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Chapter Summary

Tendler, Judith, 1997. Chapter 1 in Good Governance in the Tropics. Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tendler lays out the purpose and central theme of the book, which is to highlight examples of good government in developing countries, especially Latin America.  She says that the literature is full of examples of self-interested government servants, clientelism, bloated and inefficient bureaucracies.  This has further led most think tanks and donor institutions to advise developing countries to trim their government, privatize, contract out and subject public agencies to market-like pressures and incentives.  She points out that flaws in the literature on poor performance can be divided into four categories:

  1. Emphasis on poor performance rather than on good performance in these countries.
  2. Examples of success are from the industrialized countries, which the developing countries are expected to import.
  3. Preoccupation with regional models, neglecting the country specific contexts.
  4. Overwhelming belief in markets and minimal government intervention

She sees as a crucial failing in the literature on governance the neglect of the literature on industrial performance and workplace transformation (IPWT), which discusses the importance of worker motivation as an important determinant of productivity. Factors like autonomy, worker discretion, team spirit have raised productivity in large firms. The donor community has not drawn on these lessons to complement measures required to increase performance of governments.  Instead they have thought of downsizing and decentralizing government as the only solution.  Ironically, the belief about the need to include the user, which has driven the policies to encourage Civil society participation in the restructuring process but no similar policies have been applied to public servants or public sector unions.

Tendler then discusses how the book uses case studies of successful good performance of governments in developing countries to highlight changes that work and those that go wrong. The examples are from Ceara, a poor and small state in Brazil, where 87% of state receipts were being spent on payroll until a reformist governor in 1987 came into power.  In the decade of reforms Ceara grew at 3.4%. Tendler delves into the reasons for their success in preventive health, public procurement, and public works and agriculture productivity.  There were 4 broad reasons behind this success: 

  1. Government workers showed unusual dedication in all of these cases.
  2. The state government contributed in developing a new sense of recognition and mission among the public servants.
  3. Workers did a large variety of tasks and had the discretion to customize.
  4. Larger autonomy did not create accountability problems due to simultaneous trimming of the bureaucracy along with higher community pressure to perform.

Tendler argues that this example does not support the necessity to downsize government. Instead, she asserts, a three way dynamic between an activist state government, local governments as well as civil society produces positive outcomes. Government promoted citizen advocacy and played an activist role, not supporting decentralization as a solution.

She sums up with two caveats: 1) while success stories are mixed and appear unintentional, it possible to draw lessons from them. 2) good performance cases should outlive the leader that initiates them.