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Human rights

by Hans Dembowski

In depth

Government officers in the Indian State of Bihar

Government officers in the Indian State of Bihar

In a Kolkata daily in autumn 1996, I read a letter to the editor that I will never forget. A migrant, who had just returned home from Britain, wrote of the anger he had felt in London because of uncivil treatment by civil servants – something he had put down to racism. Back home, however, he discovered that government officials who shared his nationality treated him even worse.

Government representatives from rich countries like to discuss governance, their counterparts from poor countries do not. On the other hand, civil-society activists in the developing world find governance a fascinating subject, while global-development pressure groups in rich countries stress other issues. The reason is, of course, that any talk of governance in connection with development is an implicit comment on cabinets and administrations of poor countries.

Civil-society organisations typically see themselves as government watchdogs. So in poor countries they remind politicians and officials of their duties. In the OECD countries, however, protest campaigns have reason to focus on other matters – inadequate and broken aid promises, unfair trade policy or failings in the face of climate change.

It is obvious, however, that, if development is to succeed anywhere, the state has to make it happen. Administrations need to serve society, not themselves. They need to obey the law, rather than make arbitrary decisions. They need to let the private sector flourish instead of putting pointless obstacles in its way.

Government action plays a pivotal role in all sectors. Education, social security, infrastructure, spatial planning and law enforcement are only five of many important aspects. The state need not deliver every single service itself. Private companies may offer alternatives – provided there is intelligent regulation and effective government supervision. That, again, depends on a proficient and assertive administration.

Bureaucracies are the butt of complaints all around the world – accused of slowness, incompetence, even corruption. No state is perfect. Nonetheless, there is a yawning gap between rich and poor countries – as becomes evident in a simple mind game. Would a jobless family from a socially deprived part of Dortmund, Marseille or Liège have any reason to swap places with a family in a similar position in Mombassa, Nagpur or Monterrey? Probably not. Put the question the other way around, and the answer is quite likely yes. The reason is not just that Germany, France and Belgium are richer than Kenya, India and Mexico. Their institutions work better too.

Poor people can only assert rights where states create laws, enforce them and observe them themselves. Good governance is not simply about the economy; it is a matter of human rights.

Civil-service reform is always difficult. It must overcome deeply rooted practices and prevail in the face of entrenched networks. Adding to the problems, the government itself is part of the state machinery, so its leaders tend to profit in some way or another from the status quo. If civic discontent is not to be confined to newspaper columns, however, special attention must be paid to what civil-society actors from poor countries have to say about governance. The OECD’s High-Level Forum in Accra in September should heed that advice when governments from rich and poor countries will discuss ways of making development efforts more effective.