Good governance: a timeless principle

Camilla Toulmin's picture
Blog by
31 August 2011

As Libyan rebels prepare for the final act in the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime — defenders of the pro-Gaddafi stronghold, Sirte, have until Saturday (3 September) to surrender — questions are already being raised about the country’s future. In particular, asking how the country can successfully move from Gaddafi’s autocratic and corrupt rule to a democratic constitutional order and an economy that brings prosperity for all.

It won’t be easy — for more than 40 years, the country has had no experience of democratic elections, citizen participation or the rule of law. There have been no political parties, no independent media and no independent civil society. And yet there is, among Libyans themselves, an overwhelming sense of optimism — hope that the future will bring a fairer, more responsible and more transparent government.

The importance of good governance is sometimes thought of as a relatively recent concern. IIED has long believed that good governance is critical to promoting and enabling progress towards sustainable development. The need to secure accountable, transparent, equitable and effective governance for sustainable development at all levels has been a cornerstone of our work since our foundation 40 years ago; and today forms one of the six goals in our strategy (for 2009–2014).

But the value of establishing an accountable system of government, administration and justice long pre-dates our own short history, and has been ardently debated for centuries.

Italian imagery

In the old Italian city of Siena, colourful wall paintings from the 14th century illustrate the effects of good and bad government. When they were painted, Siena had already been an independent city state for more than a hundred years, successfully setting up a form of government that recognised the importance of getting different interests represented.

The paintings in the council chamber originally served to remind elected officials of the consequences of their action and behaviour.

Good government is shown to bring prosperity, happiness and a bustle of economic activity in town and country. The fields are being ploughed and harvested, while crops are being threshed and pack animals laden with produce convey a thriving trade. The cityscape also illustrates the benefits of wise government for clean streets, bustling business and people dancing.

The painting of bad government on the other hand shows a devastated landscape of barren fields and broken down villages with houses aflame, while marauding soldiers march across the hills. In the city, houses are crumbling and citizens harassed by armed men. Danger and ruin accompany tyranny.

A vivid reminder

The painter makes clear to the onlooker what lies behind good and bad government. Under good government, Justice and Wisdom — both represented by female figures — are at the apex and transmit their powers to elected representatives. Under bad government, it is Greed, Pride, Discord and Cruelty that dominate the painting — Justice is bound and powerless.

This vivid reminder of timeless principles helps explain why the prosperity of a nation depends only in part on its natural wealth, in terms of resources. Much is the consequence of how well those with responsibility act to harness those resources with the broader common good in mind, rather than responding to pressure from powerful groups, or family interests.

The Siena paintings provide a vibrant image of why good government is at the heart of creating a peaceful, prosperous future — one that is as relevant to Libya’s interim leaders today as it was to Siena’s city officials six centuries ago.

Camilla Toulmin is the director of IIED

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