Since emerging as a new donor enthusiasm in the 1990s, governance support has become a major area of aid to developing countries. The idea that remedying debilitating patterns of inefficient, corrupt, and unaccountable governance will unlock developmental progress appeals not just to aid providers but also to ordinary people throughout the developing world who are angry at unresponsive and poorly functioning states. Yet despite the natural appeal of improving governance, it has proved challenging in practice. Many initial assumptions about the task have run aground on the shoals of countervailing realities. As a result, aid practitioners have begun accumulating important insights about how to improve governance aid:

  • Governance deficiencies are often primarily political and cannot be resolved through technical assistance alone.
  • Fostering citizen demand for better governance is as important as topdown efforts aimed at improving the “supply” of governance.
  • Governance aid may be more effective at the local level than at the national level.
  • Despite the intuitive appeal of governance best practices, concentrating on locally determined “best fit” may be more productive.
  • Informal institutions are a central part of the governance puzzle and cannot be treated as developmental marginalia.
  • Governance concerns should be integrated into the full range of assistance programming.
  • Donor countries should address international drivers of poor governance.
  • Aiding governance effectively requires development agencies to rethink their own internal governance.

These eight insights represent the framework of an emergent but still tentative second generation of governance support. Often embraced in principle, they are still far from being widely implemented in practice.

Even as governance assistance progresses, it struggles with several continuing uncertainties. The empirical case that improved governance is necessary for development progress is less straightforward than many aid practitioners would wish. The increasing pressure faced by most aid organizations for rapid, clearly measurable results sometimes works against sophisticated governance assistance. Larger international aid trends, especially the rise of new donors with other priorities, threaten to weaken the governance agenda.

Fully operationalizing these insights and overcoming the uncertainties will be hard. But the central promise of governance assistance—finally getting to the heart of the development challenge—is great enough to justify the effort and to ensure that even partial success will be worthwhile.