The UN’s development agencies frequently operate in a political minefield. Stuck between the zealously guarded sovereignty of member states and the need to spur structural transformations, these agencies tread carefully. But they still push, albeit timidly, for democratic values such as participation, civic engagement, accountability and broad citizenship. Until now.

It seems that the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) has decided that democracy is not necessary.

ESCAP, based in Bangkok, is the development arm of the UN for the Asia Pacific region. It plays an essential role in the regional implementation of global agreements, conventions and agendas while supporting member countries in their development goals. The 2017 edition of the Economic and Social Survey — ESCAP’s flagship publication — contains a chapter analyzing how governance affects development, and it is here that ESCAP parts ways with democracy.

For its interpretation of governance, ESCAP decided to reject well-established definitions from the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) because they "include political dimensions, relating implicitly to democratic accountability." ESCAP’s reframing of governance as non-political is somehow justified by the "diversity in the cultures, historic experiences and levels of development" of the countries in the region.

According to the Survey, since the issues at hand are developmental rather than political, governance should be "framed in terms of how power is being exercised instead of how it is acquired." Not surprisingly, the conclusion is that "regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees how power is acquired, authoritarian regimes can be well governed, just as the existence of democracy is neither necessary nor indeed sufficient — from a development point of view — to guarantee good governance and thus sustainable development."

This so-called "apolitical" redefinition of governance is the reason the Survey only uses four of the six indicators from the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators database in its analysis: government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption. The other two — voice and accountability, and political stability and absence of violence — are deemed too political and excluded from the analysis.

In terms of the conceptual reformulation of governance proposed by ESCAP, it is difficult to understand why regional diversity necessitates political dimensions to be excluded from the analysis. The text does not elaborate upon the logic of this causality, so one is left to wonder whether it is an appeal to some form of Asian exceptionalism, with all the consequences such an approach entails. The Survey’s version of governance suffers from the same conceptual flaws as the model that inspired it: it limits governance to the functioning of the government, thereby ignoring other crucial non-state governance actors and confusing governance with governability.

The position taken by ESCAP in this publication has worrying implications at various levels.

First, ESCAP’s definition espouses a technocratic view of development. Firoze Manji mapped out the process of "poverty depoliticization," arguing that the international development agenda needed to smooth over inefficiencies, one of which was the struggle for social, political, economic or civil rights as a structural component of development.

In this agenda, rights and freedom cease to be the central subject of development. Poverty eradication is reframed into an outcome of trickle-down economics, and issues of power distribution and social justice are marginalized away from the processes of "real development." With this shift, the checks and balances provided by democratic accountability are replaced by the ascendancy of the development expert.

Second, an apolitical reformulation of governance that excludes democratic principles undermines the ability of ESCAP — and any UN agency whose work incorporates strategies for empowerment, inclusion, social justice, meaningful participation or active citizenship — to achieve their stated goals. The UN has often struggled to bring together the different dimensions of development into its work. But governance, as defined by either the UNDP or the World Bank, is one of the few frameworks that provide a potential bridge between its technical, political, social, economic, environmental and cultural work. Rather than strengthening this framework, ESCAP has weakened it by carving out one part and ignoring the rest.

Most of all, ESCAP’s position belittles system-wide efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by contravening global agreements such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which democracy, good governance and the rule of law are recognized as essential components. After all, the motto of the SDGs is to leave no-one behind. But if accountability, representation, political stability and the absence of violence are excluded, then the whole endeavor becomes futile.

It also contradicts the UN axiom of democracy as "a universally recognized ideal and one of the core values and principles of the United Nations," not to mention the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 25).

Finally, ESCAP is setting a dangerous precedent by declaring it irrelevant how power is acquired. From this one could infer how power is maintained is also irrelevant, although the Survey conveniently does not address this aspect. It is disingenuous to argue that the new definition applies only to the analysis of development issues.

In reality, ESCAP’s version of governance will be seen as condoning human rights violations, the repression of dissidence, curtailed freedom of expression, institutional violence and the forceful overthrow of legitimate governments. As long as services are delivered efficiently, everything else is acceptable. It gives a green light to regimes in countries where these practices occur to continue exercising power in the same way.

It is ironic that, in formulating an apolitical definition of governance, ESCAP ended up taking a very political position — one that, for a UN organization, is quite alarming.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White