Competence, trust and the pandemic
We continue to live in anxious times. Just when we think the pandemic is behind us the virus strikes again. No one can predict when the next wave will engulf us. The rollout of vaccines across the world offers the hope that we may ultimately be able to defeat Covid-19, but for developing countries, who continue to face challenges in securing adequate vaccine supplies and then overcoming people’s vaccine hesitancy, it will obviously take longer to tame the virus.
The pandemic has already affected everyone’s lives, forcing us to change the way we live, the way we work and interact with others. A lively global debate has been underway about which countries have handled the health crisis better over the past year. Have democracies done a better job? Or authoritarian regimes that are powerful enough to impose controls and restrictions more rigorously?
The general consensus that has emerged in the international discourse is that it is not the type of political system that explains why some nations have managed better but how competent a state is. Leadership too has much to do with capable management with some suggesting that women leaders who have shown both empathy and efficiency have outperformed their male peers. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern is often cited as a case in point although the example is of a small country.
In his recently published book ‘Ten Lessons for a Post-pandemic World’, Fareed Zakaria writes that it is the quality and not the quantity of government that matters. He shows persuasively that a “competent, well-functioning, trusted state” and quality of governance have been instrumental in effectively tackling the pandemic. In answering the more general question about why some states have governments that work well when others falter, he identifies a competent bureaucracy and the ability to tax as key factors in the history of modernization. He holds up Singapore as an example, a country that has drawn on its “cultural roots for its social cohesion, the “mandarin tradition of an elite bureaucracy” and which has also been advantaged by “highly disciplined and focused leadership.” Zakaria also notes that in many western states a “healthy distrust of government” can turn into “toxic cynicism.”
The general consensus that has emerged in the international discourse is that it is not the type of political system that explains why some nations have managed better but how competent a state is.
The theme of trust and leadership has echoed in other writers’ assessments too. The well-known political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued in an essay written last March that the crucial determinant in an efficient crisis response is state capacity and trust in government. “What matters in the end is not regime type but whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state.”
Trust has been fundamental to whether citizens complied with the advice of their governments or health authorities to meet the challenge of the pandemic. But it is also a fact that for some years, if not decades, surveys have found that trust has been declining in governments. Today this seems to be a global phenomenon. Why is this so?
From what has been written by political scientists and other experts a confluence of factors may be responsible. Those generally identified include the scale and complexity of governance today, rising and unfulfilled expectations, growing disconnect between political elites and the people, governments’ remoteness from citizens, economic performance being the acid test of competence, conduct of leaders, and the information and technological revolutions that have empowered people in unprecedented ways.
Again, Fukuyama offers insights into this phenomenon. Although he has focused on the crisis of trust in the US, his observations have wider applicability. He says that trust is built on two foundations. One, “citizens must believe that their government has the expertise, technical knowledge, capacity, and impartiality to make the best available judgments” – which of course speaks to government competence. The second foundation is “trust in the top end of the hierarchy”, in leaders and whether they inspire public confidence in knowing what they are doing and acting in the public interest.
In another recently published work, ‘Democracy and Globalization: Anger, Fear and Hope’, its authors Josep M. Colomer and Ashley L. Beale focus on what they see as the current crisis of democracy and seek to explain why trust in governments and public confidence in democracy has been declining. They perceptively note that while there is more democracy across the world there is less governance. The growing public discontent, they say, “derives from the fact that many governments have lost their previous ability to perform effectively because many collective issues now require management at a larger scale than used to be the case.”
With the world still in an unsettled state due to the pandemic, governments will continue to be judged by their citizens by how they have protected public health and people’s lives as well as managed the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis. And with the vaccine drive underway, also by how efficiently this is undertaken. But the attributes of good governance needed to deal with the pandemic are also the qualities necessary for governments to meet public expectations on other counts. Democracy without effective governance becomes meaningless leaving citizens with waning faith in political institutions.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha