Is Good Governance a Prerequisite for Africa’s Development? A Reply to Sundaram and Chowdury

Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdury argue in their article ‘Is Good Governance a Pre-requisite for Africa’s Development’ (Africa Review of Books, volume 9, number 2 - September 2013) that the thesis put forward by influential sectors of the donor community that ‘good gover-nance entailing rule of law, well defined  property rights, minimalist government, government transparency, free and fair democratic elections, independent press and media, minimal corruption, liberal market economic operations, and the like, constitute the best way forward for developing countries. This thesis has been touted by the OECD countries and the World Bank. Sundaram and Chowdury (henceforth S&C) argue, on the other hand, that ‘good governance’ neiher necessary nor sufficient for economic growth and development. In this regard, their opposing viewpoint is consistent with similar views expressed by ‘leading development experts on Africa’ who argue that ‘African countries badly need to embark on processes of economic transformation, not just growth, and they are not helped to do so by insistence on prior achievement of good governance, meaning adoption of institutional “best practices” that have emerged in much richer countries’ (S&C: 4). A preliminary observation is that some might be inclined to construe this observation as rather condescending in that countries that casually accept rent-seeking practices involving corruption – one of the anathemas of ‘good governance’ – are not expected to change such institutional practices as one of the preconditions for development.

Sundaram and Chowdury begin their analysis with the observation that ‘Effective government or good governance matters, but it is not obvious or clear what that means’ (S&C: 4). The authors then cite the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGIs) which advised developing countries to heed ‘45 aspects of good governance’ (S &C: 4). This number of aspects, according to the authors, grew to 116 by 2002, thereby leading to some confusion as to the meaning of the term ‘ good governance’ itself. The authors then cite researchers such as Melissa Thomas (2010) who is highly critical of the definitial changes which have taken place. She points out that there is a substantial difference between measuring something and measuring perceptions of it. For example, perceptions of crime risk have been shown to be quite different than [sic] actual crime levels’ (S &C: 4). But the analogy is not apt in this instance. The instances of inneficient and good forms of governance are easily tracked and measured. There is no basis for confusing ‘perceptions’ and ‘actualities’ when the issue concerns governance. The vast governance gap between countries such as Norway and Equatorial Guinea, and between New Zealand and Gabon, is palpable. In fact, one just has to consult the UNDP’s Human Development Index tables and apply Gini coefficient to all those countries in the lowest rank, the countries of ‘low human development’. The same comparative metric principles also apply to countries such as Nigeria and South Africa. The truth is that the peoples of all countries have a fairly accurate idea of whether their governments operate on the principles of ‘good governance’ or not.

There are other critiques of the ‘good governance’ thesis that Sundaram and Chowdury cite such as Rothstein and Teorell (2008), who argue that ‘good governance’ and ‘quality of government’ discussions are rather remiss in ‘addressing the issue of what constitutes QoG ( quality of gouvernmance) in the first place. They identify at least three problems with exixsting definitions: they are  extremely broad, or are functionalist(e.g.,“good governance” is “good-for-economic development”) or only deal with corruption. The problem with broad defitnitions is that if good gouvernance or QoD is everything, then maybe it is nothing’(Rothstein and Teorell 2008: 168)(S&C: 4). Other similar references are made, all in support of the thesis that ‘governance is neither necessary nor sifficient for african economic developement’. Apart from the claimed fuzziness of the term ‘good governance’ itself, the authors cite other researchers who point to other more important considerations to explain Africa’s present economic state. They cite Sachs et al.(2014:121 - 122) who claim that poverty is the crucial variable in explaining why there is little growth in a number of African countries. Thus ‘governance reform’ will do little to overcome the present impasse. But the result of presenting such alibis as explanation for Africa’s growth problems mainly evade the issue and lead inevitably to a kind of cognitive agnosticism on the requirements for African development.

Sundaram and Chowdury also argue that there are indeed a few countries that have flouted good governance prescirptions and have managed to ‘grow from poverty to prosperity in the last half century’(S&C:5). Yet such countries are not named. Presumably, reference is to South Korea and Taiwan. But these two countries are special cases because during their years of growth both were shepherded by the United States in its ideological conflict with the Soviet Union. This meant that there were regular flows of financial capital into both countries and U.S. markets were open to their exports. South Korea was being primed to match North Korea, while Taiwan was played off against the People’s Republic of China. In the case of South Korea, there was indeed corruption but it was ‘dividends corruption’ rather than ‘looter corruption’. In the former case, corruption took the form of transfers of a certain pourcentage of profits earned by private corporations to government officials. In the latter, there was the outright looting of state coffers by government officials (Wedeman, 1997).

The upshot of the discussion offered by Sundaram and Chowdury is that African governments somehow constitute special cases that should not be subjected to governmental standards similar to those applied to, say, the OECD countries on their paths to development. Yet, one might want to consider developedcountries with impressive per capita  GDPs such as Iceland, New Zealand, and Singapore that were not advantaged with great natural resources and have quite different cultural backgrounds. Consider their respective per capita GDPs and human development rankings as expressed in the UNDP’s Human Development Index (2013): Iceland ($35,116, ranked 13th), New Zealand ($32,569, 7th) and Singapore ($72,371, 9th). These three countries did indeed satisfy most of the basic requirements for ‘good governance’ as the argument goes. As in the case of South Korea, they started off their economic careersrelatively underdeveloped. The authors cite Jeffrey Sachs (2012) who writes that a number of African countries are just too poor to grow, regardless of whether or not they satisfy good governance criteria (S&C: 5).

What is missing in all this is that Sundaram and Chowdury fail to acknowledge the subtext that lies at the heart of the ‘good governance’ recommendations. Ever since the independence years, Western lending agencies have been touting the virtues of ‘good governance’ according to the principles of neoliberalism. These principles as promoted by international lending agencies such as the IMF, the World Bank, and donor countries stress free market economics, minimal government intervention in the economy, and encouragement of direct foreign investment. This was the basis for the opposing views expressed by the Berg Report (1981), produced by Elliot Berg of the World Bank, and the Lagos Plan of Action (LPA,1980), produced by the OAU and reissued by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. In theory, the LPA stressed a Pan-Afican self suffiency where eventuel industrialisation would be the goal in economic contexts where governments would have important roles to play. The implicit subtext here is that ‘good governance’ is essentially a code phrase for a particular kind of government, that is, neoliberal government.

In this regard, it is instructive to distinguish between ‘good government’ and ‘good governance’ to understand more fully what is actually being debated. The former applies to the particular structure of government while the latter applies to the process of governing. Of course, there are normative considerations here which I would explain as follows. ‘Good government’ couls be defined as "government as" garners maximal consensus in terms of societal acceptability’. This is based on the assumption that the vast majority of humans are by nature risk averters in terms of their decision making. Thus the kind of governement that satisfied the optimal well-being of the social majority would be considered ‘good government’ by most. An example would further illustrate this point. Consider the hypothetical case of an individual, A, who is offered the following options: flip a coin with the followings payoffs: heads will earn $5 million while tails would earn 1$ million; or flip another coin with $15 million for heads and $0 for tails. Given that humans in general are risk averters, most individuals would opt for the ftirst option on the gruond that whether heads or tails there will be some gain. It is the same with governments: governments that guarantee minimal insurance for the majority would be preferable to ones that do not. This is what is meant by ‘good government’. This idea resembles somewhat the Rawlsian idea of a ‘veil of ignorance’ according to which the hypothetical individual enters society not knowing his or her wealth or other status. Such an individual would certainly wish that social guarantees would be put in place that would maximise his or her worst possible conditions. In real economic terms, this is what obtains for those nations that are highest on the UNDP’s Human Development Index list. Their governmental structures are founded on the principle of social and economic maximisation. This would also imply that there are forms of government that are non-optimal as is implicit in the ‘good governance’ thesis propounded by international agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank. This is reflected in countries with Gini coefficients that range from 0.65 to 0.99. Yet such vast disparities in wealth and welfare distribution would not be in conflict with the kind of ‘good governance’ structures touted by its promoters. The point is that those who argue for ‘good governance’ rarely take such issues into consideration. Evidently ‘good government’ is distinct from ‘good governance’.

The same could be said for the idea of ‘good governance’ in terms of governmental process. In this instance, ‘good governance’ would not refer to anyform of governmental structure but to the efficiency with wich gouvernemental processes are executed. In this instance, corruption and other forms of rentseeking are not to be countenanced. It is on this issue that those who argue for ‘good governance’ may have a point. Corruption may be excused if its impact is benign in nature, that is, unearned gains as economic rent find local investment outlets. The fact is that ‘bad governance’ in the form of rampant corruption, abuse of the law, abuse of the principle of governmental transparency, and so on, strongly impede balanced developmental agenda. So the best governmental combination for economic growth and development is ‘good government’ combined with  ‘good and effective governance’. Other combinations would yield sub-optimal results.

Sundaram and Chowdury emphasise their critique of the ‘good governance’ mantra when they write with reference to Gray and Kahn (2010) that ‘Regardless of their political structure, successful developing countries have had high levels of political corruption, typically necessary for political stabilization through patron-client networks. Hence, adapting governance capabilities to the specific conditions of African coutries is very different from the exclusive focus on democratization, decentralization or anti-corruption that the good governance approach espouses’ (S&C: 6). But the authors do not name such countries.

First, it should be noted that the countries that are viewed as developed are in a continuous phase of development as they adapt to new technologies and new economic arrangements. At one point in time, they were also viewed as ‘developing’. Take the cases of Iceland, New Zealand, Singapore, Norway,Denmark, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong [ex-colonial enclave]. It is not the case that such countries were plagued excessively by corruption. If countries like Iceland, Norway, and New Zealand found democratic politics and non-corruption useful in their modernising goals, then why not the nations of Africa ? Second, it is time that the countries of Africa break away from the dependency connections with the socalled donor nations and the paternalistic hegemony that institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank exercise over Africa’s economies. Thirdly, the authors fail to point out the neoliberal economic ideology that serves as the subtext for the‘good governance’ thesis. The origins of the present situation go back to the Lagos Plan of Action recommendations versus those of the World Bank’s Berg Report. The Lagos Plan of Action has been shelved and replaced by NEPAD, which in turn endorses the ‘good governance’ programme. The political economy of African development should not be a reactive one based on whether African governments conform or not to IMF and donor-countries’ ministrations but one based on how to formulate independently proactive theories and recommendations that would apply comprehensively to all the countries of the AU, as the Lagos Plan of Action did in embryonic terms. Merely focusing on the ‘good governance’ mantra,with critical authority granted to theorists who are themselves within the neoclassical economics optic, does not really advance Africa’s developmental agenda.



Berg, Elliot, 1981, ‘Accelerated Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Agenda for Action’, Washington, D.C., the World Bank.

Sundaram, Jomo K. and Chowdury, Anis, 2013, ‘Is Good Governance a Prerequisite for Africa’s Development’, Africa Review of Books, vol. 9, 2.

United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 1980, Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa, 1980-2000.

Wedeman, A., 1997, ‘Looters, Rent Scrapers, and Dividend Collectors: Corruption and Growth in Zaire, South Korea, and the Philippines’, The Journal of Developing Areas, 31, 457-458.



Lansana Keita 


10 -11 

Africa Review of Books / Revue Africaine des Livres

Volume 11, N° 02 - Septembre 2015 




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