In view of the disappointing performance of the Good Governance agenda in Africa, policy-makers are asking whether better results could be obtained with approaches that attempt to ‘work with the grain’ of African societies. This article explores what this might mean. It identifies a core set of beliefs and values – concerning power, accountability and social morality – that have proved extremely durable and remain powerful drivers of behaviour across sub-Saharan Africa. It finds that, in general, Western institutions sit ill with these traditions. The question is, therefore, how to redirect development efforts so that they stop working against, and start to build upon, the extant notions of moral obligation and interpersonal accountability in the region.