Ranging from single-party states to parliamentary democracies, Asia is as politically diverse as it is geographically, culturally and economically varied. Differences in citizens′ levels of trust in their governments, as well as civil society′s role in democratic change and the ability of regional governance mechanisms to address cross-border challenges, add to the diversity of the region.
Against the backdrop of the region′s rapid change, what trends and innovations are emerging in governance? Is effective governance at local, regional and global levels essential to human development in Asia?
On Tuesday, 4 October 2011, Professor Shabbir Cheema, Director, Asia-Pacific Governance Initiative at the East-West Center, explored these questions during an interactive seminar on “Governance for Human Development”, organized by UNU Press.
“The concept of governance has undergone significant transformation and moved through distinct phases over the past sixty years,” Prof. Cheema said.
Whilst traditional models of government focused on public administration and the maintenance of law and order, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a major shift “from government to governance occured, entailing recognition that governance is co-produced by civil society, state and private sector actors”.
“Today’s phase of democratic governance brings two dimensions of managing public affairs together: interactions amongst actors (governance) and universally recognized core values (democracy),” Prof. Cheema explained.
Throughout Asia (as in other regions) studies reveal a correlation between levels of human development (and level of poverty) and the effectiveness of governance.
Striking examples include the Republic of Korea, which at 26th place (out of 182 countries) ranks high on the UNDP Human Development Index (HDI) and receives a high score, 72.16 (out of 100), on the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators (WGI) scale. In contrast Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh all receive 20 per cent or less on the WGI and a comparatively low rank, 141 or lower, on the HDI.
In the seminar, Prof. Cheema presented key findings from three books published recently by UNU Press, which he co-edited with Dr. Vesselin Popovski, Head of “Peace and Security” at the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP): Engaging Civil Society: Emerging Trends in Democratic Governance; Building Trust in Government: Innovations in Governance Reform in Asia; and Cross-Border Governance in Asia.
Whilst the three works analyse different trends in governance in Asia, they all draw out the links between good governance, trust and civil society.
“Democratic governments will not survive long if they do not build and sustain the trust of their citizens, but trust is difficult to build and easy to lose.”
Drawing on Building Trust in Government, Prof. Cheema explained that the ability of governments to meet basic needs and promote human rights depends, in part, on citizens’ trust in their government. Public trust in political institutions has declined in both developed and developing countries in recent decades, as constituents around the world become increasingly dissatisfied with government. (A 2005 survey by BBC/Gallup International put dissatisfaction at 65 per cent in Western Europe, 73 per cent in Eastern Europe, 60 per cent in North America, 61 per cent in Africa, 65 per cent in Asia Pacific and 69 per cent in Latin America.)
“Democratic governments will not survive long if they do not build and sustain the trust of their citizens, but trust is difficult to build and easy to lose in this age of information and communication”, Prof. Cheema said.
Prof. Cheema drew on broad-ranging examples from the region to argue that whilst democratic governance can promote trust in government, it is not sufficient alone to sustain it: Even though Japan has made significant progress over past decades in economic performance and democratic governance, trust in political parties and parliament remains low. In contrast, in China and Viet Nam, where politics and administration are controlled by a one-party state, increased economic opportunities and improved access to services have positively influenced citizens’ trust in government.
“The high level of trust in central government in one-party states like China is one of the most politically perplexing phenomena of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries,” Prof. Cheema observed.
What factors, then, can enhance trust, and promote democratic governance and human development?
Civil society, as explored in Engaging Civil Society, can play a role in driving democratic change, enhancing effective governance, and helping to build trust by promoting transparency. Prof. Cheema, however, observed that whilst civil society has expanded both in Asia and globally, “civil society organizations (CSO) accountability and partnerships are continuing challenges”.
Regional cooperation to meet the multi-faceted governance and trans-border challenges confronting Asia and further afield is also essential. Cross Border Governance in Asia demonstrates that the growing list of cross-border issues and trends in Asia-Pacific cannot be resolved by isolated policy action. It is essential to forge strategic regional alliances, which support supporting consolidated approaches, dialogue and action.