Means or ends? Form or function…? What really matters?

When it comes to new thinking on governance and progress, there is a commonly recurring theme of ‘function over form’. What this means is that a system of governance is valued for the quality of services it offers and the improvements it generates, rather than the nature of the organisations which carry out the work. So, it is now more widely accepted that human development outcomes, such as lower maternal mortality and higher primary school attendance rates can be achieved by non-democratic, unrepresentative governments. It may take a while for western governments to openly admit it, but democracy is not necessarily (or usually) the first step to poverty reduction. Actually, it probably never is.

It’s very tempting to try to find a common path which all countries have followed as they have developed but there does not seem to be a nice step-by-step guide to development. Instead, focusing on what on what can be achieved with the means available is becoming a more popular (and realistic) approach. This is ‘best fit’ instead of ‘best practice’; prioritising the outcomes a government achieves over the way in which it achieves them.

This can be interesting if we consider women in leadership. Following the last post about women’s empowerment in Tunisia, to what extent did women entering government mean more progressive government policy? Of course, there is a risk of drowning in normative words like ‘progressive’ but, in general, does enabling women to occupy positions of power, have a positive effect on development? An immediate reaction might be to assume it does. It seems logical that gender inequality issues, such as lower rates of education, employment, pay etc. for women are more likely to be addressed if more women have an influence over government policy.

However, increasing the number of women in leadership, while often a development objective, does not necessarily support gender equality. You can look to the tea party movement in the US or the presence of female religious fundamentalists in Tunisian government as examples. While women being in positions of power may seem like an indicator of progress, nothing can be taken for granted. The question is whether the development community should support more women entering leadership for its intrinsic value of equal opportunity, or whether support should be focused only on changes which result in more tangible development outcomes?

This is not a real decision since most people could accept that both are important but it does force us to question what we consider development to be and why. It is almost impossible to move away from values of equality and justice when discussing development, and any notion of ‘progress’ will be subjective, no matter how it is defined. This isn’t a problem though as long as there is honesty too. It seems fair to celebrate better healthcare and education in Rwanda, just as it is to be glad that Tunisian women can join political parties. Being explicit about what we value is what matters because development is always going to be messy.

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