What makes good government? This may seem to be a basic question. It might even appear to be a philosophical one. Yet, the answer to this question has practical implications. For a sitting government, the answer could mean the difference between losing or maintaining power. For a developing country, the answer could be the difference between receiving or not receiving development aid so necessary for funding important government functions. Indeed, many development agencies like the World Bank, United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) use the notion of “good government” to determine development assistance to countries. As Rachel M. Gisselquist wrote in a working paper for the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER), an agency of the United Nations University, “Proponents argue, good governance should be at the center of development policy: donors should not only provide positive support for governance reforms in aid-recipient countries, but also should incentivize better governance by taking into account the quality of governance in decisions about the distribution of foreign assistance.”
Despite its importance, there is no single agreement on what “governance” is much less “good governance”. Google dictionary defines governance as, “The action or manner of governing a state, organization, etc.” Wikipedia defines governance as: “Governance comprises all of the processes of governing – whether undertaken by the government of a state, by a market or by a network – over a social system (family, tribe, formal or informal organization, a territory or across territories) and whether through the laws, norms, power or language of an organized society.” These are not very helpful definitions, as what “governing” is remains unclear. Gisselquist also alludes to this in writing, “Despite the importance of the good governance debate to international development policy, there remains considerable confusion over a basic question: what is governance, and especially good governance? Indeed, few discussions of governance fail to note this definitional ambiguity.
“Most studies”, she goes on to say, “simply proceed by selecting one definition among the many.”
Yet, it is necessary to have some working definition of both governance and good governance if we, as citizens or others as governors, are to judge whether either is occurring. Gisselquist notes that in a broad review of working definitions of governance, seven components of good governance emerge, including: “democracy and representation; human rights; the rule of law; efficient and effective public management; transparency and accountability; developmentalist objectives; and a varying range of specific economic and political policies, programmes and institutions”.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the definition of governance and good government, I believe a broad agreement could be achieved on at least three points. First, governance has to do with the arrangements we make as a society to direct, order and control those matters that relate to our collective well-being as a society. Governing is that directing, ordering and control of those matters. These matters include our safety, health, education, culture, economy and relations with other societies, among other things. These matters are or should be exclusively about our common being, not individual enterprise.
Second, good governance then is about setting direction for ourselves that leads to wellness and well-being. It is about the kind of order that enables us to pursue noble deeds, individually and collectively, that optimize our freedom as a community and promote justice as a community. Good governance enables us to control those conditions that might undermine our advancement and maintain an environment conducive to wholesome living. It is true that in the course of all this, those who govern us will promote democracy, peace, transparency, accountability, etc. In the end, however, it is always about the wellness and well-being of the community, our society, our nation. Good government is about promoting the best of our usness by wholesome and blessed means.
Third, good governance should be experienced by the people being governed as either manifest good effort at directing, ordering and controlling their affairs for their well-being or as the felt experience of that direction, order and control. People should be able to observe and benefit from a government’s effort to ensure their peace, safety, health, education, culture, prosperity, participation, etc. In our human affairs, it would be naïve to think that noble efforts will not face challenges, obstacles, perhaps even failure. Yet, if the effort is clear, even the absence of success cannot undermine its virtue. If a government must try too hard to convince its people of the goodness of its governing, it is very likely not delivering that good government. After all, goodness is best when goodness is felt.
What is good government? The answer may remain debatable. Yet, all of us need it and all who are interested in it, should work to find one upon which we agree and do all in our power to promote it. Having no definition or not agreeing on one will only serve to further tribalize and confuse us about what it is we are about; and that is untenable.
• Zhivargo Laing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.