Sustainable governance

Photo: SDGs next to the Octagon building in Accra, photo: Susann Baller, March 2022

The landmark decision within the UN system to pursue global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has put the concept of sustainability firmly on the agenda. The SDGs cover a wide range of thematic issues translated into political objectives for social, economic and economic transformation in the world. While most African governments have rhetorically taken on board the new goal system, such policy-driven agendas, however, often appear imposed from Northern-dominated institutions based in New York or Brussels, and are often met with scepticism in Africa. As yet, there has scarcely been a broader debate on a viable process of sustainability transformation and its deeper meanings.

The Merian Institute for Adcanced Studies in Africa (MIASA) aims at debating critically some of the conceptual “black boxes” (Macamo 2018) which fall under the thematic umbrella of “sustainable governance”. Research at MIASA is guided by the question of how the practice of historically grounded social sciences and humanities in Africa can address sustainable governance as a theoretical and conceptual challenge likely to yield new answers to problems of conflict, democracy and environment. MIASA embraces a broad range of disciplines which allow for developing innovative and original research questions on MIASA’s main and sub-themes.

Photo: SDGs at Jamestown Community Theatre, Accra, photo: Susann Baller, October 2021

Aiming at a profoundly interdisciplinary and critical approach on “sustainability”, MIASA’s research agenda focuses on “governance”. According to Hyden at al. (2004: 16), “governance refers to the foundation and stewardship of the formal and informal rules that regulate the public realm, the arenas in which states as well as economic and social actors interact to make decisions”. The concept of governance acknowledges different historical trajectories of state formation in a longue durée perspective, but it is also embedded in social, material and cultural practices of everyday life and therefore heavily relies on the particular regional context.

Today’s formal institutions were often built on institutions created by colonial regimes (e.g. borders, bureaucracies, security bodies), and they took over a colonial project, called ‘development’, which by the 1970s had become “either tragedy or farce” (Cooper 2002: 156). Research at MIASA embraces an academic understanding of governance that inspects the rules of the game and how they have transformed over time, the processes of decision-making and the interplay of actors. It considers the dynamics of how actors’ constellations have changed and how technological innovations have impacted the way actors are related to each other.

Photo: SDGs at Jamestown Community Theatre, Accra, photo: Susann Baller, October 2021

Critically examining sustainability need to be grounded in concrete contexts and historical experiences, both on the local level as well as by considering Africa’s global connections. Bottom-up processes from seemingly isolated places to supra-state configurations of actors and two-down processes, i.e. the local effect of decisions taken elsewhere, are examined. All this requires thematic focus, which MIASA’s research agenda translates into three thematic corridors: (i) democracy, (ii) conflict and peace, and (iii) sustainability transformation, and five intersectional topics: (i) landownership and acquisition, (ii) migration and mobility, (iii) restitution of colonially acquired objects, (iv) African cities, (v) Human rights.

Quoted literature

Cooper, Frederick, Africa since 1940, Cambridge 2002.
Hyden, Goran et al., Making Sense of Governance: Empirical Evidence from 16 Developing Countries, Boulder 2004.
Macamo, Elisio, Translating Black-Boxes: The Social sciences and Africa, in: Ouédraogo, Jean-Bernard et al., Translation Revisited: Contesting the Sense of African Social Realities, Newcastle 2018, p.335-352.

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