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April 17, 2020

Good governance, state and citizenship

April 17, 2020

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Governance is one of those buzzwords of politics, economics and development which are used without much understanding of meaning and contextual relevance.

The term ‘governance’ continues to be used vaguely in policy and practice like the notions of civil society, power, participation and transformation. In the mainstream literature on governance, it is loosely defined as a mode of political expression in contradistinction to governmentality.

Governmentality is associated with the idea of the state as a top-down and inefficient administrative entity to exercise coercion more than consent to govern people. The argument for good governance is rooted in the idea of subsiding the role of the state rather than making it accountable to people. The good governance debate, therefore, doesn’t not threaten the state's monopoly over power and violence, but rather reduces the burden of governments’ responsibility towards citizens.

The concept of good governance advocates an increased role of diverse institutions as intermediaries for negotiating power of choice between government and people. These diverse institutions from the non-governmental domains include but are not limited to the private sector and a politically inert civil society. In this sense, the domain of governance is a horizontal space of political intermediation between state and citizens through a third party which in itself is not accountable to the people.

One can assume from this understanding of governance that it is, perhaps, some kind of diffusion of government’s role in determining political and economic matters of a state and society. However, the literature on governance stops short of providing any meaningful explanation about this diffusion of government’s role other than enumerating some key functions of good governance.

Good governance becomes a desirable political goal of democracy with little role of the state in political and economic matters. Some people argue that the good governance debate has dissuaded public attention from the idea of the state-citizen relationship. The good governance debate is more of a technical discussion on institutional reforms with a larger role for non-governmental entities like the market and a malleable civil society.

On the contrary, the state-citizen relationship is more of a political debate on rights, duties and accountability mechanisms without necessarily rejecting the role of intermediary institutions or power brokers between state and citizens. The state-citizen relationship is about ensuring people centric governance, in that civil society and private sector become irrelevant or they must cease to exist only if they cannot be made accountable to people.

For good governance to happen you need professionals and experts but for an effective state-citizenship role you must have informed citizenry and political consciousness of people at large. Good governance is more of a development oriented agenda of reforms but a state-citizen relationship is a political goal of empowerment. Good governance at times becomes an end in itself of a reform package but it may only be one of the political objectives of effective state-citizen relationship. The good governance debate tends to absolve the state of its responsibilities by relegating it to an inefficient and bureaucratic function while the state-citizenship debate gives centrality to the functional accountability of the state.

Good governance is syllogistic as it deduces politics and discourse of power diffusion from the larger ecosystem of global political and economic order and it is, therefore, generic. A state-citizen relationship advocates peoples’ governance within a state system and it is contextual. Good governance is a technical issue, to be dealt with by experts while the idea of state-citizen relationship is political and transformational and puts people first.

Hence, the demand for good governance becomes an ambiguous political call on the state and those intermediaries making such calls themselves remain unaccountable to people. This contradiction of good governance debate serves the political objective of de-politicization of citizens. Furthermore, this gives credence to the specialized knowledge of experts who in turn make a living out of our ignorance.

In this world of burgeoning experts of economy, development and security all we have is a supermarket of ideas to be consumed by its producers only. A development expert can write a jargonized proposal to narrate the problems of a society to raise money but the very jargon makes this expert an inevitable choice to become a well-paid advisor for the same project. If knowledge production and its consumption becomes the monopoly of experts, it gives birth to asymmetrical relationships between people and power intermediaries. This asymmetrical relationship reduces the role of the people to knowledge recipients rather than making them its producers and consumers.

The knowledge that is imposed upon people in a good governance debate is directed to create power spaces for the rule of experts without downward accountability. These experts in reality become the fragmenters of worldviews, augmenters of complexity and tormentors of political societies. This is the complexity and uncertainty which tends to create high demands for experts as interpreters and implementers of fragmented knowledge frameworks. This is how neoliberalism has penetrated deep into our thinking about politics and economics and our worldview of socioeconomic transformation.

Are we too obsessed with neoliberalism as if it’s the source of all ills? To answer this question, let us deconstruct the notion of neoliberalism first. It is important because many people tend to criticize neoliberalism as an original sin without understanding it. Let us forget about the prefix ‘neo’ to understand first what the term liberalism entails.

Liberalism as it implies has something to do with being free from conformism, traditions and dogmatism. Here liberalism seems like a progressive concept that questions the unquestionable domains of tradition, culture, politics and religion. The genesis of modern liberalism goes back to the age of enlightenment in Europe from the 17th to 19th centuries. This was the time when the role of religion in politics was questioned in addition to challenging the tradition and cultural dogmatism.

Liberalism questioned the nexus of the church and the state as an unholy alliance to suppress free thinking within people. This was the beginning of modern capitalism, which gained political power by breaking the nexus of church and ruler and by overthrowing feudalism. We know political liberalism as the foundation of freedom of expression, secularism and parliamentary democracy.

There was another strain of economic liberalism propounded by Adam Smith, the Scottish economist of the Enlightenment period. Adam Smith’s economic liberalism was founded on the principle of noninterference of government in the economy – ie privately owned means of economic production must be free from state regulation. To him, people make rational economic choices out of self-interest and therefore it is the market rather than the state which must govern the economy.

This may look like real freedom but in reality it was to allow the wealthy to accumulate more wealth without the interference of the government to prevent free accumulation of capital by the rich. The equal distribution of wealth created by capitalism could not be ensured without the role of parliament to legislate in the interest of people. This bifurcation of politics and economy blurred the collective imagination of freedom. The rebirth of this classical economic liberalism as neoliberalism in our age of globalization has universalized disparities, and on the political side it has disintegrated worldviews.

We live in a disintegrated world today, using its political notions unthinkingly at the cost of our free thinking.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76