEY

Governance aid: Not sexy, but important

12 August 2011 14:37

Luke Arnold is the Governance Manager in the Indonesia Section of AusAID. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Government. This blog is part of the New Voices series.

Last month, following the first comprehensive review of Australia's aid program in more than a decade, the Australian Government announced that its provision of aid will be now guided by five 'core strategic goals': saving lives; promoting opportunities for all; sustainable economic development; effective governance; and humanitarian and disaster response.

Most Australians instantly recognise the value of our aid going towards vaccinations ('saving lives'), enabling poor children to attend good quality schools ('promoting opportunities for all'), improving enterprise opportunities for the unemployed ('sustainable economic development') or responding to natural disasters ('humanitarian and disaster response'). 

But 'effective governance' stands out as the most poorly understood and — at least for our mainstream media — the least sexy of these goals.

This should not make it any less important.

Aid for effective governance is about assisting countries to build transparent, accountable and participatory decision-making processes. There are at least three reasons why this kind of support doesn't capture the hearts and minds of the Australian public.

First, when governance changes occur, it's often very hard to see them (eg. a foreign court which publishes all of its decisions in an open and transparent way looks, on the outside, quite similar to a court which does not). Second, the benefits of good governance are often indirect and thus don't necessarily generate many human interest stories (eg. it's harder to talk about the gains of better public finance auditing than it is to celebrate better access to fresh water). Third, improvements in governance often take a long time to eventuate and can be difficult to attribute to any single intervention.

Perhaps a deeper reason why aid for effective governance is not sexy, is that it involves fundamentally altering power relations in society. This means that aid efforts can yield positive results for a while and then experience occasional setbacks, as those opposing governance changes push-back to resist them — as has happened with efforts to improve the status of women in many societies.

This 'two steps forward, one step back' trajectory contrasts with other aid that yields more linear and predictable results — often making the latter more attractive both for aid administrators and the broader public.

Although it is hard to make out a clear link between effective governance and economic growth, strong evidence is emerging about the role good governance plays in helping countries avoid conflict, build resilience to economic shocks and facilitate the rise of middle-classes.

As Amartya Sen has famously articulated, effective governance facilitates human freedom and is therefore to be considered an end in itself. If delivered effectively, development assistance can make a vital difference to the quality of governance in many of the countries to which Australia donates aid.

Photo courtesy of the Asian Development Bank.