Based on research on World Bank-funded decentralization policies in Indonesia, D. Brent Edwards Jr. employs the concepts of “ritual governance” and the “ritual aid dance” to refer to the performative and symbolic acts and processes through which change is supposedly pursued, all while failing to challenge established political, economic, and social structures – a phenomenon that is arguably widespread in international development and education policy.
Over the course of 8 years, I was involved in research on various efforts at decentralization in Indonesia. These policies related to block grants for community-driven development, decentralization of administrative functions from the national Ministry of Education to sub-national levels, and community involvement in school management. However, as documented in a recent book, these efforts — supported over decades by both the Government of Indonesia (GoI) and the World Bank — have not materialized in practice as envisioned or portrayed by their protagonists (Edwards, 2023). Thus, beyond an analysis of the ways in which each form of decentralization has not lived up to its promises, I sought to grapple with questions around why this was the case and how to understand the relationship between the GoI and the World Bank. In this short blog post, I will not recount the details of decentralization and how it worked (or did not) in practice—one can refer to the book for that. Rather, I would like to focus on how I came to the twin terms of ritual governance and the ritual aid dance, in an attempt to highlight concepts that can help to explain a phenomenon that is arguably widespread in the worlds of international development and education policy.
Indonesia and the World Bank are good cases from which to grapple with these questions and concepts. For its part, the World Bank been one of the most — if not the most — influential development organizations in the post-WWII period. And in the case of Indonesia, it has been one of the largest borrowers from the World Bank. With a total of $43.5 billion in disbursements from the World Bank, it trails only Brazil and Mexico as the country with the most total borrowing from this institution over the course of its history. Similarly, in the education sector, Indonesia has been among the top borrowers: during 1987-2012 Indonesia was consistently in the top five countries for total borrowing, with the cumulative amount during that time being $4.7 billion. Moreover, Indonesia has experimented extensively with governance reforms that lend themselves to ritualistic and performative dynamics.
From Technical to Cultural-Structural Explanations: Ritual Governance and the Ritual Aid Dance
The insights that this research would eventually produce would challenge many of the lessons that I had learned from earlier research in El Salvador about the ability of the World Bank to exert its influence. There, a particular and somewhat unique combination of factors resulted in a situation where the World Bank and the borrowing government were largely on the same page, at least for the 1990s, with regard to the direction of education reform. Without a doubt, the context of the civil war during the 1980s and geopolitical dynamics (read: intervention of the US government) led to an extreme right-wing party being elected in 1989 that would hold power for 20 years. The ideological alignment of the World Bank and the government in El Salvador, combined with the small size of the country and the significant influence of World Bank technical assistance and financing, created a situation where a now (in)famous reform based on neoliberal principles and related to community-based management could be implemented and extensively scaled up. But many of these contextual conditions were not shared by the case of Indonesia, where similar approaches to governance reform (rooted in neoliberal notions of decentralization and community management) have long been advocated and supported by the World Bank.
I was not attuned to these differences at the outset. Indonesia is a much larger country. This is true in terms of geographical scope, of course, but also in terms of the size of the economy, the size of the bureaucracy, and the distance (real and felt) between the central government and the local level of administration. These characteristics—together with multiple and intractable layers of cultural logics and practices—have thwarted the World Bank’s purported efforts to turn Indonesia into a governance state, that is, one guided by efficiency, accountability, and effectiveness. To the contrary, evidence suggests that the World Bank and GoI are simply going through the motions, dancing with one another in order to keep up the façade of earnest efforts to engage in “development”. This “dance” is a form of ritual governance, which refers to the performative and symbolic acts and processes through which change is supposedly pursued, all while failing to challenge established political, economic, and social structures. Ultimately, it became clear that any non-superficial understanding of governance reforms in Indonesia would have to engage with the origins and cultural logics behind the governance practices in Indonesia and those practices that characterize the relationship between the World Bank and the GoI. It would not be sufficient to look only at the technical dimensions of this relationship.
Interestingly, from the perspective of ritual governance, the many “flaws” of decentralization in Indonesia are not shortcomings at all. They are essential features of a system that operates according to a particular logic. This logic is explained, in part, by the state’s official ideology, known as Pancasila, with its emphasis on maintaining the status quo and preventing any genuine participation in development initiatives. An understanding of Pancasila helps to make sense of the numerous times that existing research has explained reform failure in Indonesia in terms of a “lack of policy clarity,” a “lack of financial resources,” or a “lack of organizational capacity” at subnational levels. From the perspective of ritual governance, the unwillingness of the central government to address these issues is entirely rational—a point that the rational perspective on policy analysis misses completely. This is not to say, however, that there was not significant activity on the part of the GoI to give the appearance of working to implement decentralization reforms. There are numerous examples—all symbolic in nature—ranging from the production (and content) of governmental decrees, regulations, and guidelines to the provision of training sessions, to the creation and work of school councils, to the posting of information outside of schools for purposes of community accountability. Conceptually, in that these examples encompass but go beyond textual and visual symbols to include, as well, the actions of government, ritual governance can refer to the processes through which reforms are developed and supposedly implemented.
However, as noted above, my research was not focused only on how the GoI pursued decentralization reforms, but also on the role of the World Bank. The question in this regard was how to interpret the (performative) interactions of these two actors. That is, how should one understand the continued engagement by these entities, particularly when, based on the GoI’s track record, it could be inferred the government was not interested in addressing the technical issues that the World Bank repeatedly highlighted and which plagued the ability of decentralization reforms to operate in practice as depicted in policy? This question is all the more pressing when one considers that it was also well-documented (including in the World Bank’s own reports) that up to 30% of funding was misused and unaccounted for, that is, funneled away from realizing project activities. Here, the notion of the “ritual aid dance”—a specific form or manifestation of ritual governance—was particularly appropriate.
The idea of the “ritual aid dance” comes from the work of Bull (2005), in his book, Aid, power, and privatization, which focuses on the relationship between international financial institutions and the government of Honduras. His work revealed that the latter (Honduras) played along with the requirements of the former (international development organizations) to the extent necessary to gain access to funding, but without changing its ways of operating significantly, if at all. However, beyond this intriguing insight, Bull (2005) did not further theorize or define the ritual aid dance. I thus extended this concept in my book by drawing on the anthropological work of Kertzer (1989), specifically his book on Ritual, politics, and power. In so doing, I argue that the various aspects of the aid dance—including technical assistance from development organizations, processes of developing projects and securing loans, study tours by government representatives to learn about best practices, high-profile summits, and the conduct and presentation of development-related research, etc.—can be thought of as rituals. This is so in that the processes that characterize and constitute international development work are “highly structured, standardized sequences and [are] often enacted at certain places and times that are themselves endowed with special symbolic meaning” (Kertzer, 1989, p. 9). To this end, in line with anthropological work on rituals, the aid relationship is symbolic because it purports to be dedicated to particular reform projects, such as decentralization, all while employing symbols that allow it to: (a) stitch together diverse ideas, (b) remain open to multiple interpretations and, thus, (c) preserve a significant level of imprecision or incoherence. From this perspective, the various components of the ritual aid dance are more symbol than substance, or, rather, their substance is their symbolism. On the surface, the components of the aid relationship give the appearance of agreement, unity, and a common direction; in practice, however, the substance of the aid relationship can be seen as a performance that allows each side to extract benefit while ensuring sufficient room for interpretation, that is, sufficient flexibility and latitude for deviation from pursuing what the other side may have in mind. This process, moreover, can be considered a dance because each participant needs the other, each responds to the cues of the other, each more or less knows the steps and the rules of engagement, but its performative nature cannot be spoken out loud. The concept of the ritual aid dance was thus particularly appropriate for explaining the fact that the GoI and the World Bank have been going around in circles for the past 20 years, ostensibly in order to improve the way that education decentralization works in practice, even though, under the surface, there are serious questions about the extent to which anything has changed.
In concluding, it is argued that the ritualistic and performative practices that affect the way that governance works are not only rooted in contemporary state ideology but are also affected by the legacy of colonial logics, relations, and worldviews, since these dynamics are still embedded within and guide the way that post-colonial states operate. My book points in this direction, but more research that connects the dots in these areas is desperately needed. Moreover, it is not as if these logics, relations, and worldviews operate in a bubble, or, put differently, operate within post-colonial states in a way that is separate from the globalized capitalist economy in which these states are located. Rather, these two issues are connected. These connections are particularly strong in the case of such organizations as the World Bank, which works, on one hand, to facilitate the advancement of global capitalism, while, on the other, to ameliorate the worst effects of capitalist development, for example through its social sector reforms (with education being perhaps the prime example). In this way, through the ritual aid dance, the World Bank and the GoI both continue to extract benefits from their relationship (approving loans, receiving financial infusions, and preserving the legitimacy to the international development enterprise), all while challenging neither the underlying logics of ritual governance nor the social, political, and economic structures in and through which it operates.
 This reform was known as Education with Community Participation (EDUCO). Previous research of mine was dedicated to understanding how this program evolved, operated, and entered the global reform agenda (Edwards, 2018).
Bull, B. (2005). Aid, power and privatization: The politics of telecommunication reform in Central America. Edward Elgar.
Edwards Jr., D. B. (2023). Rethinking World Bank influence: Governance reforms and the ritual aid dance in Indonesia. Routledge.
Edwards Jr., D. B. (2018). The trajectory of global education policy: Community-based management in El Salvador and the global reform agenda. Palgrave MacMillan.
Kertzer, D. (1989). Ritual, politics, and power. Yale University Press.
Brent Edwards Jr. is Professor of Theory and Methodology in the Study of Education in the Department of Educational Foundations at the University of Hawaii.