What is governance?

I was at a workshop this morning that made me question my perspective. Participants kept discussing what governance was and asking what this word means, where did it come from, how is it different from management, etc. and it made me question what I knew about governance.

Growing up in Canada and always being interested in international development and human rights in general, I had never really questioned what governance was, I just accepted it. Governance was this word that was inherently good; it was this important thing to achieve. Now I find myself questioning what it means and whether using ideals like governance is positive or negative.

This meeting discussed the history of governance, how it emerged as a Western Ideology roughly 300 years ago, and how organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund popularized it in the mid 1990s. It discussed that because of this, governance may not be suitable for countries like Vietnam, or other eastern nations that do not share Western roots or ideology. Does this mean governance is bad?

The participants had no real understanding of the ‘governance’ I grew up understanding, instead many people simply believe that governance is equal to management and is a top down approach, which is understandable as it was popularized by some of the largest international organizations. They believe governance to be a method of enforcement rather than a method of participation and a tool to increase donor funds.

This is a huge failure on the part of international development; governance is intended to involve everyone, to ask questions, to look at the needs of the most vulnerable, and to give every citizen a voice. It is not in the scope of governance to impose beliefs, ideologies, or methods on others, governance is supposed to let people come to their own conclusions and made independent decisions on their actions while taking into account the effects it will have on others. It goes against the very nature of governance to ‘enforce’ governance.

Anyway, this meeting made me curious and made me question a lot of what I grew up accepting, I hope it encourages you to think critically about some of the theories and ideologies you know of.

I will be doing more research on this whole governance dilemma and will get back to you but in the mean time share your perspectives on these questions: What is governance? What is good governance?

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2 responses

  1. In a corporate setting, I understand governance to be a model for decision making, monitoring of operations and projects, and assessment of and sign-off against the associated risks. It ensures that all of the most appropriate stakeholders are involved in decision-making, and that the impact those decisions continue to be understood and monitored so that adjustments can be made if necessary.

    In this model, governance isn’t about giving everyone a voice – but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Depending on what the goals of your organization/society are, this corporate model may or may not be an extremely effective framework. First you have to define what you’re trying to achieve, and what the risks are as you make decisions against those goals. Depending on the answer to that question, you can start to understand what a ‘good’ governance model might look like.

    • I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on how governance applies (or doesn’t apply) within an intergovernmental setting – in that case would there be an obligation to ensure that citizens have a voice, or are represented? What would that representation look like? Within a structure of governance, what checks and balances should be in place to ensure some element of representation and fair decision making?

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