Governance & competent states

Published April 15, 2024
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN

THE global debate over governance continues — what constitutes good governance and how it helps to determine the fate and fortunes of nations.

It is axiomatic that effective governance and competent leadership are what make the difference between successful and unsuccessful states. Economic development, in fact, depends on good governance. And this, in turn, has much to do with the quality of governance institutions, their responsiveness to public needs and people’s faith in them.

In an increasingly complex world, governance challenges have become more daunting. New technologies have created unprecedented flows of instant information to heighten the challenge. Technology has empowered citizens and increased their expectations of what governments should deliver. But governments are seen to lack agility in a fast-moving world.

The international debate on governance in the 21st century has produced a rich body of literature. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this conversation intensified as assessments were made of which countries managed the health crisis better and whether democracies did a more efficient job than authoritarian systems. Fareed Zakaria, in his book Ten Lessons for the Post-Pandemic World, argued that while democracies had a better record, it was a “competent, well-functioning, trusted state” and quality of governance that were instrumental in tackling the pandemic effectively.

Similarly, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama asserted it was not the type of political system that determined capable management but an effective state. In a 2020 essay, he argued the crucial determinant in efficient crisis response is state capacity and trust in government. “What matters in the end is not regime type but whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state.”

Pakistan has much to learn from the global debate to reimagine governance.

The unsettled post-Covid period saw unprecedented, overlapping challenges confront countries across the world. This prompted the World Bank to call for reimagining governance. Its Future of Government report (2022) focused attention on the need for governments to tackle unresolved governance problems.

It saw the world at an inflection point due to growing demands, economic headwinds and mistrust, as well as persistence of chronic failures such as the learning crisis and job insecurity. The report called for a new social contract supported by an elite bargain by which elites committed to outcomes to benefit society at large and not just themselves. It proposed a “government of the future” with a clear vision of its role — innovative, trusted, prepared for crisis and responsive to the demands of citizens.

Over the years, the World Bank also advanced the governance debate by its efforts to evaluate and measure the quality of governance of countries. Its worldwide governance indicators represent a compilation of data that captures perceptions of the quality of governance in over 200 countries and territories. They measure six dimensions of governance — voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence/ terrorism, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption.

In the global rankings based on assessment of these dimensions, Singapore, Finland, Norway and Denmark were among top performers in the 2022 rankings, with Pakistan among the bottom group of countries.

A different contribution to the governance debate was made by an insightful book published some years back titled Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way between West and East by Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels. The authors examined whether there was a need to reimagine government as political systems were not delivering effective governance. They offered a compelling idea that both East and West should learn and adapt from one another to combine “knowledgeable democracy” with “accountable meritocracy”.

For the authors, the question was not if Western-style democracy would triumph over rule by a meritocratic Mandarinate rooted in China’s ancient “institutional civilisation”, or the other way around. Instead, they asked whether a “middle way” between them could be evolved.

By this, they meant finding a balance between meritocracy and democracy, and between authority and freedom to create the most “intelligent form of governance”. They suggested drawing on the ‘best practices’ from both to evolve hybrid institutional arrangements that fused elements of popular democracy with the Confucian tradition of a learned meritocracy.

But they stressed the need for reform in Western and Eastern political systems alike, as both faced challenges. They argued that polarisation, dysfunction, decay and ideological rigidity afflict governance systems in much of the West. Without reform, electoral democracy anchored in a consumer culture of instant gratification is headed towards “terminal decline”. This is because it prioritises short-term interests, unmitigated by robust deliberative institutions, which have become weaker and unable to pursue the public good. In the US, democracy appears unable to self-correct.

On the other hand, China adopts a long-term governance perspective, can take tough decisions, and robustly implement them. China’s operative system is predicated on the meritocratic tradition of learned and experienced elites and reflected in the modern Mandarinate of the Communist Party. This enables it to chart a long-term path, which explains its extraordinary rise. But the Chinese system is also under stress and needs correction because it “lacks accountability” and faces mounting demands from its people for democratic checks on arbitrary authority and cronyism.

This discussion leads the authors to contend that the best attributes of both Eastern and Western systems can help to produce a template of “intelligent governance”. This means striking a balance between rights and responsibilities, as well as ensuring a check on populist and partisan impulses by injecting the perspective of the long-term and common good in a strong deliberative institution.

China would “need more participatory involvement” and greater accountability; “The US would need a more depoliticised democracy in which governance for the long term and common good is insulated from the populist short-term special interest political culture”.

While every country has to choose its own governance system and development path, there is much to learn from the governance debate.

Several core principles of good governance have universal application — framing and implementing policy in the public interest by an inclusive process that meets the requirements of legitimacy, competence and accountability and gives primacy to merit over cronyism. Pakistan has yet to apply these principles to the way it is governed.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2024

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