Working With The Grain: an important new book on rethinking approaches to governance

January 6, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Even though it’s relatively short (223 pages), Working With the Grain (WWTG) took me two months to finish, but I’m glad I did. It adds to a growing and significant bodywwg-cover of literature on ‘doing development differently’/’thinking and working politically’ – Matt Andrews, Adrian Leftwich, David Booth, Diana Cammack, Sue Unsworth etc. (Like Matt and Adrian, WWTG author Brian Levy is a white South African – what attracts that particular group to rethinking governance would make an interesting study in itself.)

Brian summarizes the common elements of this emerging school of thought as:

‘An insistence that the appropriate point of departure for engagement is with the way things actually are on the ground — not some normative vision of how they should be;

A focus on working to solve very specific development problems – moving away from a pre-occupation with longer-term reforms of broader systems and processes, where results are long in coming and hard to discern;

Recognition that no blueprint can adequately capture the complex reality of a specific setting, and thus that implementation must inevitably involve a process of iterative adaptation.’

What makes this book special is Brian’s CV – two decades at the World Bank, which experience he raids to provide great case studies throughout. It feels like he’s now gone back into academia (he teaches at Johns Hopkins and the University of Cape Town) partly to make sense of what he’s learned from 20 years of success and (more often) failure (he characterizes the orthodox governance approach as ‘a breathtaking combination of naivete and amnesia’). Unlike most such tomes, I found it clearer on the ‘so whats’, than the general diagnostic, which tends to get bogged down in endless 3 point lists and typologies (hence the two months).

Levy sees different countries’ development paths as emerging from the interaction of economic growth and institutions. Growth transforms politics by creating a vocal middle class/ business sector. Occasionally, growth and institutions co-evolve, as in the US in the 19th Century. At other times institutions lead (South Africa) or growth leads (South Korea). That raises interesting questions about NGOs’ focus on the masses (social movements, active citizens etc) – does that mean that we both underestimate the importance of the rising middle classes and underplay the politically transformatory impact of growth?

WWTG comes up with one of those 2×2 typologies so beloved of social scientists to describe different regime types along two dimensions of governance – whether their polities are dominant or competitive; within each of these, whether the rules of the game centre around personalized deal-making or the impersonal application of the rule of law. This generates four broad country types:

Dominant discretionary, where strong political leadership (perhaps military, perhaps civilian; perhaps organized around a political party, perhaps a charismatic individual) has successfully consolidated its grip on power, but formal institutions remain weak, so rule is personalized. [examples: Korea under General Park Chung-hee; Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi]

Rule-by-law dominant, where institutions are more impersonal, but political control remains monopolized. [Korea from late-1970s through to its transition to democracy; contemporary China; perhaps Morocco, Jordan etc]

Personalized-competitive, where politics is competitive, but the rules of the game governing both the polity and the economy remain personalized. [Bangladesh, Zambia and many other low-income countries which democratized in the 1990s]

Rule-of-law competitive, where the political and economic rules have become more impersonal – though some other necessary aspects of democratic sustainability have not yet been achieved. [South Africa]

Over time, the key to development is how institutions emerge and evolve in each quadrant, and change the nature of the system.

The table below shows his suggestions for the kind of reforms that might actually ‘work with the grain’ in different regime types. He has a clear preference for incrementalism, especially when a country is on a positive growth path that is likely to generate positive pressures for reform in due course. He is also clearly thinking from the vantage point of a major donor in dialogue with national governments – some substantial rethinking would be required to make this relevant to smaller players like NGOs.

Levy options tableThere are some other big plusses, including some great history. Your starter for 10 – which dysfunctional state is being described here? [Answer at the bottom of the post]

‘All federal positions were patronage appointments – either made directly by the President, or allocated by him among members of congress to distribute as ‘spoils’. Federal employees had no job tenure; they were removed upon the defeat of their political benefactors. Employees were required to be politically active on behalf of their sponsors, and to contribute 2-10 percent of their salaries to party coffers – else risk losing their job.’

I also liked the honest agonizing and discussion of the dilemmas Levy has faced in his time at the Bank – when is it OK to endorse corruption and/or authoritarianism? How come hopeless political systems like Bangladesh can generate so much social progress? This is all good, grown up, reflexive stuff.

The style is, to be honest, a mixed bag (which itself is a marked improvement on a lot of other governance authors). Sometimes he writes with real verve – ‘‘Advocacy of democracy has been maximalist, shrill, its pendulum swinging repeatedly from euphoria to outrage, with disappointment along the way.’

But then try getting to the end of this paragraph without losing the will to live:

‘In principle, the relevant principals can comprise both governmental and non-governmental actors – although including governmental actors as a co-equal among the principals presumes that, in the context of the specific collaborative endeavor being considered, they have similar standing as co-principals as do non-governmental actors.’

Overall, the book is subtle, complex, often confusing and repays careful study. The complexity is born of deep first hand knowledge, and in the end, suggests that for all Levy’s heroic attempts to distil some general lessons, the roots of success and failure are really only visible with hindsight. Governance advisers and reformers will continue to flounder in the fog, but WWTG, and the other revisionist books and papers, can help a little by discounting some of the bad ideas, and maybe showing people how to look for (and recognize) success a little earlier. That feels like a worthwhile contribution.

More info on the WWTG website. Answer  to the Horrible History question: the United States for much of 19th Century