Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Visvanathan on “What is governance?”

Shiv Visvanathan of the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy responds to Francis Fukuyama’s “What is governance?”:

In What is Governance? Francis Fukayama abandons the grand narratives of history and biotechnology to become a custodian of definitions of the governance. He claims a comparative power for his work; yet his first two moves add to the ethnocentricity of the concept. Firstly, he equates governance to state activity and competence. In this very first move, he desiccates the definition by destroying its comparative power, by narrowing it. Secondly by merging authoritarian and democratic governance, he loses normativity essential to its meaning. In reducing government to competence, he pins the butterfly but removes its wings. He also loses a sense of the ethnographic and historical context by ignoring colonial forms of governance.

He tries becoming scientific in his concern for measure, accuracy and certainty. One sees this particularly in his understanding of Weberian bureaucracy which he reduces to a shopping list. Instead of following analytical methods, one wishes he had followed a linguistic model of governance, in a structuralist sense, and allowed for meaning, creativity, variation and performance. Thirdly, by sticking to an aridly definitional notion of governance Fukayama exhausts its meaning and range. His definition of governance creates the same impoverishment that happened in psychology when intelligence was reduced to IQ.  One wishes he had used a linguistic structuralist approach distinguishing between the langue and parole of governance. Here competence is not reduced to one agency and secondly meaning is approached to the idea of the shifter, i.e., it varies by context or usage.

Tacitly, Fukuyama sees governance as a term one should standardize so that it could have an industrially replicable quality. In fact, he thinks it is possible to do so with more strategic investment in research. Yet to be fair to Fukayama, his review of projects create a graveyard of efforts all of which sought exactitude and measure over creativity and meaning.

There is an irony here. While he emphasizes the grandeur of governance, he sucks it dry in his obsession with method. In an empirical sense, governance is not an index or an indicator. It is a form of life, an ecology of relationships, extending beyond state to a network of competence. Secondly governance also covers, as the Oxford Handbook of Governance observes, normativeness, delivery and regulation. One needs to look at triptych more carefully. The first provides for value and meaning, the second talks of competence, of what to do with power, and the third reflectively builds checks to it.

Fukayama’s perspective also impoverishes the approach to the problem solving. Anthropologically, the state is not the only form of competence. What the state delivers can often be delivered by other agencies. During disasters in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, religious groups, often fundamentalist, provided a framework of governance for disaster management. Second, by equating the official and the governmental, the governance of the informal economy is lost to analysis. Thirdly, one misses the wisdom of ecological concepts like C.S.Hollings idea of panarchy, where the same solution need not be applicable at every level, State, local, municipal nor performed by the same agency. Finally, in countries like India, corruption can arguably be a form of governance.

Finally, I see Fukuyama’s piece as a fable, an early warning system to poorer countries which are often the object of social science. The transfer of such concepts creates a drive to the authoritarian disguised as a technocratic maneuver. I can imagine World Bank using it as an indicator for governmental rankings. The irony and pain of such concepts is lived through its application in a “third world country”. Such concepts, like medicines, will soon need a statutory warning: “contextualize before use”!

Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana, India.

Written by governancejournal

March 12, 2013 at 6:54 am

Posted in commentary


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