• You can’t apply a sweeping governance change and assume everything will be fixed
  • Development professionals can often end up trying to think too big
  • Development needs to be seen in the context of each individual country setting

Who can argue against good governance? We all want our governments to be underpinned by strong and effective systems for making and implementing decisions. It’s a pretty basic aspiration – and Brian Levy is not about to suggest otherwise. But when it comes to addressing development challenges, Levy, a 23-year World Bank veteran, believes that achieving real change needs more.

“A lot of this is down to the fact many developing countries have their own set of institutional issues to confront – very different to what we in developed countries are used to,” he suggests. “This means that you can’t just apply a sweeping change to a system of governance in one go and assume that everything will be fixed. It’s actually more effective to identify individual areas that are ripe for reform, get lots of stakeholders on side, and focus hard on that specific challenge. That’s how to make progress.”

Framing the debate

Levy is now happily ensconced in academia – researching, writing and teaching – and splitting his time between John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC and the University of Cape Town. One early fruit of his move to the academy was the successful publication last year of his book, Working with the grain: integrating governance and growth in development strategies. It sets out a relatively simple framework for thinking about different contexts, and its author liberally peppers his insights with case studies mined from his rich seam of experience at the Bank.

“I have spent the last three decades of my career wrestling with the puzzle of how context matters in development strategy,” explains Levy. “The book is my best effort to lay out my own personal understanding, to crystallise what I learned into a framework for thinking systematically about context and how it matters.” Levy uses the book to argue that when rapid growth is under way – as it often is in countries that start from a low base – reformers and development professionals need to accept that imperfection is to some degree inevitable.

“The framework identifies a small number of contexts and then explores what can be done systematically by context,” he continues. “What I like to think it does is provide a way of thinking systematically about what can you actually do and what entry points might work for you in different circumstances. That’s the essence of it.”

Banking on good governance

Levy’s time at the World Bank saw him based primarily at its headquarters in Washington, DC, but he also spent extensive time in the field, particularly in Africa. “I managed the Public Sector Reform and Capacity Building Unit of the Africa Region at the World Bank and I also headed the governance and anti-corruption secretariat of the organisation,” he recalls. “The explicit mandate of this role was to try and mainstream issues of governance into development strategy.”

Interestingly, he says that development professionals – often in the trade thanks to their enthusiasm to do good and achieve lofty goals – can often end up trying to think too big. Better, he believes, to get granular and focus on the incremental gains to keep shifting the dial.

To illustrate his point, he cites a story from his work in Zambia in 2007. “The country manager who was based in Lusaka at the time pointed out that there was a history in Zambia – going back more than 15 years – of agreeing to support grand and ambitious plans that didn’t in the end get implemented,” he recalls. “I was asked to explore this disconnect and suggest what could be done about it. When I presented the conclusions to a group comprising representatives from government, civil society and donors, the World Bank’s external relations person was rather nervous about me planning to talk about governance, predicting that ‘sparks would fly’.

“But actually, sparks didn’t fly and it was a startlingly constructive conversation. The work held up a mirror to all, providing a common platform for discussing the actual (familiar, but usually unspoken) constraints to getting things done. To the consternation of some, the country assistance strategy that was subsequently developed for Zambia actually committed to focusing on specific achievable challenges, rather than a grandiose and sweeping plan of the sort that had come before. For me, I think that is a vivid example of what happens when you take context seriously and don’t get off the plane armed with a blueprint that has been cut and pasted from another country situation.”

Small steps = big changes

Levy – who in between commitments at his two universities is busy on the circuit setting out his insights – remains an optimist at heart. For him, development is a process, one that needs to be seen in the context of each individual country setting. Only then can impact be fully achieved.

“Start by seeing things as they are to work from there,” he concludes. “If the development community recognises this then we can achieve the forward movement we all desire. None of us entered development because it is easy. We did it because we care. And because we want to help lift people and countries up to achieve their full potential. Working with the grain, I believe, is the best way of doing this.”

 

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