WDR 2017 on Governance and Law: great content, terrible comms, and a big moral dilemma on rights and democracy

March 2, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Spoke yesterday at the London launch of the 2017 World Development Report on Governance and The Law. WDR coverAlthough Stefan Kossoff did a great job in summarizing the report on this blog a few weeks ago, I thought I’d add a few thoughts from the discussion.

The current debates on governance, of which the WDR is part, bear some of the hallmarks of a paradigm shift: widespread dissatisfaction with the existing approach (engineering institutional reforms in accordance with some notion of ‘best practice’, which hardly ever works); a growing body of evidence that another approach (broadly, that set out in the WDR) corresponds better to reality. The contribution of the WDR is in systematizing what we know so far, legitimizing the views of people who until a few years ago were seen as heretics, and providing the endorsement of a big and prestigious institution (the World Bank). That all feels like a significant moment.

But there are a couple of big challenges:

How do advocates of this way of ‘Doing Development Differently’ deal with the ‘well, duh’ factor? If you go up to a policy wonk, a decision maker, or an aid worker and say ‘hey, it’s all about politics and power’, they are likely to look at you with contempt and say, ‘well, duh. Tell me something I don’t know’. Unless you have a very specific comeback that shows them what they need to do differently because of that observation, they will stop reading/listening. The WDR only gets part way there.

WDR17 fig 4Comms: the report is full of brilliant content, but there is no denying it is a tough read. If you ask a bunch of economists and political scientists to collaborate, don’t expect a page turner. There is no memorable meme or diagram (this is the best there is), just lots of lists of three things, which I can’t for the life of me remember. I think the best thing that the Bank could now do is hand over the report to some comms people who take it away and turn it into something more accessible.

What’s the Theory of Change? More generally, applying the WDR’s own thinking to influencing decision makers, its supporters need to think through their theory of change. A few thoughts:

Getting this discussion out of the ghetto of governance and aid needs new stories and new champions. Maybe try and persuade a couple of governments to be ‘labs’ for the WDR approach, finding champions in other sectors (health, education, infrastructure, economy) and recruiting diplomats (who get this) as well as technocrats (who often don’t)?

Critical Junctures: what are the windows of opportunity provided by shocks and crises? In normal times, it’s probably unwise to tell politicians that this is a way of achieving more impact with less money, because the  likely response is ‘great, here’s less money then’. But if they have already made that decision, eg possibly in the case of the US aid programme right now, maybe this is the moment to sell the ideas in the WDR to decision makers faced with a ‘burning platform’?

And one real dilemma. British aid minister Rory Stewart (who definitely gets this stuff – he spoke without notes, listened intently to the presentations, stayed for the whole meeting. V impressive) opened the meeting by asking whether the report should have talked more about human rights and democracy – depending on who you believe, these kind of ‘inclusive institutions’ are either instrumental in achieving other benefits like stability and growth, or an intrinsic aspect of development, or both.

Great question.  The WDR argues that people interested in governance and public policy should stop fixating on WDR17 fig 3‘form’ and think about function. As Deng Xiao Ping put it – it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. In some ways this is liberating – it means that rather than assuming that development means everywhere ‘looking like us’, or at least like our idealized version of ‘us’, we should try harder to understand the huge variety of institutions and how they can deliver (or not) stability, justice, services. That sounds right – more attuned to complexity, less imperialist and arrogant.

But what if the ‘form’ we are abandoning in search of function is democracy or human rights? Some people in the governance debate seem positively gleeful about jettisoning these and focussing instead on what institutions produce stability, growth etc etc. They often get quite dewy eyed about autocracy in countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia or China.

I disagree with that, not least because I buy into Amartya Sen’s timeless definition of development as the progressive expansion of the freedoms to be and to do, so what is happening in those countries is clearly not development in its fullest sense, even if economies are growing and people are eating and living longer.

But the human rights and democracy crowd are equally unconvincing when they try and argue that good governance, rights, inclusive institutions etc are essential to development. They come up against the China Question – if that’s true, what about China? At worst, authors like Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail make themselves look a bit ridiculous by arguing that China is a blip, destined to collapse because it doesn’t have inclusive institutions. It’s not China that looks like collapsing right now….

So after publicly agonising in the meeting, I ended up replying to the Minister that this was indeed a dilemma, since most of the writing about governance errs towards the latter position, I welcomed the WDR rebalancing the debate a bit (and its sections on China are some of its best). Not really adequate, I know.

Overall, I think it will take months (if not years) for people to digest this report, and for its impact to become clear, but I would urge everyone to get started right away.

Here’s the video of the event, in case you missed it. I start ranting at minute 40.

Update: David Booth has a much better answer to Rory Stewart’s question in the comments below – check it out