Governance: Complexity, emergence and measurement

I’ve now been working in DFID’s Policy Division for nearly six months. It has been what one calls an interesting experience …

Being in Policy Division has stimulated my thinking in recent weeks about a couple of things. First, about what donors can do to enhance governance in developing countries. And second, about how the effectiveness of donors’ efforts to enhance governance in developing countries can be measured. Both huge issues that I will certainly return to but for now two quick observations:

1) Governance is very complex. Donors don’t really understand the politics – particularly the informal politics – of developing countries and as such are not in a great position to dive in and say “do this, and that will lead to this improvement”. This issue is made more challenging still by the fact that developing countries offer different contexts for reform – a fact that a recent World Bank blog puts front and centre with its notion of a spectrum of reform space with different approaches employed for countries at different points on that spectrum.

This – leaving aside other big questions of legitimacy – raises some big questions about whether and how donors can contribute to enhancing governance. I think that Owen Barder’s recent blog about evolution and complexity is very thought provoking on this. He concludes that “as change makers we should not try to design a better world, we should make better feedback loops”. So, accountability still matters, but donors role in nurturing accountabilities and feed back loops is rather different?

2) Governance is very complex. Therefore, it seems to be that the enthusiasm for Randomised Controlled Trials as a way of getting a handle on what works is misplaced. RCTs are – as far as I understand it – about isolating the impacts of specific interventions. This might be all well and good when the effects of an intervention, or a series of interventions, are additive. But when interventions are part of complex social systems whose qualities emerge through the interaction of various elements, it seems to me that isolating impacts in the RCT way, a reductionist way, won’t cut it. A recent paper on measuring impact in the Millenium Development Goals era, in the Lancet, makes a similar point. That of course, leaves those of us who think that complex social systems are best understood in a holistic manner with the challenging of explaining how that can best be done. Outcome Mapping might provide a useful way forward?

I’m looking forward to seeing how the governance agenda moves forward at DFID and elsewhere and to see whether it faces up to the complexity of governance and the huge challenges that donors face in working out how best they can contribute to enhancing governance.

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