CEO Notes: Governance and Reaching the Poorest in Fragile States

At the annual conference of the Society for International Development’s Washington chapter, Dr. Mirza Jahani, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A., was invited to say a few words on governance issues in development. Here are his reflections on that experience:

This year, various reviews of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) allow all of us involved in the pursuit of those goals a chance for reflection. Great strides have been made in poverty alleviation, especially involving access to health and education. This young century has already seen the fastest decline in poverty in history. Compared to 2000, child death rates have fallen by over 30 percent. These are remarkable gains.

Still, in many places around the world, we in the global development community fall short in many ways. The report goes on to urge good governance and stronger partnerships as ways to make our next ascent in global poverty eradication.

So many leaders of the past have aspired to make poverty history. In his 1961 inaugural speech, President John F. Kennedy said that in modern times “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty…” Now it seems, in this very connected world, that it just might be possible.

As we look to climb new summits for overcoming poverty, two things strike me. First, I find encouragement in recent discussions of good governance as an area where gains lie ahead. This desire to see development for the people and with the people has been at the heart of the work of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), beginning with its pioneering work on rural development in the 1980s. The field work undertaken by the Rural Support Programs in India and Pakistan has been documented and studied by development scholars since Robert Chambers.

Parallel to this work at the rural grassroots, His Highness the Aga Khan advanced the discourse on development policy when he used the term enabling environment in 1983 in Kenya, starting a dialogue that led to a first Africa-wide Enabling Environment Conference in 1986, with support from the World Bank and the United Kingdom, among others. That dialogue has continued, for example, through the 2006 Enabling Environment Conference in Afghanistan, which explored the private sector’s contribution to development there.

We at the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. continue to push for good governance globally: greater participation in decision making by our community partners, greater accountability of state officials to their constituents, and open and peaceful pluralist societies. But we should also remember that there are two sides to the good governance coin: there is the demand side – non-governmental groups need to be capable of analysis and dialogue (see our efforts tracking the sustainability of civil society organizations and their environments) – and there is the supply side: Governments that supply services need to be better at what they do, with better recruitment practices, better HR policies and better pay. The ability of governments to be more responsive and capable needs attention. Generally (because this does not always come naturally to civil society actors) we have not often focused on that supply side. I often say that we spend so much time giving people a voice that we forget to give governments an ear. In other words, we must support systems that help officials listen better and act more responsively.

My second impression at this stage is that in fragile states, sorting out governance is a long-term affair. That is the evidence from our experience in AKDN, and from many other credible practitioners too. AKDN has worked in some fragile environments for decades and still we feel our efforts are works-in-progress.

I applaud the current calls to place partnerships at the heart of our work going forward, and hope that we can all summon the ambition to tackle poverty in the most deserving cases. Perhaps international donors could engage in ten-year partnerships, underpinned by a commitment to provide the needed level of resources. Twenty partnerships for 20 most-deserving countries, by 2020. Now there is a slogan worth championing.

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