Governance needs for development in Africa is not so easily identified with the good governance template. This chapter explores how best fit examples of reforms have yet to make a clean break with conventional thinking on good governance; with a continued focus on the principal-agent framework rather than collective action. It calls for a more realistic take on governance reform that focuses on collective action rather than on a principal-agent framework. It argues that governance challenges in Africa are not fundamentally about one set of people getting another set to behave better in the interests of development, but about being able to act collectively in their own and others’ best interests. The book, from where this chapter originates, offers a new perspective on what an alternative agenda for governance reform in Africa might contain.
While there has been a shift in thinking from the application of generic good governance templates and best practices towards context-specific governance, the practical implications remain to be seen. Much thinking about both domestic reform options and aid delivery for the last 15 years has been structured around the dialogue between ‘supply-side’ and ‘demand-side’ approaches. In the former, the implicit assumption is that governments are led by people whose central concern is to develop their countries, in the latter; the commitment of leaders to a development vision is considered highly problematic.
In both perspectives the asymmetric principal-agent model is present. There has been two major results of this focus on principal-agent thinking: at the macro-level it has led to a stagnated discussion on elite incentives about which nothing further can be said, and at the meso and micro levels there has been a neglect of analysing collective action blockages thanks to the assumption that ordinary people can slip into the roles assigned to them by demand-side accountability.
The chapter identifies three magic bullets that are rooted in the ‘good governance’ and have remained influential: democratic decentralisation’; rediscovering demand; and social accountability. While some donor-funded technical assistance staff and NGOs do engage in collective action in ways that cut across divides between officials and private citizens, the adherence to best-practice rather than context-sensitive work hinders impact. Further, there is the need for greater consistency between what these projects are actually doing and the ‘theory of change’ to which they are formally committed. Generating evidence on effectiveness of citizen demand or the mobilising power of information has not been a priority for donor initiatives.
It is more realistic to understand governance limitations as a product of collective action problems, and to think about possible remedies on that basis. Issues of collective action become more prominent when it comes to pursuing more ambitious objectives. A realistic take on governance reform in Africa involves two things: (i) an understanding of institutions and underlying power relations and (ii) appreciating that collective action (or lack of) affects both elite incentives and the behaviour of citizens and service users. This introduces differing policy and action implications; it is less about joining up demand and supply, and more about the prior question. How to address the severe problems of coordination and collective action that typically affect actors on both sides of the demand-supply relationship? A focus on this question emphasises context-specific problem-solving, distinct from single-stranded solutions.