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Good enough governance:
Poverty reduction and reform in developing countries1

Merilee S. Grindle

Kennedy School of Government

November 2002

SARPN acknowledges Governance and Social Development Resource Centre as a source of this document:
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"People now place their hope in God, since the government is no longer involved in such matters."2 So lamented a poverty-stricken citizen of Armenia. Indeed, it is all too clear that when governments perform poorly, resources are wasted, services go undelivered, and citizens—especially the poor—are denied social, legal, and economic protection. For many in the development community, good governance has become as imperative to poverty reduction as it has become to development more generally.3

Yet good governance is deeply problematic as a guide to development. Getting good governance calls for improvements that touch virtually all aspects of the public sector—from institutions that set the rules of the game for economic and political interaction, to organizations that manage administrative systems and deliver goods and services to citizens, to human resources that staff government bureaucracies, to the interface of officials and citizens in political and bureaucratic arenas. Getting good governance at times implies changes in political organization, the representation of interests, and processes for public debate and policy decision-making. Not surprisingly, advocating good governance raises a host of questions about what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and how it needs to be done.

When good governance is advocated as a necessary ingredient for reducing widespread poverty, these questions are compounded. This is particularly so for countries attacking poverty as a condition for debt relief. Among them are the poorest countries in the world. Almost by definition their institutions are weak, vulnerable, and very imperfect; their public organizations are bereft of resources and are usually badly managed; those who work for government are generally poorly trained and motivated. Frequently, the legitimacy of poor country governments is questionable; their commitments to change are often undermined by political discord; their civil societies may be disenfranchised, deeply divided, and ill equipped to participate effectively in politics.4 Despite these conditions, expectations for what such countries should accomplish are high. While Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) have encouraged governments to define the tasks they must take on to reduce poverty, ownership does little to make the list of governance reforms more manageable.

What’s a country to do in the face of these problems? And what role should donors take on in efforts to promote the good governance agenda? Among the issues that need to be addressed is the overwhelming nature of the agenda—it is long and expanding. More important, among the long list of things that “must be done” to encourage development and reduce poverty, there is little guidance about what’s essential and what’s not, what should come first and what should follow, what is feasible and what is not. If more attention is given to sorting out these kinds of issues, the end point of the good governance imperative might be recast as “good enough governance,” that is, a condition of minimally acceptable government performance and civil society engagement that does not significantly hinder economic and political development and that permits poverty reduction initiatives to go forward. After a review of governance concerns as laid out in the PRSPs and the process through which they were developed, the paper outlines some of the ways of building toward a concept of good enough governance.

Even if a more parsimonious agenda for good enough governance can be devised, efforts to date suggest important lessons about how government capacity can be improved and how the role of civil society in building more effective and responsive government can be strengthened. In the third part of the paper, I consider what we have learned in recent years about public sector reform, participation of civil society and the poor in improving government effectiveness and responsiveness, and the politics of institutional and policy change. In the fourth section of the paper, I consider what the foregoing means in terms of the roles that donors can play in advancing the good enough governance agenda. There are no technical or easy fixes to what is inevitably a long, slow, reversible, and frustrating path toward better performing governments, but there may be ways of reducing the burden on those attempting to undertake the journey.

  1. Prepared for the Poverty Reduction Group of the World Bank.
  2. Narayan (2000:100) quoting a citizen of Armenia, 1995.
  3. I understand governance to consist of the distribution of power among institutions of government; the legitimacy and authority of state institutions; the rules and norms that determine who holds power and how decisions are made about the exercise of authority; relationships of accountability among state officials/agencies and between these officials/agencies and citizens; the ability of government to make policy, manage the administrative and fiscal affairs of the state, and deliver goods and services; and the impact of institutions and policies on public welfare.
  4. See Brдutigan (2000); Kaufmann, Kraay, and Zoido-Lobatуn (1999).

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