International Colloquium: governance - towards a conceptual framework

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Project at a glance

Dates and Place

22 - 24 November 2007, Genève, Switzerland
Maison des Associations


Graduate Institute for Development Studies (IUED)

Project details

This academic colloqium focused on the concept and use of the word "governance".


Within the context of the research programme, titled "National Center of Competences in North-South Research", the team "Governance in Latin America" of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies (IUED, Geneva) set as its main scientific objective to explore the concept of governance. The aim is to define its limits and uses, and work out a methodology, making it a tool allowing the integration of policy research and action. It looks at the term both, as it is used in the academic spheres and by decision-makers, as there is currently no commonly agreed and stable definition of this concept. 

Based on usage, it is possible to distinguish three groups of approaches, viewing governance as: 

  • 1º: a synonym for Government; 
  • 2º: a normative framework; 
  • 3º: an analytical framework for non-hierarchical coordination systems.

The November 2007 event focused on three simple questions: What sense can we give to the word governance? What does it refer to? What does this concept contribute to social sciences?

The Issue of Terminology

In Spanish or Portuguese, the term "governança" governance formerly had the meaning of "government". In modern Spanish, the term has still not been clearly defined. In Spain, the term "gobernanza" is used in relation to the European Union. In Latin America, many international organisations, including Swiss Cooperation, translate it by the term "gobernabilidad" (governability), which introduces confusion with the original content of the concept of governability ("the capacity of a socio-political system to control itself", Kooiman, 1994). This same confusion is maintained by the Real Academia Española de la Lengua (Royal Spanish Academy of Language), which recommends the use of gobernanza (governance), but accepts it as a synonym of gobernabilidad (governability). The term gobernancia can also be found, a neologism (Solá 2000), which we consider to be a synonym of gobernanza.

Governance as a "synonym of Government"

This definition of governance is based on its historical use. In fact, the term is of Greek origin, kubernân, which refers to the control of a ship or cart, but which Plato already used in a metaphorical way to talk about humans (Oliveira 2002). In Latin, gubernare has the same meaning as in Greek. In the French of the middle Ages, it became a synonym of "government", with an explicitly hierarchical meaning. It took the same meaning in English, Spanish and Portuguese, and then fell into disuse. Some dictionaries or authors still use the term with this meaning. In my opinion, this use has no added value and increases the confusion surrounding the term.

Governance as a "normative framework"

At the end of the 1980s, governance became one of the tools of the World Bank. It was initially used as a methodological tool used for identifying the effective sites of power (Smouts 1998a): "Governance is the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country's economic and social resources for development". Quickly, the Bank developed a series of quality criteria (in Latin America it was translated as gobernabilidad) aimed at evaluating the norms and practices of States or organisations, and which were applied to set objectives for the Bank's programmes or to evaluate certain applications for funding.

Role of ICVolunteers

ICVolunteers provided volunteer interpreters for this scientific colloquium who worked from and to Spanish, English and French.

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