Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Governance: Public management

Global Strategies Project


In January 1995 the Management Development and Governance Division of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published a discussion paper on Public Sector Management, Governance, and Sustainable Development. This was the result of several stages of internal and external consultation. It affirms that the "good management of human affairs by governments, through public sector organisations and in collaboration with organisations of civil society, is a sine qua non of sustainable human development." Its purpose is to define a position within governance for the development assistance efforts of UNDP as the major coordinating agency for development funding within the UN system. This report can be seen as one UN response to other efforts to redefine the contemporary challenge of governance.

1. Redefining development assistance

As might be hoped, the report is excellent in its balance and coverage and in the coherence of its efforts to rethink the challenge for UNDP in the light of the many recent criticisms of the development crisis. It acknowledges that "development assistance has not always been well conceived, particularly in relation to its impact on the mass of people and to questions of sustainability" (p. xi). Distancing itself from failure, it however avoids discussion of any UNDP responsibility for this. It is however useful in redefining an operating framework for UNDP.

2. Definitional games

This is not the place to review the many valuable points made in that report. The concern here is rather to highlight ways in which the report operates out of a framework which has been demonstrated as inadequate to the challenges of the past and is therefore likely to be inadequate to those of the future.

One way to formulate this inadequacy is as a marked ability to play what amounts to definitional games. In practice insightful analysis and laudable principles are elaborated at one point, only to be effectively reframed with a far more narrow and questionable interpretation at another. Whilst this may be good politics and good public relations, it does not invite confidence. Is it deliberate on the part of some, a manifestation of sloppy thinking, or a consequence of committee report writing? It is precisely this tendency which has alienated so many from political processes in general, and from UN processes in particular.

3. Sustainable human development

In what appears to be an attempt to turn over a new leaf, the report grounds its approach to development within the framework of the recently initiated annual UNDP Human Development Report and a new paradigm of "sustainable human development". This shift must be seen in the light of the earlier emphasis, over several development decades, on "economic and social" development --readily contracted in practice to "economic" development. "Human" obviously has the merit of correcting for biases that typically gave rise to structural adjustment "without a human face". UNDP's raison d'être is recognized as "the improvement of the human condition" (p. 95). Much emphasis is placed on "people-centred" development and a people-centred world order. "Sustainable" recognizes the environmental constraints clarified through the UNCED process.

The difficulty is that the positive impression created by this apparent shift fails, given the track record of those involved, to address effectively the tendency to slide back into a purely economic, technocratic approach to development whenever possible. Terms like "human" and "sustainable" are skilfully used to imply a fresh approach which will undoubtedly attract support. However, beneath such "vision management", there is evidence of what business as usual with the old conceptual inadequacies.

4. Governance as management of the public

The report leads off with some fast conceptual foot-work. "Governance is the exercise of political power to manage a nation's affairs. Public management...is synonymous with governance." (p. xii) -- implying that "management of the public"is also synonymous with governance? "Whatever the nature of society, only governments can set the rules according to which the system works and take corrective action when it fails" (p. 19).

This reflects profound ignorance of the "rules" established by religious movements (notably with respect to population non-control), by professional bodies (with respect to codes of conduct and peer pressure), by multinational corporations, and by those who engage so effectively in the illegal arms and drugs trade. The action of NGOs in Somalia, of Amnesty with respect to human rights abuses, and Greenpeace with respect to government-sanctioned environmental abuses, can be seen as a non-government "corrective action" when the system fails.

5. Civil society organizations

But later we read that "Sound governance also calls for cooperation between governments and civil society organisations. Sound governance is not simply something that governments do by themselves" (p. 25). This is a typical example of a later statement reframing the scope of an earlier one (above). The major emphasis in the report on collaboration with "civil society" is indeed a striking and welcome breakthrough following decades of governmental arrogance. It parallels concerns expressed in other reports on governance. It also arouses the suspicion that, having recognized its limitations, and the progressive erosion of its credibility and resources, the intergovernmental system is anxious to associate itself with a system that is in a healthier state and which is seen to offer more genuine involvement of the people.

After several development decades "It is now widely accepted that many organisations in civil society are strongly committed to forms of development that give prominence to the social and economic needs of people and environmental protection." (p. 25). Consider the definitional games associated with this realization. "Such organisations are referred to collectively...as community organizations. Two broad types are identified: people's organisations and NGOs...People's organisations represent their members interests, are accountable to their members, and tend to have participatory organisational structures." (p. 25). This strongly suggests that NGOs have none of these characteristics in the eyes of those who favour this definition.

Elsewhere we read however that "Civil society organisations are multifarious. They differ according to their membership, their missions, forms of organisation, and levels of operation. They include religious-based organisations, cooperatives, trade unions, academic institutions, and community and youth groups" (p. 110). Elsewhere a distinction is made between "NGOs, community-based organisations, and other civil society organisations" (p. 99).

6. NGOs

What does this imply as to UNDP understanding of NGOs? Only much later do we read that they can be very broadly defined as "nongovernment organisations involved in development, staffed by professionals and para-professionals, which provide services or products that cater to the needs of people at the grassroots" (p. 86). But we also read that "NGOs constitute a critical element of the civil society, but have probably received a greater share of the limelight than other deserving organisations, such as professional organisations and women's groups" (p. 86).

The definitional game being played here arises from a long-established tendency of UNDP to ignore the scope of the UN-imposed definition of nongovernmental organization (under Article 71 of the Charter concerning consultative status arrangements) in favour of a definition of NGOs as organizations providing direct development aid, however this happens to be narrowly conceived by UNDP strategists at a given time. The UN definition (itself currently under review) allows for a much broader understanding of organizations relevant to "economic and social development" and includes "professional organizations and women's groups" and many other categories. The implicit UNDP definition, reinforced by many national NGOs (until very recently excluded from anyrelationship to the UN or to UNDP Resident Representatives, and resentful of the exclusiveness of the UN definition), is an effort to coopt national or local groups whilst undermining the international NGOs through which many of them have long been linked.

7. International organizations

Definitional games are also played with the nature of international organizations. "International organisations clearly have an important part to play in creating an aid environment that gets the best out of all actors involved." (p. 91) For UNDP this in fact means only intergovernmental organizations (and probably only those of the UN family). That international nongovernmental organizations should have any role is not considered, and UNDP has a bad track record in this respect. And yet, plaintively, the UNDP Administrator is cited as recognizing that "UNDP cannot do everything. The needs are phenomenally large, and UNDP should not try to be all things to all people or to respond to all needs" (p. xviii). Why then play definitional games that fail to accord recognition to international networks that have long endeavoured to play the now-desired "complementary role" (p. 91), especially when such bodies do not seek UNDP funding. Why undermine their initiatives with UNDP-sponsored initiatives that duplicate their efforts and drain scarce resources from them?

8. Economic management

As suggested earlier, equivalent definitional games are played with UNDP's new understanding of development. The report stresses the distinction between "a unitarian view of human development" which is seen to be ideological opposed to the "pragmatically driven paradigms of economic management" (p. 110) that UNDP considers to be more appropriate for the times. This revealing phrase shows how, despite all the "people-centred" language, of the report "economic management" remains the core concern. So, although UNDP's raison d'être is claimed to be "improvement of the human condition", we find that "Development should result, first, in enhancing human capabilities so that people can work meaningfully and productively in society" (p. 3). For whom?

9. Developers vs Developees

UNDP strategies therefore continue to benefit from the ambiguity surrounding the term "development". This unfortunately derives its legitimacy from the ability to define it in such a way as to gain the approval of "developers". It is they who have traditionally profited most when their projects could be presented and acclaimed by government as an improvement to the human condition -- by clearing the land, undertaking mega-construction, and generally engaging in people-insensitive projects whose consequences have become increasingly apparent. UNDP cannot however afford to clarify the ambiguity which is central to its ability to attract resources and support. It is noteworthy that those engaged in development assistance have never been referred to as "developers". Why is it that "developee" has never gained currency? Should UNDP really be understood as the UN "Developer Programme" or as the UN "Developee Programme"? The ambiguities surrounding this schizophrenia underlie the report's useful discussion of "development of the people" vs. "development for the people" vs. "development by the people" (p. 4), but especially in how such concerns can be manipulated in public policy. The question is to what degree UNDP is an unwitting party to what amounts to a conceptual "laundering" process in support of developers. The new focus on "human development", having abandoned "social development", can also be seen in this light.

10. Collective social spirit

What of the stress elsewhere on the importance of "social capital, which is concerned with the quality of relations between people in society" (p. xx). And elsewhere "A concern for the development of social capital implies the construction of a collective social spirit as well as individual health, freedoms, and skills" (p. 3). What, if anything, do the "paradigms of economic management" have to contribute to the construction of a social spirit, quite invisible and irrelevant to the discipline of economics and the activities of developers? How is the preference for "paradigms of economic management" to be related operationally to the recognition that "Sustainable human development will be impossible to achieve unless ethnic, racial, and religious divisions can be overcome. Indeed, meeting the challenge of social integration may be animportant precondition for equal access to employment and the economic resources of society, and thereby the elimination of poverty." (p. xv)

Other than "enlisting the involvement and support of civil society organisations" (p. 11), the report has little to offer of any strategic or operational value on what it acknowledges to be a critical issue. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the new emphasis on "human development" is little more than a public relations subterfuge -- especially in the light of the range of meanings attached to this term by different civil society organizations and movements (see Section H, Volume 2), and notably the religions sustaining regional conflicts (as in Bosnia, Kashmir and Sudan).

11. Human aspect of organizations

The report stresses another major shift in UNDP priorities. It concludes that the synergy between the focus on sustainable human development and its assistance in governance and public sector management "is most likely to occur if UNDP concentrates on the human aspects of organisations" (p. xxii). This is understood to mean "such governance questions as leadership, strategic human resource management, strategic management, total quality management, support to civil society institutions, and decentralisation" (p. xxii). With respect to public sector management, this is recognized as requiring consciousness of process, "preferring methods that encourage beneficiaries to be initiators of development, participants in the process of development, and carriers and transmitters of skills and knowledge, rather than passive recipients" (p. 53).

In this context "human" is reframed in ways meaningful to economic production, notably through "human resource management" conceived as "a central, strategic component for ensuring survival, effectiveness and efficiency." (p. 70). It encompasses issues such as "organisational structure and culture, personnel selection and placement, training and development, job design, performance appraisal, and so on" (p. 70). How UNDP understands "social capital", "constructing a collective social spirit", and "improving the quality of relations between people" becomes clearer in this light. Could a corporation ask for more?

Other interpretations of such terms, notably amongst civil society organizations, would seem to be unfathomable from such a UNDP perspective. Economists have long had difficulty in distinguishing their approach to society from what might readily be labelled as a "factory farming" approach to the exploitation of productive human resources. It is now accepted that this must (regrettably) lead to high levels of unemployment and social insecurity.

12. Public sector corruption

Despite its emphasis on the inherent superiority of government ability to set the rules and take corrective action, UNDP is obliged (as with other recent reports on governance) to acknowledge the dramatic problems associated with the long-denied corruption of public sector officials and the consequent need for public sector reform -- a manifestation of "human" nature if there ever was one. Citing one example: "The civil servant had either to survive by lowering his standards of ethics, performance, and dutifulness or remain upright and perish. He chose to survive" (p. 55). As a natural reflection of conditions in member states (even at ministerial level amongst members of the UN Security Council), such problems are increasingly recognized as permeating the UN system itself, as illustrated in the case of a UNICEF field office.

13. Laudable principles vs messy reality

Under such circumstances, it would be appropriate to distinguish between the ability of UNDP to formulate new strategic frameworks and its capacity to ensure their effective implementation in practice. Unlike the report by Yehezkel Dror, this issue is not addressed. Confidence is placed in civil service reform. Combined with the definitional game playing, to effectively preserve traditional initiatives, this does not bode well for the effectiveness in practice of the new UNDP approach -- irrespective of how successfully it can be presented as a major breakthrough.

Setting aside all the above, the report is very credible in its sophisticated coherence. It is simply that the UNDP mode has a track record that make its presentation less than credible

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential