Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

“Govern Like Us”: Reply to Wescott

ThomasBy M.A. Thomas.  I appreciate the time Clay Wescott took to write a review of Govern Like Us: U.S. Expectations of Poor Countries, published in September in this journal. However, his review misses the central message of the book. Govern Like Us does not seek to explain varieties of governance and does not offer poverty as the sole explanatory factor. It is not a book about development, and so has little to say about the future growth and governance trajectories of low-income countries. On the contrary, it argues the need for a U.S. foreign policy to address the present: how poor governments govern now and will govern for decades at least.

Over the last fifty years, Americans (and many others) have come to believe that there is only one moral and legitimate way for governments to hold power. This governance ideal is a modern version of the social contract in which people obey the government because it provides public goods and services impersonally to everyone, under the rule of law, and subject to democratic elections. Because only choices can be moral, undergirding this moralistic view is an unexamined empirical belief that any government can choose to govern this way. This leads in turn to U.S. foreign policy that seeks to promote this governance by castigating or replacing elites seen as spoilers, teaching and exhorting elites seen as willing but incompetent, transferring U.S. institutions, and catalyzing domestic demand for change on the assumption that this demand can be met.

I argue that, despite its merits, this governance ideal is not a present possibility for everyone. Some governments hold power differently because they must if they are to govern at all.

The poorest governments present the clearest examples of governments that cannot govern according to this ideal. Adequate governent revenue is necessary although not sufficent for this social contract, and providing public goods and services to all citizens costs more revenue than the poorest governments have. Although our data are not of the best quality, the latest data from the Central Intelligence Agency suggests that governments such as those of Uganda, Burma, and South Sudan have less than $100 per person per year to spend in current exchange rates. By contrast, government in the U.S. at all levels had about $360 in revenue per capita (US$ 2009) in 1890 and has about $17,000 today (Chantrill at

GovernLikeUsThis difference in government resources of necessity translates into fewer and lower quality public goods, distributed to fewer people; weak rule of law; and uneven territorial control. Without the option to govern exclusively by means of the legitimacy that comes from providing public goods and services and the rule of law, these governments rely more heavily on older, cheaper strategies of rule such as patronage, repression, or appeals to religion or tradition. There is certainly better and worse governance among the poorest countries–-compare North Korea and Rwanda-but it is better and worse within constrained options for holding power.

The U.S. needs a foreign policy that allows for effective engagement with governments that hold power differently but it has been unable to develop one. Developing adaptive policy is ethically fraught and politically sensitive given that other governance strategies have been criminalized and stigmatized. Field level personnel are left to deal with the reality on the ground without guidance and at their peril, while U.S. foreign policy focuses on transforming the nature of governance into something we can deal with more comfortably. After all, if any government can govern according to the governance ideal, then governments should be able to change the way they hold power quickly. And if they can change the way they hold power quickly, then the U.S. does not need to develop adaptive policy and deal with the difficult questions that are involved.

Wescott also skips over the question of how the U.S. should best deal with the thorny present, turning instead to the topic of future governance trajectories and their drivers. He points out that, with time, some poor countries have become richer and better governed, offering the example of South Korea among others. (I agree, and the book discusses this, pointing to the case of South Korea.) However, this does not obviate the need for a more thoughtful and less moralistic approach to governance as it is. Although economic growth may ease the revenue constraint with time, growth is slow and the gaps between rich and poor governments are very wide. Even if all other prerequisites for the governance ideal were present, the poorest governments face a long interim of reliance on other strategies for holding power. The transformation of South Korea, so unusually rapid that it was called a “miracle,” took decades, during which the government relied on patronage and repression to hold power. As the U.S. experience in Afghanistan illustrates, that is a long time to be without an effective policy.

Melissa Thomas is a Visiting Researcher in African Studies at Georgetown University. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Economy and Government from Harvard University and a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley. Govern Like Us: US Expectations of Poor Countries was published by Columbia University Press in May 2015.  For more on the book, see

Written by Governance

September 28, 2015 at 1:30 pm

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