Photo: Amirul Rajiv

The rubric of good governance

Mohammad Badrul Ahsan

It used to be said in the mid-1980s that the phrase “Lebanese Government” was an oxymoron. Given Lebanon's contentious politics of that time and its control in the hands of factional Muslim and Christian militias, the name of the country and the word government sounded absurd if uttered in the same breath. Good governance in Bangladesh is also an oxymoron, because it's a figure of speech that combines two contradictory terms.

The World Bank has been trying to popularize the term “Good Governance” since 1978 as an expression for ideal governing system that is inevitable for political, economic, social and cultural development of a country. The governance of a country involves two fundamental processes. One is the process of decision-making. The other is the process by which these decisions are implemented.

The underlying assumption of the exponents of good governance is that if these two processes are sound, then governance also should be sound in any country from Tibet to Timbaktu. A developing country like Bangladesh needs that ideal situation to achieve economic growth and make progress. The problem is that while we are under the crushing burden of surplus decisions, we are equally paralyzed by the deficit of implementation.

For more than three decades since the term “good governance” has been coined, it not only remains a far-fetched goal for Bangladesh, but also appears to be receding with each passing government. Each government planted the seed of alienation, which got nurtured by the next. In fact, as it looks today, good governance is as remote a goal for this country as the moon could be from the earth in a clear sky.

The freedom enjoyed by individual citizens is a litmus test of good governance. If they get protection from police, justice from courts, service from their public servants, medical treatment from doctors, legal support from lawyers, and are guaranteed their rights against unfair business practices, these are clear road signs of good governance.

These desired conditions subsume the eight pillars of good governance: (1) participation, (2) rule of law, (3) transparency, (4) responsiveness, (5) consensus, (6) equity and inclusiveness, (7) effectiveness and accountability, and (8) accountability. That gives the home kit for governance test to anybody who likes to know. Anybody can sit at home and work it out in his or her own mind.

When we are afraid to step out of our houses, when we are afraid to seek help from police, when we are hesitate to seek justice from the court, and when we consume formalin-laced fish or chemical-soaked fruits and vegetables, the slogan of good governance leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It may sound radical to say, but the fact is that our own governments are not governing us any better than those outsiders, who had subjugated us.

We have no choice but to place hope over experience. But how is this country in a better shape now than Lebanon was in the mid-80s? In this country the factions are fighting in quiet desperation and the gunshots and bombs explosions are ringing out in verbal invectives. Net-net, the end result is the same. In this country we are watching a civil war on mute.

Two political parties cannot stand each other. Two top leaders have no love lost between them. The police and the civil administration are fighting turf wars in the districts. The attack on the district officials in Pabna last September and its fallout in other districts triggered an alarm amongst the public servants. Before they had to tackle overbearing political meddling from the leaders. Now even the student and the youth wings of ruling parties demand their unconditional obedience.

In short, Bangladesh is swaying more towards anarchy than good governance. Here anybody is free to do anything he likes if he has money and muscle. Implementation is equally snagged on these two forces. When decisions are made and enforced under coercion or intimidation, when vested interests prevail over sound judgment, governance is reduced to a mere mirage in the sand.

The researchers using the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) have ascertained from the evidence for developed and developing countries that good governance can have a major positive impact on development. This should be common sense to us since we know in our hearts that Bangladesh could have achieved a higher economic growth rate if it was not for utter disarray in its governance. It is clear that this country like a contentious family is suffering from the “divided-we-fall” syndrome when many of its promising opportunities could have been exploited if this nation were united.

Probably developing countries need good governance for the same reason children need discipline in their formative days. It is a pre-requisite for national advancement when streamlining of all forces and resources can ensure harmonious growth. When the average of the governance ratings for the member countries of the G-20 are taken, 75 less developed countries from around the world rank above them on Rule of Law, while 86 countries rank above them on Voice and Accountability.

Also, when compared to powerful and larger economies, their relatively smaller counterparts like the Nordic countries, New Zealand and Singapore demonstrate higher levels of governance. Singapore, however, has slipped from its earlier position and shows high quality governance in many dimensions, with the exception of Voice and Accountability. This is one area in which the city-state has gone through a significant deterioration over the past decade.

So wealthy nations do not ensure high quality governance, just as being an emerging or developing economy does not automatically translate into poor governance. Over 30 developing and emerging economies, including Slovenia, Chile, Botswana, Estonia, Uruguay, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Mauritius, Poland, Rwanda and Costa Rica have higher governance scores than industrialized countries such as Italy or Greece.

Good governance is thus more of a means than it is an end. A developing country like Bangladesh needs good governance not only because it's a World Bank requirement but because it's also in the national interest. This country needs to get focused, disciplined and organized if it must disengage from present despair and embark on the path to harness its full potential.

So far, our politicians and planners have given lip service to their commitment to good governance. They have used it as a political slogan without showing any real interest to implement it. They have been more interested in seizing power than using power to promote national interest.

A joke goes like this that once upon a time the U.S. government had a vast scrap yard in the middle of a desert. The Congress said, "Someone may steal from it at night." So they created a night watchman position and hired a person for the job. Next the Congress was worried who was going to give instructions to the watchman to do his job. A planning department was created and it hired two people, one to write the instructions, and another to do time studies.

But the Congress was still not sure the night watchman was going to do his job. This time a Quality Control department was formed with two people, one to do the studies and one to write reports. One by one more people were hired to ensure more efficiency. Then one day the Congress found it was over budget and laid off the watchman to cutback cost.

The moral of the story is that if we get busy with the effect we might forget the cause. In this country we have been putting government after government in power, and they are all so eager to govern the country. But the government gets so busy managing power that it forgets why it came to power in the first place.

Mohammad Badrul Ahsan is the Editor of First News and a regular columnist of The Daily Star.