Public Goods Provision



States need to look inward for their resources and institutional models and adopt political structures and processes that reflect the history, complexity, and particularity of their peoples and environment. Far too many postcolonial regimes have looked outward for their governance models and resources, becoming dependent on foreign aid and effectively guaranteeing that their domestic roots will always be too shallow to support them. Robust states and formal institutions can develop only when political and economic systems are constructed according to indigenous governance models, patterns of behavior, needs, realities, and resources.

This does not mean that conventional, Western political models have no relevance to non-Western societies, but it does mean that those models need to be adapted to accommodate local political, economic, and societal customs and conditions. The goal should not be centralized states with Western-style laws and a democracy defined solely in terms of regular elections, but instead the promotion of capable, inclusive, participatory, responsive, and accountable governments no matter what form they take. Somaliland, Botswana, and the Arab emirate-states, for example, have sought to root their political systems within a traditional paradigm that leverages widely accepted norms of governance.

As part of this indigenization, local languages need to be recognized for what they are, repositories of local peoples’ sociocultural heritages and their core abilities, and the most crucial factor in the propagation and development of culture, science and technology. While elites may often seek to block the diffusion of knowledge in local languages because it threatens their hold on power, any attempt to develop a society requires engaging its grassroots by building on indigenous usages and knowledge bases. Instead of forcing whole populations to learn foreign languages, much greater effort should be made to translate world knowledge into major indigenous tongues such as Arabic, Hausa, and Punjabi.

Far more emphasis must be placed on seeking locally appropriate solutions for problems of governance, land and resource management, and knowledge transfer if development is ever going to become locally propelled and thus sustainable. Certainly, no society that has successfully developed has depended as heavily on foreign resources, foreign political models, foreign languages, and foreign laws as fragile states typically do today.

In many cases, the best chance for leveraging local capacities and institutions and improving governance will be to focus on building up local governments and tying them as closely as possible to their local communities. While in some cases (especially in rural areas and small cities) this may mean leveraging traditional identities and institutions, including chiefs and village elders where they retain strong legitimacy, in the case of many large cities whose populations are diverse and increasingly divorced from their traditional roots, the best way to introduce accountability into state organs is to structure them around greatly empowered urban administrations.

Although local governments will often be afflicted by parochialism, factionalism, the danger of elite capture, inequity, and injustice and will require resources, support, and constructive initiatives from higher levels of the state, downsizing government functions to villages, towns, and districts of each city can leverage the power of face-to-face interaction and more transparent and accountable forms of government in ways that the more anonymous relationships that exist at higher levels cannot.


For more information, see:

Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics: A Research Agenda

By Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky


Going with the Grain in African Development?

By Tim Kelsall


Elites, Governance, and the Public Interest in Africa: Working with the Grain?

By David Booth


Institutions and Development: A Critical Review

By Johannes Jütting


Towards a Theory of Local Governance and Public Goods Provision in Sub-Saharan Africa

By David Booth


Revenues, State Formation, and the Quality of Governance in Developing Countries
By Mick Moore


Good Enough Governance in Fragile States: The Role of Center-Periphery Relations and Local Government

By Derek W. Brinkerhoff and Ronald Johnson


Postconflict Reconstruction in Africa: Flawed Ideas about Failed States

By Pierre Englebert and Denis Tull


The Role of Public Services in State- and Nation-building: Exploring Lessons from European History for Fragile States

By Steven Van de Walle and Zoe Scott


Breaking Legal Inequality Traps: New Approaches to Building Justice Systems for the Poor in Developing Countries

By Caroline Sage and Michael Woolcock


Inspiring Development in Fragile States

By Seth Kaplan