I recently wrote that too much emphasis was being placed on various development score-cards and indices. I feared that people were confusing the map for the territory and were guilty of practicing cargo-cult science. I argued they were doing more harm than good.
Yesterday, I discovered the work of Matt Andrews, in particular, his distinction between actual good governance and what he calls mere, “good-looking” governance. That is to say countries can make themselves look good on some of these development and governance indices without necessarily improving what actually happens inside their borders.
Matt gives the example of the Open Budget Index, where Afghanistan received a lot of attention for getting the same score as Italy (insert Italy joke of your choice here). However, Matt points out that Afghanistan achieved its ranking by dong well on pre-spending transparency, it did quite poorly on actual spending accountability. He splits the OBI score into parts and produces the following graph:
So Italy actually has a much better spending process than Afghanistan and Uganda, despite the message of the overall OBI score.
Here’s how Matt eloquently puts it:
“while Afghanistan produces great looking budgets, we have very little idea about what it actually does with its money after these budgets are published. Incidentally, the gap is only 1.8 for Italy according to the OBI data. While Italy may not look as good as one might expect for an OECD country, it is just about as good as it looks. Afghanistan, on the other hand looks as good as Italy but what you see is not what you get (wysinwyg). It has good looking governance but I’m not sure if you can say that this kind of governance is also ‘good’. And this is after a decade of concentrated and expensive reform.”
Matt argues that this phenomenon both non-innocuous and widespread, “By my estimates the vast majority of developing countries have gaps and ‘good looking’ governance problems and the gaps are growing in many countries after reforms—not closing.
I argue in my recent book that this is because many reforms are adopted as signals—to garner better governance scores and ensured continued support from outsiders—and not real efforts to improve governance. This approach to reform results in new laws, systems and processes being introduced that do not fit the local context, demand more capacity, political will and other content than is available, and are led by groups far too narrow to ensure diffusion and deepening of change. The result is a reform limited to changes in form, but without functionality. Good looking governance rather than good governance.”
To put this in Angus-speak, just like Pacific Islanders after WW II ended, the folks who trust in these facsimiles of good governance will be waiting a very very long time for the cargo to fall from the sky.