28. September 2016

Getting the Fundamentals Right: GOV

By training I am a technical expert. If I could I would probably only ‘build cities’. Cities that are sustainable and livable. After numerous years of working towards that goal, I conclude: If it was only for the technical matters, things would be quite easy to improve. Yes, there are different practices; some of them turn out good for replication, others rather create unsustainable pathways for development and, thus, require improvement. But once a group of stakeholders has decided to address a certain problem or challenge, questions about technical options are reasonably easy to answer.

What matters, however, is how things are done. So to say: the meta-level above the concrete project specifications.

I am sure you have come across “governance”. I may also assume that enough readers have become increasingly annoyed by “governance” as a buzzword (also see here), an expertise, or a box to tick in a project application form. What is sometimes subsumed under governance, but which may also deserve to be treated separately is “government”. But no worries, we are not diving into a theoretical debate about these terms; instead I will use the variable “gov” as a compromise here.

What I want to argue is that the “gov” aspects within projects/project institutions are significantly more important for achieving successes than the actual technical aspects. And I am stating this as a fascinated technical expert who likes to do nothing else than developing context-tailored solutions with stakeholders and colleagues. But my/the focus is often off.

It requires some critical self-reflection by international development experts to realize that decades of technical improvements in project activities have not fundamentally changed how most things are done. Many observed improvements have neither been sustainable nor scaled up. If the technical solutions were just so fitting, why have they not changed the game? Because of “gov”.

Let’s look at infrastructure projects as an example. What is a shortlist of common problems: lack of provision; limited access; no climate/disaster-resilient design; unsustainable financing; extensive resettlement; duplicated/uncoordinated construction; implementation delay; deficient maintenance, etc. You can imagine these problems with regard to transport projects, sanitation, schools, electricity grids, public housing…you name it.

Let’s address these flaws: questions of providing infrastructure in quantitative and qualitative terms (population + equality) is related to political priorities, which should ideally be anchored in some form of political expression by the people. Lack of resilience design may be related to short-term perspectives superseding long-term concerns, which could be grounded on insufficient technical capacities within the administration or related to a lack of (policy/financial) incentives to invest in infrastructure that protects human lives and withstands heavy impacts…it is more or less about smart investment decisions. Massive resettlement may at first sight appear as a technical expert’s laziness to come up with a better design solution; fundamentally, however, it is more often related to a disregard for disadvantaged groups’ needs in combination with senseless regulations and policy guidelines. Lack of coordination and ensuing delays in implementation are quintessential for departmental silos (organizational shortcomings) and lack of project management capabilities. And decaying infrastructure due to insufficient maintenance is often caused by a lack of dedicated funds to sustain initial high investments and to plan for the full life cycle of infrastructure.

Some of these causes can be addressed through technical capacity building, but most are fundamentally related to a lack of good “gov”. If you find impact-poor projects in both the nutrition sector and the energy sector, they are likely not based on particular sectoral shortcomings in identifying the best technical solutions to achieve zero hunger or energy for all.

From the above list, unsustainable financing still needs to be addressed. At this year’s ICLEI Resilient Cities Asia-Pacific Forum, the council president of Seberang Perai, Malaysia, forcefully stated: “We have introduced an electronic budgeting system where every 50 seconds I can see what money comes in and out of the city’s pockets”. And an expert from an international organization assented: “Financiers go for those cities that have their house in order.”

It is as simple as this.

It is not about the choice between mitigation and adaptation projects, or between four or six lanes for the new ring road. It is about how governments get their act together in properly managing their cities/states, taking responsibility for their duties, and actively performing/promoting transparency and accountability, participatory decision-making and cross-sectoral coordination, as well as resource efficiency and rule of law. If they – and also we as international development experts – would only progress in getting these “gov” fundamentals right, the impact of joint efforts would be bigger, better, and more sustainable. Only then, technical expertise finds an environment where it can seriously improve the conditions of people’s lives.

Further reading here.