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Better governance without coups or revolutions

Army cheered by the public after General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi removed President Mohamed Morsi. Photo: Zeinab Mohamed/Flickr, July 7, 2013.In Zimbabwe, Egypt or Luxembourg, people want better governance. The major differences between countries are the degrees of dissatisfaction, and the ways in which people wish – or have the power – to effect change.

Not all countries have a Prime Minister willing to resign over a security scandal, as does Luxembourg. For many others, there is always the next election.

Elections are not always a good indicator of democratic freedoms or a guarantee of good government, unfortunately - even when they offer a genuine choice. Coups and armed resistance, on the other hand, are an expression of failure to achieve change by another method.

Even in mature democracies, elections are blunt instruments that are unlikely to precisely produce the change anticipated by the electorate not least because voters have different preferences and any change creates losers as well as winners. And there are other reasons: improvements usually take time; governing in opposition (whether by politicians, pundits or voters) is easier than in office; candidates may overpromise or will not have as much power if elected as they pretend.

There can be serious problems with the system too, such as the gerrymandering of electoral districts in the US. In poorer countries, system failings can be more widespread and severe.

In recent decades, increasing attention has been paid by the international development community to the impact of governance on poverty. In the worst cases, bad governments can be responsible for famines, civil war, for corruption on a massive scale, or for the collapse of the state. On the other hand, improving governance is not easy nor cheap. This is why some international donors, including Irish Aid, support governance and democratic development in recipient countries.

Incremental improvements rarely make headlines but they are intended to prevent the sort of state failure that does lead to headlines and for calls for the international community to "do something". As with other humanitarian disasters, prevention is as cost-effective as it is neglected.

There are movements to encourage better governance on a global scale, such as the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which aims " to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance." Since its launch in 2011 by Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, and the United States, another 67 governments have joined the initiative.

Ireland's path to membership was later but was itself conducted in a transparent way. In 2013, the Irish Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform hosted a public meeting on Ireland's path to full participation in the partnership. His department has commissioned Transparency International Ireland to coordinate a consultation project between between government, civil society and citizens to shape an OGP National Action Plan.

The initiative was supported by Dóchas, the Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisations, which has been an advocate of accountability and transparency by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) themselves. A robust civil society is commonly regarded as a necessity for good governance.

One initiative, supported by Irish Aid and other international donors, is the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP). HAP is the humanitarian sector's first international self-regulatory body. Its members commit to meeting "the highest standards of accountability and quality management".

Christian Aid (UK and Ireland) has been HAP-certified. So has Concern Worldwide. A number of other Irish organisations are members of HAP.

Concern CEO, Dominic MacSorley compared its HAP certification to ISO 9000 certification in the business world. "It is international recognition of a commitment to excellence throughout the organisation. Being open, transparent and accountable is very much part of our ethos. We are not just accountable to our donors but to our beneficiaries in some of the world’s poorest countries," he said.

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