The good governance of the corona crisis

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi explains the reasons for some surprising successes and failures in handling the crisis, in a piece for the ERCAS blog.

In the years since 1989,  a turning point for the contemporary world, there has been unprecedented emphasis on good governance, with the adoption of international conventions and treaties, disclosures of tax fraud like the Panama Papers, and spectacular enforcement of the United States’ Foreign Corrupt Practice Act. But during this interval, the quality of governance in the world has largely stagnated. If anything, governance in top income countries declined slightly, and in less affluent countries, it stayed the same. Only a handful of countries registered significant progress – those good governance ‘achievers’ whom I covered with an international team of researchers in several books and articles, and whose numbers are less than a dozen across continents.

It is vital in the current debate to monitor how these countries perform in fighting the epidemic and to compare them with their counterparts on a regional and income-level basis and also with more established good governance achievers, like the US, UK or Scandinavian countries. There are some examples we have all heard about recently, even if  not researching anticorruption: South Korea and Taiwan. These two democracies handled the corona crisis brilliantly, acted swiftly on evidence to prevent the spread of the virus, learned from previous epidemics and summoned e-government, technology (apps to trace contacts) and the excellent relationship between state and citizens, based on transparency and trust.

In Latin America, the good governance achievers have the lowest fatality rates. By mid-April 2020, Chile with 1.1% and Costa Rica with 0.5% clearly stood out compared to Nicaragua’s 11.1%, Bolivia’s 8.2%, Mexico’s 6.6%, Honduras’ 6.3, the Dominican Republic 5.6%, Brazil’s  5.7% and Ecuador with 4.7%. Uruguay also did well. Africa was still at the very beginning, but it was already evident that Tunisia, which is among the very recent countries that started on the good governance path (see map), has been handling the situation better than its neighbours.

This is more difficult to judge in Europe, the land of the oldest good governance achievers, but it also seems that many countries that have improved their governance in the last thirty years – Estonia, Georgia, the Czech Republic, Portugal – handled the crisis better than ‘old achievers’ – countries like France or UK.

This highlights a previously neglected issue – that the equilibrium representing good governance, the state-society balance that we capture in the Index for Public Integrity, needs to be sustained over time and should not be taken for granted. Indeed, the Johns Hopkins University-EUI, which  estimated that the UK and US were far better prepared than Germany or South Korea should revisit their criteria and allow a larger role for political leadership. Also, would it not be appropriate to include Taiwan in the 195 countries GHS index, as clearly its governance was superior to many and so that some lessons could be learned from them? Poor leadership (as well as good) matters. It can enable or deter collective action needed in such times, and both of these old good governance achievers demonstrated this, leading to loss of lives. From the ‘old achievers’, Germany confirmed the most, with a low fatality rate (compared to the other West European countries) owing much to the same non-populist, solid social contract, where the state acts on evidence and broad consultation, the citizens trust it to do so and the public and private sector, as well as different branches of government, cooperate well. Still, Germany did not react as swiftly as either Korea or Taiwan, which had more cases after China originally, but managed to curtail the spread from very early on. Or Iceland, the marginal European island which made a prime minister resign in half a day after it turned out his family’s money was invested offshore and tested all skiers returning in one flight from Ischgl, an Austrian virus hotspot.

The more a government is able to draw on trust and technology, the swifter and more effective the response. Taiwan merged its national health insurance data with customs and immigration databases to create real-time alerts to help identify vulnerable populations. Iceland made an app that created a log of where the user had been, to enable contact-tracing – sharing it with authorities was done on a voluntary basis, unlike Korea where quarantined people have to use it. Countries which used e-government tools to lower red tape and electronic means of payment to increase tax collection and diminish the unaccountable money volume – like Estonia or Uruguay – found it easier to handle the crisis. They had been already reducing personal contacts and paperwork between government and its citizens.

Acting rapidly on the evidence to prevent corruption, with the help of both responsible and critical citizens is also the essence of successful anticorruption: what you do after the outbreak already matters less, because it cannot be so effective even in the best of circumstances, that few countries enjoy anyway (like great impartial prosecutors and effective courts). The countries which had managed to build control of corruption successfully in recent times were thus far more prepared for this crisis even than those advanced countries which had received it as a heritage from their ancestors. Good governance needs current practice, but also returns dividends, as we could see during this pandemic.

This opinion piece first appeared on the ERCAS website blog.

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