UN ‘abandons democracy’ in Asia? Why governance still matters


Governance should be “framed in terms of how power is being exercised instead of how it is acquired,” according to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

The latest edition of the Economic and Social Survey — ESCAP’s flagship publication — advances “an apolitical reformulation of governance that excludes democratic principles,” which effectively undermines ESCAP’s ability to achieve its stated goals of empowerment, inclusion, social justice, meaningful participation or active citizenship, notes Bangkok-based analyst Jorge Carrillo-Rodriguez.

“Whether it is an appeal to some form of Asian exceptionalism, with all the consequences such an approach entails,” this version of governance “suffers from the same conceptual flaws as the model that inspired it: it limits governance to the functioning of the government, thereby ignoring other crucial non-state governance actors and confusing governance with governability,” he writes for the East Asia Forum.

A chorus of skepticism has emerged over the efficacy of the governance agenda – encompassing public administration, rule of law, and accountability to citizens – which scholars suggest has become “inflated” and “counterproductive,” notes Kim Bettcher of the Center for International Private Enterprise’s knowledge management initiative.

Yet as we scrutinize the difficulties involved in improving governance, we must take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Although a healthy skepticism can sharpen the choices made around governance work, it would be a serious mistake to reject out of hand the opportunities for better governance, she adds, offering five tips for pursuing better governance:

  1. Build governance practices as demand-driven responses to locally-identified problems.  International solutions should not precede local problems. A demand-driven approach targets resources better, engages stakeholders around real interests and concerns, and increases the likelihood of a good institutional fit with local practice.
  2. Proceed step by step with reform, experimenting and learning from each iteration. A “with-the-grain” approach implies working through learning and political processes rather than skipping straight to prescribed ideals. An iterative approach differs from rigid sequencing because it does not assume that governance must be traded off.
  3. In conditions of weak governance, build on islands of good governance or “second-best,” locally devised institutions. Build on what works. Governance can be built on emerging practices instead of replacing them.
  4. Explore and expand the space for feasible reforms. To be sure, many reforms are not politically feasible. Even so, seek wedge issues and new coalitions that can broaden discussion and alter the political economy.
  5. Utilize processes of democratic governance such as consultation, advocacy, and dialogue to search for solutions. These processes require a degree of freedom and openness but nevertheless can be used in the absence of fully fledged democratic institutions. Processes that produce agreement and results can later be institutionalized and opened up to wider participation.

Bettcher has written and edited numerous resources for CIPE [a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group], especially toolkits on public-private dialogue and anti-corruption, a report on Creating the Environment for Entrepreneurial Success, three case study collections, the CIPE Guide to Governance Reform, and CIPE’s 25-Year Impact Evaluation.


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