By M.R. Baranzika

1. Introduction

The concept of governance is one which is often associated with the developing world and this has given it a negative connotation. Corruption, conflict, famine are just some of the words usually put in juxtaposition with governance to denote failures by local governments to protect and provide for its citizens. But what is governance? What is it about? Why is it so misunderstood? The following piece will shed light on this concept and explain how effective governance is the basis of prosperity in the modern world.

2. Defining Governance

Although there is no fixed definition of governance, certain features are recurrent in the various definitions that have been provided for this concept. It can be summed up as a multifaceted, multi-level process through which different actors cooperate in order to achieve a common objective by shaping policy. Legitimacy is an important component of governance. The process of governance should result in a legitimate outcome, not solely through governmental authority or the involvement of the public sector, but also through contribution from private and non-profit actors (Lam, 2011: 502).

In recent times policy has shifted from being the realm of a single actor to being the shared responsibility of various actors at different levels. Bingham (2011: 386) attributes this change to the increased and still increasing diversity and complexity of problems. In a large and complex society, governance mechanisms allow the possibility of relationships of representation between people in positions of power and those to whom they are accountable. But governance features the inherent problem of collective action. It is supposed that people should work together to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. However, as the next two sections will illustrate, individuals do not necessarily behave in that manner.

3. The problem of Collective Action

Collective action refers to organised and coordinated action between individuals in a group sharing a common objective. Olson (1965: 1-3) reckons that “groups of individuals with common interests are expected to act on behalf of their common interests” because it seems to “follow logically” from the notion that individuals are self-interested and when their goals are the same they should pursue them collectively. However, he adds that unless the group is small or is subjected to some form of coercion, the individuals in the group will not act to achieve their common interest.

For Lam (2011: 510-512), certain conditions are necessary to promote collective action. They include:

  • Relating individual interest to collective interest;
  • Awareness of interdependence;
  • Shared mental models;
  • Effective use of information;
  • Coping with opportunism;
  • Monitoring and sanctioning;
  • Problem-solving at multiple levels.

Collective action is one of the fundamental problems in governance, the other being the tragedy of the commons.

4. The problem of the Tragedy of the Commons

The tragedy of the commons is the phrase used to refer to the depletion of free common pool resources due to overexploitation. Because the resources are free and available to everyone, each individual feels the need to maximise his utilisation of the resources in a competitive environment, thus eventually exhausting them. The term was first employed by Garrett Hardin in a 1965 article in which he came to the conclusion that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”. By this he meant that unless there are measures to regulate commons, everyone eventually loses.

Privatisation has been for a long time the most popular form of regulation of common pool resources. It entails the transfer of ownership rights from communal or public to private actors. However, privatisation also offer a problem of its own because the owner of a former commons might feel entitled to engage in behaviour which has negative consequences for the larger populations. An alternative way to regulate commons is through coercion, meaning imposing rules and regulations according to which resources can be used.

5. The greatest challenges in the world today

The biggest problem in the contemporary world is possibly security. All other issues are difficult to tackle if security is not assured. In developing countries, the most common security challenges come in the form of civil wars and coups. Conflict resolution and prevention is of paramount importance because very little else can be achieved in an unstable environment. Crucial components of socio-economic development such as education, healthcare and investment cannot flourish in a conflict situation. Conflict also serves as a platform for the emergence of other problems such as terrorism, drug trafficking, child labour or AIDS.

Another problem symptomatic of poor governance in the developing world is corruption. Rose-Ackermann (2007: 229) says that corruption happens “where private wealth and public power overlap”. Corruption features predominantly in countries with inefficient governance and often very low incomes in the public sector. It has not, however, been established whether corruption is a cause or a consequence of a dysfunctional system.

6. Redesigning governance

Effective governance is a prerequisite for sustainable development. Meadowcroft (2011: 536) believes that “flawed governance practices encourage unsustainable development” because long-term collective action can only take place through effective governance.

Effective governance should begin at grassroots level, in rural communities. It requires active participation from the local population. For this, organising skills are a necessary tool because they foster communication and coordination within a group in order to achieve common objectives. Matumbike (2002), a Local Government Consultant in Gokwe, Zimbabwe, reveals how people in his community are encouraged to participate in local governance through institutions such as village assemblies and village development committees. He adds that organising skills acquired through these structures improve development prospects and help reduce poverty. Strong governance at the local level is the foundation on which governance at regional, national and global levels can be built.

Below are some suggestions on how governance can be redesigned to remedy some of the challenges mentioned above:

i.            Corruption

According to Rose-Ackerman’s analysis of corruption (2007: 234-236), the following policies can help combat this scourge:

  • An international effort to help countries streamline government operations;
  • Efforts to encourage the ratification and enforcement of international treaties;
  • Agreements between investors and poor, resource-rich countries designed to circumvent corrupt pressure;
  • Stronger controls on money laundering.


ii.            Conflict

Collier (2007: 224-227) suggests following international measures for lessening the chances of conflict:

  • Increasing aid;
  • Introducing new conditions for aid;
  • Expanding the role of peacekeeping forces;
  • Guaranteeing security from outside the conflict zone;
  • Packaging interventions.


iii.            Commons Regulation

Van Waarden (2012: 27) has identified certification as another means of regulating commons. Certification, he comments, involves trying to “influence final consumer choices” rather than limiting the amount of choices available. This practice consists of informing consumers about the product, its origin and its producer through labels that help consumers identify products or companies that harm biodiversity. Desirable products are “certified” and consumers are then encouraged to only purchased those. This approach places the responsibility on the consumer upon whom the onus is to fulfil the moral obligation of discouraging the consumption, and consequently production, of biodiversity-unfriendly goods. For the consumer this becomes purely a moral issue because in the short term it is difficult to convince him to buy a product based on its usefulness to him since biodiversity-friendly goods are not necessarily of better quality than others.

For Ostrom (1990), the following eight principles for effective governance of commons pool resources: (1) Clearly defined boundaries; (2) Congruence between rules and physical conditions; (3) Collective-choice arrangements; (4) Monitoring; (5) Graduated sanctions; (6) Conflict-resolution mechanisms; (7) Minimal recognition of rights to organise; (8) Nested enterprises. Lam (2011: 510) claims that research has shown that institutions presenting the above principles are “better able to provide incentives for users of a commons to engage in collective action”. Institutions must therefore be designed to “allow the effective coordination of the activities of a multitude of resource users”.

7. Conclusion

This essay has provided an understanding of governance by defining the concept and explaining the inherent challenges it offers. Some of the biggest problems the contemporary world is confronted with have been revealed, and in the face of such challenges the importance of effective governance as a platform for problem-solving has been demonstrated. Finally, certain suggestions have been made to help improve governance.



Bingham, M.P. 2011. Collaborative Governance. In The SAGE Handbook of Governance, edited by M. Bevir. London: SAGE Publications Ltd

Lam, W.F. 2011. Governing the Commons. In The SAGE Handbook of Governance, edited by M. Bevir. London: SAGE Publications Ltd

Meadowcroft, J. 2011. Sustainable Development. In The SAGE Handbook of Governance, edited by M. Bevir. London: SAGE Publications Ltd

Van Waarden, F. 2012. Governing global commons: the public-private protection of fish and forests. In Private Standards and Global Governance: Economic, Legal and Political Perspectives, edited by A. Marx, M. Maertens, J. Swinnen and J. Wouters. United Kingdom: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited

Collier, P. 2007. Conflicts. In Solutions for the world’s biggest problems: costs and benefits, edited by B. Lomborg. New York: Cambridge University Press

Rose-Ackerman, S. 2007. Corruption. In Solutions for the world’s biggest problems: costs and benefits, edited by B. Lomborg. New York: Cambridge University Press

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolutions of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hardin, G. 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162 (December): 1243-1248

Matumbike, C.W.E. 2002. The Source from which rivers flow: organising for local governance, poverty reduction and development. Harare: Africa Community Publishing and Development Trust

Olson, M. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press


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