(GLD Director Professor Ellen Lust starts off with an overview of the conference agenda and goals).

Policy-makers and scholars alike continue to grapple with what ‘good governance’ looks like and how governance models function in different contexts. Though most agree there is no ideal model of good governance, researchers are working to better understand how existing models, most which are derived from western settings, impact citizens’ lives in developing country contexts.

In this context, the role of traditional versus modern authorities – how they represent and enable citizens to participate in decision-making, their legitimacy, and how they evolve over time – is a central topic of interest. The Program on Governance and Local Development (GLD) Second Annual Conference tackled this concept from a diversity of angles under the umbrella of “Layered Authority” (full agenda online here). The conference provided space for junior scholars to present new work with thought-provoking commentary from more senior scholars on how the research agenda is evolving, the state of methods, and how our work as scholars connects to the needs of practitioners and policy-makers. A few highlights and observations follow below.

Mixing party politics and decentralization. John McCauley from the University of Maryland pointed to the seeming disconnect between the promotion of decentralization over the last twenty-five years and the simultaneous push for strengthening national-level political parties. Decentralization policies arose with parallel efforts to formalize indigenous rights through international mechanisms, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). These movements are premised on bringing decision-making to a local level in order to be more representative and legitimate, though there is healthy debate on what is considered ‘local’ and whether this in fact results in more beneficial or equitable governance outcomes.

Moving away from dualism. Binaries are often a convenient way to compare and contrast different types of authorities – formal versus informal; traditional versus modern – but this dualism is limiting and fails to recognize the multiplicity of actors and how they operate together across governance levels. Furthermore, just as defining ‘local’ or ‘community’ can be highly contested, what constitutes ‘traditional’ or customary authorities (not to mention ‘modern’) can vary by context. Kate Baldwin from Yale noted that the discipline of political science has moved away from a normative view of traditional authorities as the ideal or “good type” and is now taking a more realistic lens to understanding what is happening on the ground. In this vein, Jen Murtazashvili from the University of Pittsburgh presented preliminary work on ‘psuedo’-polycentric governance in Eurasia, where decentralization efforts function in what she described as ‘disguised monocentrism’.

Evidence to build knowledge. Macartan Humphreys of Columbia and WZB Berlin questioned the cost of our current emphasis on causal identification and whether it was limiting our research scope. He pointed out that many of the conference papers motivated their own puzzles but did not speak to each other. At GOV/LAB, we are interested in thinking about how evidence contributes to the body of knowledge on governance. We often identify research questions in a design-driven manner, finding an opportunity for good causal identification and building a research question around it. A more informed strategy would start with questions that build on existing bodies of work and then determine the most appropriate methods to answer them. In this way, individual studies can contribute to existing theory and build evidence to inform practice on the ground.

Researching for the real world. The question of real-world relevance was brought up in the closing session by Rakesh Rajani, formerly of the Ford Foundation and founder of GOV/LAB partner Twaweza. He stressed the need to make sure academic research was useful to practitioners and the communities that we study, as well as building research and intellectual capacity in the countries where we work. (GOV/LAB is currently working to develop guidelines for working with researchers in developing country context in terms of ethics, safety, and capacity building.)

After a paper and poster-packed two days, the GLD conference ended with a Swedish pop quiz and an Abba dance party. As the research and policy agenda on good governance evolve, the conference provided a useful space to learn and freely ask questions about the latest in the institutional governance sphere – an interesting (and fun) academic space to watch.

Thanks to GLD postdoc Ruth Carlitz (@ruthcarlitz) for her review of the blog.