POWER, CONTEXT AND APPLICATION
Notions of governance have spread globally across disciplines and sectors like an ugly but undiagnosed rash: governance pops up everywhere but is commonly undefined, and while content (or diagnosis) is assumed, it is rarely articulated. These notions range from theories such as network governance, regulatory governance, multi-level governance, adaptive governance, and so on, to sector-specific applications including internet governance, multiple iterations of corporate governance, humanitarian governance, non-profit governance, and more. But too often it is a label, almost an incantation, without substantive definition or clarity. It may be that multiple applications are an attempt to provide content to a ‘catch-all’ category, but then the challenges of context, power and application all apply. Seen from the global south, governance is most commonly applied as a simplistic, normative imposition; its tools are in place to decide on reward and punishment, flowing from a narrow, a-contextual and ahistorical application. It is used to delineate the good from the bad, to call to order, or to call for order and rules (to be written or to be obeyed). The problem is not the lack of a single, ‘perfect’ definition – although some greater definitional precision would certainly help – but the failure to locate governance in relation to power, context and application.
When governance is analysed in relation to power, context and application, it is not reducible merely to citing (in)efficiency in delivering services. Rather, it talks to fairness and transparency when power is exercised, and the creation of meaningful space for all relevant actors (uneven in many respects – membership, organisational coherence, and so on) to influence wherever power is located and the point at which it is exercised. It does so locally and globally.
The key issue is power. Governance is only rarely articulated explicitly in terms of and in relation to power, and the more prevalent this silence becomes, combined with the endless calls for ‘good governance’, the less value the term connotes or contains. Governance is ultimately concerned with the contestation between stakeholders wherever power is being exercised. Precisely because power is at stake, the rules of the game need to be clear, fair and known to all; sites of decisionmaking need to be transparent and accessible to all relevant players; and the similarly repeated-unto-death ‘level playing fields’ are non-negotiable.