‘Good’ Governance – Remembering the Role of Values and Beliefs: A Recipient Nation’s Perspective

By Anar Ulikpan

This blog is a response to the post entitled “What is this Governance Thing Anyway?” 

In very simple and broad terms, governance is a process through which public/community goods and services are coordinated to serve its peoples’ best interests in an equitable and fair manner. Countries with ‘good’ governance are expected to have a prevailing middle-class population who are happy with their life and feel secure about their health and well-being.

There are a great deal of articles and reports that highlight common overarching principles and arrangements that define ‘good’ governance. ‘Good’ governance is often defined through a Western-based system of norms and values such as accountability, transparency, human rights, free and fair elections, etc.  However, defining ‘good’ governance is highly context specific, and dependent upon a nation’s value and belief systems.  Questions that often come to my mind are: is there a benchmark for ‘good’ governance in development? Would ‘good’ governance according to Western standards work effectively in other (developing) contexts? Which brings back into question “What is ‘good’ governance, after all?”

To respond to that, we may need to take a step back and first look at what defines ‘good’ governance in different nations with differing culture and value system. Quite often, understanding country or community values, and history and beliefs, is very important in grasping what values and principles govern the development of particular countries or communities. Unfortunately, this is often lost in development – and that the value systems of the donor countries (largely Western countries) define and dictate what ‘good’ governance is without necessarily taking into account the developing country’s perspective of good governance.

Asian values are often defined in line with Mahathir and Lee’s views, rulers of Malaysia and Singapore respectively. In their view, Asian values[1] emphasise the community rather than the individual, prefer order and stability to personal freedom, insist on hard work and respect for political leaders, and hold the belief that government and business are not necessarily natural adversaries. Lee even claims that too much freedom and civil rights can hamper economic growth[2]. Asian values, defined this way, conflict to some extent with Western values, especially with those that seem to put excessive emphasis on the individual rather than the community, or display a lack of social discipline and greater tolerance for eccentricity and abnormality in social behaviour. But this conflict does not necessarily suggest one is better than other. It just reminds us that a country’s notion of ‘good’ governance is influenced by the values and long-standing beliefs of the community it serves.

Newly emerging democratic countries, like Mongolia and similar post-Soviet countries, sit somewhere on the fence, in between the two aforementioned value systems: transitioning from collectivism to individualism; from authoritarianism to democracy. Therefore, these countries often face development dilemmas resulting from the co-existence of differing value systems. How often do development partners take these invisible, but essential, domestic values into account when developing their strategy, styles and approaches in exchanges and negotiations with developing countries? At the same time though, we don’t want to fall into the trap of cultural relativism, whereby human rights are trampled upon under the banner of local values. A balance has to be found, but often this turns out to be a difficult exercise.

If development is to be ‘owned’ by the recipient country it needs sufficient time and space. Development partners should never underestimate the appropriate time and process needed for institutional change. I was able to see the development relationship through the lens of a recipient country during my various assignments for Mongolian Ministry of Health for its donor funded projects.  One of the observations I made was that if external partners push their version of ‘good’ governance on recipient countries too much without acknowledging and accounting for the local interpretation of ‘good’ governance, the very essence of ownership gets lost along the way. Moreover, there is a danger that the reform process will be seen as a burden rather than being owned and led by the government itself. The questions should always be “What we can do better that ultimately strengthens and sustains a country’s own system?”  “How to support to setting up a process where policies play more of a role in POLICIES not POLITICS?”

[1] Michael D. Barr, 2009, Lee Kuan Yew and the “Asian values” debate Asian Studies Review  Volume 24, 2000 – Issue 3

[2] Kwang, H. F., Fernandez, W., & Tan, S. (2015). Lee Kuan Yew: the man and his ideas: Marshall Cavendish International Asia Pte Ltd.

Anar works as a Health Service Evaluator & Researcher, Domestic Projects, at Abt Associates. Anar is originally from Mongolia and has experience working in JICA, WHO, GIZ (GTZ) and on ADB projects. Anar also holds a PHD in international development and governance.





2 thoughts on “‘Good’ Governance – Remembering the Role of Values and Beliefs: A Recipient Nation’s Perspective

  1. Marcus

    Hi Anar,
    Thanks for your considered response to Graham’s blog. I get the impression from Graham that he would agree that the western-cultural-norms-as-good-governance approach is a flawed start to understanding this complicated issue. For example, he doesn’t swallow the myth of political and economic liberalism as a good governance starting-point…
    “The evidence tells us that countries get rich first, then they get ‘good’ government, not vice-versa. The 21st century rich world (broadly speaking, OECD countries) did not first establish liberal democracy, free markets and merit-based public services and then acquire wealth.”

    I’m interested in following-on from the latter part of your discussion about the intersection of policy and politics, and I am interested in the proposition that foreign aid donors can provide ‘pure’ technical advice in any area, let alone governance. As you’ve noted, governance is a unique product of history, geography, culture, etc. i.e. It is the product of an inherently political process that seeks to answer the age-old question, “Who gets what?”

    Following, isn’t foreign aid itself a peculiar product of a particular post-WW2 western political dynamic, and thus comes with its own politico-cultural baggage? If foreign aid is simply an output of a political process in a foreign polity, then is it possible to disentangle foreign aid TA and the political process from which it has emerged? Or should we accept that foreign aid TA is marked by its own political genesis, and try and move forward from there? Said another way, can we apply TWP to ourselves, as ‘international development’ practitioners?

    Another linked question: Do multilaterals like the WB inherently do governance better than bilaterals like DfID, because multilaterals are at arms-distance from the more visceral politics of bilateral relationships?

    Perhaps the best approach is to adopt the norms of civil servants in a functional administration – to accept that at the end of the day, it is a political settlement that sets the boundaries of one’s mandate, and that ‘frank and fearless advice’ only goes so far, in any jurisdiction, and that if we’re on the payroll we have to pay homage to the Emperor, eventually. Pretending that we don’t serve at the discretion of the Emperor and his own political requirements may just confuse the issue further.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anar Ulikpan

      Hi Marcus,

      Thank you for your very interesting and thought-provoking comments. I totally agree with you that there is no foreign technical assistance that is free from politics. It is hard to disentangle the package that often comes together. However, it does not necessarily mean that the principles of “ideal” development policy and approaches (of course again, that “ideal” constantly evolves too) that is supportive of “good” governance is irrelevant and impractical anymore. Deciding what our “ideal” approach will always be a challenge but without that vision of “ideal” benchmark, aid will always be a wasted effort, too.

      Do multilaterals do governance better than bilaterals? Hard to say!! I am not even sure if they can really be arms-distance from politics of bilateral polices, especially in an environment where few influential (largest contributors) member countries still play a dominating role in these financial institutions. Also, the fact that eligibility criteria for ADF assistance (grant scheme) that is purely based on the countries’ income category is not encouraging at all. It does not promote good governance; the poorer the country the higher the risk of corruption and there is much higher risk of “misuse” in grant money than loan-where there is at least stricter conditions and accountability aspects attached to it.

      Re adopting the norms of civil servants in a functional administration! Again, what if there is no “functional administration”? Functional to whom? By the way, in Mongolian we do not have terminology as “civil servant” it is all “civil officers”, as such, are entitled to respect, not to serve.


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