On the study of development politics and the politics of development studies

Vernon Ruttan, in his 1991 article ‘What Happened to Political Development’, explores the ‘intersection’ between politics and economics in relation to development, noting that ‘economic policy is made by incumbent politicians in the context of political institutions and that ‘the choice of the alternative policies that are subjected to economic analysis is influeced by the agendas of political interests, yet ‘there is a deep fault line that divides scholarship in the two fields.”  He argues for the development of “an integrated theory of political and economic development.”

It is interesting to reflect on this introductory (and dated) article at the end of the course.  Arguments for integrating political economy further into development studies have come up at every turn – whether in analysing how elites might be involved in ‘pro-poor politics’ or in understanding ‘failed states’ or the rise of new powers.  It seems subsequent scholars of development politics, whilst moving the debate onwards in identifying specific sites of this political/economic nexus, have been unable to fully develop this integrated theory.

We have made some progress, however, in moving from simple claims about the relation between the two, such as ‘democracy improves poverty reduction’ or Ruttan’s claim that autocracy is necessary in the early stages of development, to the more nuanced observations of Ashutosh Varshney that democracy seems to avoid the worst, but has not achieved the best, reductions in poverty.  This process of challenging simplistic assertions must continue, as I have tried to do in challenging Varshney’s claim that the reason for democracy’s inability to eliminate poverty is its restriction to direct methods of poverty alleviation.  I have suggested that India demonstrates that poor democracies are able to pursue indirect means, but that there may be other political/economic factors which hold back development – in the case of India I suggested corruption as a key issue, whose root causes in that particular political/economic situation need further research to propose individual solutions.

Certainly it is true that ‘politics is back’ in development, having been superseded by economics for much of the period 1970-2000.  That process is still in the early stages however.  This is evident in Adrian Leftwich’s excessively broad definition of politics as, ‘all the activities of co-operation, negotiation and conflict, within and between societies, whereby people go about organising the use, production and reproduction of their biological and social life’, which though recognizing the broad scope of the influence of politics, fails to offer a productive way forward in research or policy design.  It is also evident in the writings and activities of development institutions such as the World Bank, who have recognised the need for ‘good governance’ etc, but whose approaches to effect such change remains restrictively technocratic.

In some ways recent developments have shown that Ruttan’s project was misguided.  He concludes that, “efforts to identify the political preconditions or conditions for economic development have not been as fruitful as I had hoped.”  The last post on the rise of China and the ‘find your own way’ model of development discusses the retreat from a search to find universalistic solutions for development, noting that development in distinct times and places requires distinct solutions.  This insight calls for further research aimed not at finding similarities between various development successes or failures, but in identifying particular challenges and opportunities within particular situations.  Extending the knowledge-base of development studies on this model is a slower, more incremental and pain-staking process than earlier attempts to find ‘the key’ to development, and this perhaps explains its slower rise to prominence.  This is an example of how the politics of development studies should be brought into the study of development politics.  Development scholars and practitioners shape the debate in subtle ways that may have nothing to do with objective features of development, but relate to the assumptions and culture and politics of the scholar or practitioner.

Ruttan’s call for an ‘integrated theory’, whilst dated, remains as relevant as ever – we must continue to develop our understanding of politics and its interaction with economics, both in developing countries and the global political economy.  I add to this the need to also integrate considerations of the politics of development studies, as well as to move from universalistic to more particularistic understandings and solutions in order to further develop the study of development.

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On the Rise of the East and What it Means for Development Studies

Hubert Schmitz addresses the rise of the East, and China in particular, asking, “Does development studies have a place in this new world?  Which strands have something to offer, which strands should be discarded? What challenges need to be taken on for development studies to thrive and avoid becoming irrelevant?”

He first outlines the scale of the rise of China, citing Newsweek’s description of ‘the most successful case of economic development in human history’.  He emphasises that this has not just been a process of catch-up, but that in many senses China has “begun to drive the changes in the rest of the world”.  He also mentions that “those taking the long view might say that history is merely getting back on track – with Asia resuming its superior and dominant place in the world”.  Both insights have implications for development studies. 

Schmitz then outlines 4 ‘strands’ or competing versions of development theory and practice and the challenge the rise of China poses to each. 

The first equates development with the western process of modernisation.  He argues against this paradigm on the grounds that,

“Transplanting ideas and practices without due consideration to differences in context rarely works”

Moreover, “The legitimacy of adopting the Western lens always rested on the superior performance of the Western economies and societies. This superiority is increasingly questionable. China’s growth record over the last 30 years is superior to anything Western nations have ever achieved”.  As a consequence, development as Westernisation has lost its legitimacy.

The second strand of development thought is almost the reverse of the first. It “sees development as a process which has been disrupted, undermined or stifled by the West. This includes the classical theories of imperialism, which precede development studies, neo-Marxist theory of underdevelopment, dependency theory, world systems theory, and more recently, some of the anti-globalisation work”

Schmitz argues against this view on the grounds that China’s success has been built on very deep integration into the global economy.  In this sense, “capitalism is fulfilling its historical mission in the developing world. More than that, in East Asia it has been so successful that it is now driving the change in the West…

The writers in the imperialism/dependency/antiglobalisation strand are right to draw attention to the relationship with the West as important, but wrong to assume that the relationship is always negative… In the case of foreign direct investment, the outcome for national development depends on the terms which the state has been able to negotiate.”

Schmitz also adds to these accounts that new theorising on the impact of ‘external forces’ will have to consider China as a key external force in changing both global governance and the global economy for other developing countries.

The third (fourth in his analysis) ‘strand’ of development theory is its focus on the poorest people or poorest countries.  Whilst this can be seen as prioritising the most urgent needs for change, it may be less fruitful, even for helping the poorest people or countries, as,

“where development studies confines itself to the study of the poor, it runs the risk of giving up on understanding and influencing the forces, which bring about the big changes and differentials in wealth and poverty

Finally, we come to the strand of development studies which is reinforced by the Chinese experience – the strand which Schmitz calls ‘find your own way’.  This strand abandons universal calls for particular policies across all developing countries – whether on the basis of copying the western model or of ‘disconnecting’ from the global system.  It is based on a historical perspective, leading to the insight that,

‘Latecomers have to plot their own distinctive path of development. Repeating what others have tried before is rarely possible because each country has its own specific internal conditions and because the rise of the early developer changes the external conditions for the latecomer.”  In other words, copying the Western model will not work because the West’s rise to power in the 18th and 19th centuries was under dramatically different conditions, and its success has dramatically changed the political economy which developing countries face today.   Equally, copying the ‘Chinese model’ will not work because China’s success has again changed the landscape for other developing countries.

In a vein similar to my previous posts about development institutions constructing the development mandate, Schmitz notes how this ‘each to their own’ model is in tension with ‘the internal organisational dynamics of donor agencies’ as follows:

“A large part of development research and advice is funded by donor agencies that operate in many countries. The agencies seek internal coherence around particular aims and approaches; they seek to disburse funds for activities which can be shown to promote these aims and use these approaches. There is thus a conflict between respecting diversity and the priorities of recipients on the one hand, and the agency’s internal aims and pressures on the other. Because of the need to disburse funds against deadlines, the scope for letting poor countries find their own way in their own time is constrained, particularly in aid-dependent countries.”

In concluding, Schmitz notes that to compliment this new paradigm of ‘find your own way’, development studies should seek endeavour to provide ‘more analytical space for detecting the ‘solutions’ which come up from below’ and seek to greater understand ‘the global changes which produce wealth and poverty.’  One of the challenges for doing so is depicted as the limitations of current language on development.  “The most frequently used categories – ‘developed/developing countries’ or ‘North/South’ do not help us to understand the new world. Over the last 30 years, the former Third World has become so heterogeneous that the use of current categories becomes an obstacle. Brazil and Tanzania have very little in common…  The terms ‘newly industrialised countries’ and ‘least-developed countries’ are an improvement, but still not sufficient.”

Much of this echoes the concern of Morton to integrate political economy factors into considerations of failed states discussed in my last post, as well as recent work of Nicola Phillips, who argues that to move beyond the impasse encountered in the 90s, development studies needs to re-connect with wider political economy, and to view ‘development’ as something that applies to all countries and populations, not some geographical or other-defined subset, which can result in less-than-useful policy prescriptions based on out-dated notions of ‘catch-up’.   As stated in my last post, most of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries (yet another categorical label) and to remove them from the agenda – whether in practice or in research – would clearly be a mistake.  His account emphasising the ‘find your own way’ paradigm and the conflict between this and development institutions also reinforces my view that to move forward in development we must challenge the assumptions and politics of development institutions to allow them to be more productive.  This increased productivity may come at the expense of decreased activity.  Letting countries ‘find their own way’ is not something which development institutions can do for them.

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On ‘Failed States’ and Development Discourse

Since 2001, the issue of ‘failed’ or ‘fragile’ states has received increasing attention in development and foreign policy literature of western countries.  Failed states are seen as ‘breeding grounds’ for international crime and terrorism and threaten the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals with the spread of HIV/AIDS, refugee flows and poverty.  In the words of Tony Blair,

“To tackle the instability, conflict, and despair which disfigures too much of Africa and which can fuel extremism and violence, is to help build our own long-term peace and prosperity”.                                                                                                                                    The United States National Security Strategy has also announced that ‘America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones’.

In the lecture discussion we looked at this concept of failed states, what it means and how useful it might be, and to whom. 

We identified ‘failed states’ as a concept defined in opposition to a western model of what a state should look like.  Clapham defined states as “organizations capable of maintaining a monopoly of violence over a defined territory, and of controlling, to a significant extent, the interactions between that territory and the world beyond it“ (Clapham, 2003)

A distinction is made between juridical and empirical statehood is used to explain the idea of state failure – the existence of sovereign borders is not all there is to being a state.  Empirical statehood is understood as the satisfaction of ‘core functions’, including ‘security, welfare, services and representation’.  Other definitions of failed states emphasise the loss of legitimacy of the government and/or the growth of corruption and crime within states.  There appears to be a conceptual overlap between failed states and the ‘neopatrimonial state’ where a dictator runs a country primarily for personal gain.  Neopatrimonial states are characterised by the centralisation of power controlling the state, military, judiciary and economy, often involving state-owned resource companies, corruption and patronage, e.g. Mobutu’s Zaire.  We discussed that, whatever definition is used, ‘stateness’ should be understood in the context of a continuum between ‘successful’ and ‘failed’ states, and not as clear distinctions between the two.

In terms of the causes of state failure, colonisation can be seen as having played a damaging role, through the creation of centralised, bureaucracies, which facilitate the rise of ‘big men’.  Colonies were often built around commodity extraction, leading to postcolonial governments funded through means which do not facilitate accountability to citizens through taxation.  Furthermore, political manipulation and financial and military ‘support’ during the Cold War was detrimental to the development of effective states. 

Consequences of state failure are summarised as:

  • Disorder spreads beyond juridical boundaries – refugees, conflict, trade/economic impacts
  • Centre loses control, local leaders or warlords take over
  • Domestic rise in violence, instability, disorder
  • Growth of international criminal and/or shadow networks
  • Human suffering, loss of infrastructure, decline in social welfare, rise of local providers

The World Bank describes LICUS (‘low income countries under stress’) as “characterized by very weak policies, institutions, and governance. Aid does not work well in these environments because governments lack the capacity or inclination to use finance effectively for poverty reduction.”  This description suggests a role for the concept as state failure as one that is useful for the west in designing effective development policies – in this case in deciding where/when it is appropriate to use aid as a development mechanism.

It was discussed that international responses to state failure have focussed on humanitarian relief and state-building, with the usual technocratic focus on institutions and democracy.  Security is often addressed through peacekeeping and security sector reform. But there has been a tendency to overlook the legitimacy of those in power, a ‘failure to incorporate local governance and service delivery mechanisms with more relevance on the ground’ and a failure to address the root causes of state failure.

We concluded that

  • State failure is based on an idea, often regarded as ‘western’ of what a state should look like
  • State failure narrative aggregates a variety of very different contexts
  • A more flexible approach to ‘state-ness’ may be more useful and accurate

Adam Morton, in ‘The ‘Failed State’ of International Relations’ attempts to provide such a more accurate, flexible approach to state-ness.   He notes that  at the turn of the 20th century, the notion of ‘dying states’ was used as a Darwinian justification of imperialism and aims to expose a “similar bias… surrounding assumptions of ‘failed states’ in the postcolonial world.”  He describes a Western ‘pathology’ of perceiving postcolonial states in terms of ‘deviancy’ from the Western norm.

“The threat here is characterised as a resurgence of non-Western power generating conflictual civilisational faultlines” with apocalyptic consequences.

“Overall, within these representations of deviancy, aberration and breakdown, there is a significant signalling function contained within the metaphors: of darkness, emptiness, blankness, decay, black holes and shadows. There is, then, a dominant view of postcolonial states that is imbued with the imperial representations of the past based on a discursive economy that renews a focus on the postcolonial world as a site of danger, anarchy and disorder” – in other words, the idea of ‘failed states’ is an over-simplified, one-dimensional characterisation which serves to justify intervention.  This is evident in “Robert Jackson’s idea of an “international trusteeship for former colonies that would control the ‘chaos and barbarism from within’ such ‘incorrigibly delinquent countries.’”  Such responses are said to echo “the earlier mandatory system of imperial rule.”

 Morton argues that instead what is needed is “to relate an understanding of sovereignty to political economy and the conditioning, as well as enabling, effects of a capitalist global division of labour.”

He argues that what looks like anarchy might actually be the result or incidence of struggles between ‘primitive’ and capitalist ‘processes of accumulation’.  Such conflict is influenced by the history of colonialism, structural features of the modern international political economy and “specific cultural routines, practices of social action and social forms of organisation in the postcolonial era”.  For example, the situation in Coˆte d’Ivoire since 2002, “initially involving the launch of an attack by army rebels on Abidjan and two northern towns… in an attempt to seize state resources again reflects more the conditions of extraversion – the predatory pursuit of wealth and power through primitive accumulation – grounded in specific historical experiences and the cultural, ethnic and political conditions of the region, than the classic case of a ‘failed state’.”

But while Morton sets his account up somewhat in opposition to the ‘classic’ notion of state failure, it can be seen more as a development of the concept, pointing to complexities in the causes and nature of failed states.  It does not necessarily contradict Western notions of the features of failed states, such as their tendency to produce regional and/or global instability, or suggest that intervention is essentially undesirable.  His developments of the concept, dismissing the universality of ‘failed state’, could help the discourse to become more useful to policy-makers seeking to improve conditions in fragile countries by drawing their attention to particular socio or political-economic challenges in need of resolution.

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On Chickens and Eggs: Democratisation and State-Building

Thomas Carothers, in ‘How Democracies Emerge’ offers a critique and alternative to the popular conceptualization of ‘sequencing’ in relation to democracy and development.  ‘Sequentialism’ proposes that it is necessary to have certain preconditions in place – in particular stable rule of law and a competent state apparatus – before moves towards democracy can be effective.  It denounces Western interference in pushing democratization on unstable states too early, suggesting that these institutions should be improved and democratization postponed until they are in place.

Carothers begins by pointing to a fallacy in the belief that it is desirable to wait for preconditions of rule of law and effective state before moving towards democracy, described here;

“Autocracy, however, whether liberal or non-liberal, is inherently in tension with both rule-of-law development and state-building. New or struggling democracies certainly encounter many difficulties in building the rule of law and the state, but they do not face any such inherent contradiction in doing so and enjoy at least a few advantages as well.”

It is thus irrational to wait for rule of law and state building before moving towards democracy because these things are incompatible with autocracy and thus cannot emerge before democracy.  But this is because he understands ‘rule of law’ and ‘effective states’ in a very particular way – ‘cardinal rule-of-law features’ are described as “civil and political liberties, subordination of political power to the law, and independence of the judiciary”.  It is true these aspects of the rule of law are impossible in most autocracies, but it is unlikely the proponents of sequencing have these particular aspects in mind when they call for rule of law; I suggest that most would be more inclined to think of rule of law as relating to the state’s ability to keep violent conflict to a minimum, which is perfectly compatible with autocracy, than to these political features.  Likewise with state capacity, which he defines as ‘impartial administration’, but most would probably think of as ‘effective administration’.  In any case, it seems Carothers largely agrees with the need for the sequentialist pre-conditions when he says that,

“In certain situations, democratization does need to wait for state-building. Where a state has completely collapsed or failed under the lash of civil conflict or other accumulated or acute calamities, moving rapidly

toward open political competition and elections makes no sense. The state will need to have at least minimal functional capacity as well as something resembling a monopoly of force.  Yet the sequentialists are misguided in propounding the idea that democratization must wait until there exists not merely an adequate but a well-functioning state”.

That the difference is one of degree rather than type is clearly illustrated in the last line.

Carothers contradicts the sequentialist claim that the West has ‘pushed’ democracy consistently, in some cases too early, saying that in fact,

“Certainly the United States, and to a lesser extent other Western powers, have often talked grandly in the past several decades about their commitment to global democracy. But underneath the rhetoric is a long record of a very mixed policy reality. Where democratic change in a particular country or region aligns with Western economic or security interests, it receives support. In many places, however, the United States and Europe have been and continue to be quite happy to support or get along with autocratic governments for a host of reasons.

Once democratization clearly starts somewhere, a collection of Western governments and other organizations usually steps in to back it. Much less frequently, however, is the West ahead of the political curve, pushing hard for change where autocracy is stable.”

All of this has been very evident recently in the events in North Africa and the Middle East, with a hesitant US commentary waiting for uprisings to attain a critical mass before announcing support. 

In Carothers’ view, it would seem, because democracy is something of an end in itself, and comes with benefits for rule of law and state capacity, it should be pursued more consistently by the West.  The sequentialist argument falls down because in its depiction of democratization as a Western-led campaign it underestimates the genuine desire for democracy emerging across the world.  And it’s call for putting off democracy is impractical in a society where the population are urgently calling for democracy now. 

“The sequentialist argument is dogged by a paradox: On the one hand, sequentialists advocate caution and minimalism regarding democracy promotion on the grounds that it is beyond the West’s power to shape or control inevitably unpredictable processes of democratization. On the other hand, the core sequentialist argument rests squarely on the belief that the West does have power to shape political change in other societies precisely by convincing frustrated, mobilizing citizens to ignore—perhaps for decades—their own heartfelt desire to take part openly and actively in politics.”

In response, it seems important to note that the paradox only exists in cases where there is a homegrown revolution, and sequentialists presumably aren’t arguing for the West to attempt to stop a revolution, or to install a new dictator in case of a power vacuum.  Sequentialism can be seen as a guide for what preconditions should be installed if possible, and as explanatory tools for understanding why a fledgling democracy may have failed or be failing.  Adding that we shouldn’t prevent democracy where it occurs organically is not much of a development, and is an example of the semantic nature of Carothers’ critiques.

In place of sequentialism, Carothers calls for ‘gradualism’, which identifies 5 ‘underlying conditions and structures for democratic success’ as follows:

• A certain level of economic development

• Dispersed sources of national

• Relative absence of identity-based divisions

• Previous experience with political pluralism

• Democratic neighborhoods:  

He then says that,

“These five factors should not be thought of as preconditions… rather… We should understand them as making democratization harder or easier.”

Gradualism is said to be distinct from sequentialism on the grounds that

“It does not entail putting off for decades or indefinitely the core element of democratization—the development of fair and open processes of political competition and choice. It involves reaching for the core element now, but doing so in iterative and cumulative ways rather than all at once.” 

What he means by ‘iterative and cumulative ways’ is hinted at earlier in the article when he says,

“As with the rule of law, state-building beyond the initial stage is best pursued at the same time as democratization, with an effort to find points of complementarity and mutual reinforcement.”

 Strengthening the power of an independent judiciary and opening up a closed media are given as examples of such a dual process.

It is worth noting that one could just as easily be a sequentialist and share the same policy prescription, on the grounds that these actions strengthen state capacity before introducing democracy, whereas Carothers sees them in and of themselves as acts of democratization.

And the claim that gradualism consists of “reaching for the core element now” is undermined when he says that,

“With respect to societies emerging from violent conflicts… Advocates of moving more gradually toward elections in such contexts are not arguing for indefinite delay pending the creation of deep structural conditions. The idea, rather, is to put off elections for at most several years to allow indepth negotiations between contending political groups, so that the main political forces can get used to dealing with one another peacefully and agree on the rules of the game before potentially divisive elections are held.”

Here especially the distinction between gradualism and sequencing is blurred.  Here too, democracy is advised to be ‘put off’ to allow the development of certain pre-conditions.  The only addition seems to be a time limit on waiting for those conditions to be met.

I suggest that as a conceptual framework gradualism is far less distinct from sequentialism than Carothers insists.  The argument relies on insignificant semantic distinctions and proposes remarkably similar prescriptions.  Carothers would do well to get away from the somewhat tired and irrelevant ‘chicken and egg’ debate on democracy and development and focus on the more interesting suggestions of ‘mutually reinforcing’ changes, which would provide a more useful policy framework.

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On democracies, poverty reduction and India

Ashutosh Varshney’s begins by presenting an interesting fact: that democracies which emerged in the postcolonial era have been largely unsuccessful in eliminating poverty. Statistical data from the early 90s shows the percentage of people living below the poverty line in various countries. ‘Selected authoritarian regimes’ vary from ‘negligible’ in the case of the South East Asian Tigers, to almost 70% in Uganda, whilst democracies are relatively closely grouped between 20 and 40%. “Democracies, in other words, have prevented the worst-case scenarios from happening, but they have not achieved the best results.”

Why is this so? Varshney’s view is that democratic accountability to the poor does not lead to effective poverty-relief strategies because for policies to be popular they must be visible to the poor. Visible policies are essentially direct poverty-alleviation strategies – land reform, farmer subsidies and food-for-work programs for example. By contrast, “the indirect method is growth mediated -especially growth that incorporates mechanisms to enhance the ability of the poor to access, and benefit from, the growth process”. Varshney claims that indirect methods are more productive in how they use resources and more sustainable in the long run but does not argue this point extensively, citing a “relative consensus across a wide range of the political spectrum” which agrees with this claim. He then goes on to argue that these more effective methods are not used in democracies like India because, “In contrast, the utility and value of the indirect methods of poverty removal may be obvious to the scholars and specialists of development, but the ways in which exchange rate devaluations, trade liberalization, bureaucratic deregulation, fiscal balancing, and privatization – in short, a more market-oriented economic strategy-might more successfully attack poverty is not easy to understand in political circles” (and certainly not easily understood by an illiterate poor population).

This narrative makes perfect sense on its own terms. However, I have two simple but serious objections:

1. There is no consensus on the merits of market-oriented reforms for reducing poverty – see the works of Ha-Joon Chang, Dani Rodrik, Robert Wade and others for evidence of mainstream scholars who oppose this view. An extremely lively debate persists on this topic and to claim a consensus is disingenuous at best.

2. If your argument is that market-oriented reforms will eradicate poverty, India is an extremely poor example. In 1991, finance minister, now prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, began reducing the fiscal deficit and liberalising trade and foreign direct investment flows in an extensive market-orientated reform package.

According to the Indian government, between 1993 and 2000, the proportion of the population living below the poverty line shrank from 36% to 26%, suggesting that market-orientated reforms have had a positive impact on poverty reduction. But 26% is still an unacceptably high figure (especially for a population as large as India’s), so it remains to be asked, what is holding India back in its effort to reduce poverty?

On March 22nd, the Financial Times ran a headline photograph of graffiti on a commonwealth games stadium in New Delhi. It read,


The article focused on corruption as a barrier to foreign companies trying to break into the Indian market, but one could equally point to corruption as the reason why poverty reduction has been slower than expected. India’s economy is described as ‘nascent capitalism’ in which “there is a growing relationship between oligarchic business structure and its impacting and shaping of Indian politics” (Brahma Chellaney – professor of strategic studies at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research).

If India’s politicians are in the pockets of big business that would provide an explanation for their relative lack of success in eliminating poverty. But it must still be asked why the mass of poor have not been able to trump business influence through the democratic process. The answer may have much to do with the fact that though the poor make up a large part of the population, they do not dominate the electorate – most very poor people lack official documentation that enables them to be registered to vote in elections. Those that do may lack the education or time to be able to participate effectively by assessing the policies of candidates. So the numbers of rich and poor (if we were to use such crude categories) participating in elections may be more equal than we tend to think. When one adds the additional non-democratic influence that the rich possess (which includes the ability to secure the votes of others – whether through influence, campaign finance, marketing assistance, ‘vote buying’) it is not surprising that democracies do not guarantee poverty alleviation.

Finally, while on the topic of India, I thought it would make sense to briefly address a topical issue – whether developed countries should be providing aid to countries like India. India has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It has its own nuclear and space programs, as well as an overseas development budget of its own. Corruption is entrenched in the government (earlier this month India’s Supreme Court ordered the head of the country’s anti-corruption commission to resign as he is currently facing corruption charges). Yet there are also hundreds of millions of people living in abject poverty, and even if the Indian government abandoned its grander ambitions it could not eliminate poverty.

From my perspective the Indian government has a responsibility to lift its citizens out of poverty before addressing issues such as space travel. To the extent that it acts to the contrary, it does not deserve assistance. But it is not the Indian government that needs assistance – it is the Indian people, and the activities of the government do not change our responsibilities to the people. The issue is coloured by the fact that Official Development Assistance goes through the government. But as long as corruption is not so extensive that we have reason to believe most of the money does not reach the people, I believe our duty to provide aid to India is no less than it is to lower-income countries. Most of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries – the BRIC(S) etc. Taking them off the aid list is therefore not morally defensible.

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On Land Reform in Zimbabwe – Pro-Poor Politics?

Land Reform in Zimbabwe – Pro-Poor Politics?

This week’s post discusses whether and in what ways land reform in Zimbabwe could be said to have been/be ‘pro-poor’.  It draws on Brian Raftopoulos’ article ‘The Zimbabwean Crisis and the Challenges for the Left’.  He distinguishes between two versions of ‘the Left’ as it applies to Zimbabwe and land reform.  The first (which has been well represented in western media) focuses on democracy and human rights as the core concerns of the Left, emphasising how land reform has been destructive in both regards.  It views Mugabe as using land reform to galvanise support for his authoritarian regime through patrimonial redistribution of resources and draws attention to the violence involved in the land-reform process.  In addition it highlights the role of land reform in causing the post-2000 financial crisis through the dramatic reduction in productivity on seized farms. 

The second view, much less well represented in western media, is based on nationalist and traditional Marxist interpretations of the Left.  It sees a positive role for land-reform, whilst admitting it has been implemented in a rather chaotic manner.  It highlights the historical aspect of poverty in Zimbabwe – namely the inequitable accumulation by colonial farmers through monopoly of the means of production.  It therefore sees land reform as an essential part of pro-poor politics in giving control of the means of production to the poor. 

My first impression was of surprise that there actually exists a debate on this topic.  As already mentioned, the presentation of land reform in the western media has been (almost) entirely negative (see this recent BBC re-appraisal: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-11764004).

As for the question whether land reform can be considered to be pro-poor, the judgement seems to rest partly on the timescale one focuses on.  In the short-term, land-reform clearly was one of the causes of the post-2000 economic meltdown and the consequences of the ensuing hyperinflation have clearly been disastrous.  However, if and when the Zimbabwean economy recovers (and that recovery is already underway according to World Bank information here: http://bham.blackboard.com/webct/urw/lc3952256006051.tp0/cobaltMainFrame.dowebct) it will be in the hands of the previously-marginalized indigenous population – and that must surely be considered pro-poor. 

This does not excuse the violence and cronyism that has dogged the implementation of land-reform in Zimbabwe, but it does illustrate that conceptually at least, it has a positive side which has been largely overlooked by the West.

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On Stating the Obvious and the Development Agenda

This week’s article was ‘The Domestic Impact of Foreign Aid: Recalibrating the Research Agenda’ by Peter Burnell.  My expectation was to be presented with interesting examples of how foreign aid impacts domestic politics.  I was disappointed. 

Burnell traces the recent historical path of research on aid’s impacts – from the purely economic focus of the 80s (impact on GDP) to more recent concerns with impacts on poverty reduction and particularly with the impact of democracy-aid on democratisation.  His central argument is that the latter is a welcome move, but that more research is needed on other forms of aid than democracy aid (e.g. economic/social aid) and on political effects other than democratisation.   

I wouldn’t for a second disagree with him – as he rightly states, “even at its peak democracy aid accounts for but a tiny fraction of all official development assistance – on most estimates the inclusion of ‘good governance’ aid does not raise the total beyond 5 per cent.”  And issues such as ‘how aid might contribute more to developing the political capabilities of the poor’, how ‘aid can overburden public institutions and weaken state capacity’ and how ‘aid dependence prevents states developing accountability to their citizens’ are all self-evidently important.  But this is the point – they are self-evidently important!  It is hard to believe that a paper making such a simple point would be published in 2004.  But not only was it published, it is considered an important and influential piece.

During an earlier class, the concept of political impact assessments came up as another ‘new’ concept.  Surprise was expressed by class members with experience in the multinational private sector, where such practice has long been commonplace, that it has taken the development community so long to figure this stuff out.  I suggested at the time that perhaps politics has only recently made it onto the agenda not because of a lack of capacity to understand its importance, but because of a lack of capacity to deal with that importance operationally.  As has been mentioned in several articles so far, ‘politics is messy’.  I argue, in a similar vein to last week’s post, that development institutions have deliberately kept politics off the agenda despite a realisation of its importance because either they don’t know how to engage successfully with something so complicated, or because they know full well that much development work impacts negatively on domestic politics.  Regarding the latter, should such an acknowledgment be made, it would seem to call for a reduction in development work, and this is simply not in the interest of those development institutions. 

Burnell mentions that “development economists have dominated the study of development aid… the economic analysis of aid was pre-eminent precisely because it shaded into theorising about economic development and observation of actual economic outcomes – activities that attracted financial support from the aid agencies.  In contrast the charter or Articles of Agreement of the pre-eminent multilateral institutions forbade explicitly political objectives.  Aid’s impact on politics was not their concern.  United Nations agencies must respect the sovereignty of states and rights of non-intervention in internal affairs.”

This suggests a more charitable explanation for the absence of politics on the development agenda – economic outcomes are much more easily measured than political ones, and international bodies have respected the sovereignty of states.  My more cynical explanation is justified by the fact that what little investigation there has been into the domestic political effects of development (and aid particularly) has suggested a negative effect.  Prominent among this body of literature is the work of Dambisa Moyo in her seminal book ‘Dead Aid’.  She argues that aid is effectively disposable income for developing country governments and as such it is fungible – easy prey for corrupt officials seeking to line their own pockets.  Her analysis suggests that tighter enforcement of conditionalities (requiring that aid be spent on particular projects or programs) would reduce this problem.  But equally, much has been written on the problems of conditionalities – by increasing accountability to donors, scope for accountability to citizens is necessarily reduced.  The overall suggestion is that aid has negative effects on domestic politics.  Given this, it is unsurprising that development institutions would not encourage further analysis in this area.

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On elites, discourse and development

Following on from last week’s paper on the possibility for pro-poor politics, the authors of this week’s paper, Hossain and Moore, argue that “Aid donors and other external agents could usefully engage more actively with developing country elites in defining national anti-poverty strategies.  This does not depend on elites being altruistic or especially ‘pro-poor’.  Elites have some interest in reducing poverty.  They are more likely to appreciate, explore and act on that self-interest if they are sympathetically and constructively engaged in drawing up policies designed to reduce poverty, and in shaping the ways in which they are labelled and justified.”

This seems sensible enough, and as they say, ‘history supports this case’.  They emphasise ‘the idea of poverty (as) plastic’, asking “Why should we expect that the way in which poverty is presented… will affect (elites’) response?  Because there is abundant supportive evidence.  Poverty is not just a set of facts.  It is, in policy terms, primarily a perception.  People, especially policy elites, respond very differently to the same ‘facts’ about poverty.”

They give the example of Charles Booth’s work on poverty in London in the late 19th century.  Before Booth, poverty had been characterised as ‘pauperism’ – a dismal condition, but one that was self-inflicted by drunkards, wanderers, criminals and idlers.  Booth, in the course of one of the earliest large-scale quantitative sociological exercises in Britain, managed to change perceptions “ by re-framing the world in ways that would resonate with the comfortable classes.  His prime emphasis was not on poverty as material deprivation, but on notions of class and respectability…  What moved members of the comfortable classes was the image of fellow Britons striving to maintain respectability and haunted by fear of shameful descent into pauperism.”

This has reminded me that poverty is not an objective concept, which can be shaped by discourse, but an essentially contested one which is always shaped by discourse.  What is our perception poverty that moves us (as development students/practitioners) to act?  How accurate is that perception?   Are we right to feel compelled to intervene? 

In some cases the answer to the last question is almost trivially yes; famines being a prime example.  Why are they such a good example?  Perhaps because there is a clear human need for assistance and because it is clear that we can help to create ‘positive change’ (a phrase which is sometimes cited as the essential meaning of development, and one with which I largely agree).

But not all development situations have these two features; perhaps not even most. 

Consider education – one of the most uncontroversial development goals (no2 in the MDGs).  Is there a ‘clear human need for assistance’ here?  True a population may be uneducated formally, illiterate and ignorant of the world around it, but civilisations have existed in such a fashion for thousands of years and we don’t consider them in any way deprived for it. 

This reflects the relative nature of poverty – poverty is defined as ‘sub-standard’ based on the ‘standard’ of the developed world.  So we set out to bring the benefits of education that we enjoy to those in the developing world.  But education is of limited use in a subsistence economy in rural Africa.  So we set out to create employment for our newly-educated population – industrialisation, urbanisation and mass-consumption. 

Again, is there a clear human need for this kind of assistance, and moreover is it clear that we can help to create ‘positive change’?  I would argue that some development activities could not just justify their existence on these criteria.  I do not wish to ‘romanticize’ poverty, or call for an end to all development effort, but I would point out that whilst there is a clear human need for humanitarian/disaster relief assistance, the need is less clear in the case of the full package of modernisation that development brings with it.  There are problems with modernisation too – the destruction of the environment and cultural homogenisation prime among them.  Of course, development is not entirely imposed by the North on the South.  Development is to some extent now owned by the South, and talk to any person on the street of Kampala and ask them what they want for their country and they will say ‘Development – better government, better roads, more jobs’.  Colonialism introduced the South to modernisation but left them half way there; now they need to complete the transition – they cannot go back. 

But the kind of social engineering needed to create the South in our own image is simply too complicated – as 60 years of development failures will attest.  Of course there are notable success stories – the Asian Tigers and even a couple of African countries.  But given the significant role of national policies (such as the protectionist policies advised against by the IMF and World Bank) can we honestly say that things, broadly speaking, would be worse in the developing world than if we left politics and public service alone?

William Easterly, in his ‘The White Man’s Burden’ argues against the current paradigm of development planning, in favour of what he calls searching – listening to local people to hear their concerns and if they can be addressed, implementing action.  It involves a fundamental reduction in the scale of development effort, which he describes as problematic because of our egos – our desire to achieve grand goals is what has prevented us from achieving simpler ones.  It is true that this ‘rolling back’ of development effort is contra our development instincts, but I would suggest that even more significant a barrier to this retrenchment is the role of institutional factors.

Something which has been coming up in conversations recently has been the fact that businesses are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing.  They act to secure their own continued existence.  This is simply because organisations employ people, and people wish to keep their jobs.  The causes of the development boom of the post-war, colonial transition period in the 50s are of course diverse and I have not read up on this topic at all.  Some would probably say something along the lines that international development just became a natural extension of local altruism in a globalising world.  Others have argued that development was a cynical tool used by the North to maintain dominance over the South after independence.  The Cold War was clearly a significant factor (as the falloffs in aid spending in the 90s attest).  I don’t know the full story, but it might be interesting to see to what extent development in the early years consisted predominantly of disaster relief – the ‘obvious’ cases for intervention – and then spread to other areas, leading to modern development planning.  Organisations intended for humanitarian relief would need to find something to justify their existence between disasters and so turned their attention to ‘prevention’ of disasters, leading inexorably to ‘development’ of a country.  History may well prove me wrong, but it’s a nice narrative…

 The point is that development institutions will have been instrumental in constructing the development discourse with which we are familiar today.  We should be very careful of taking this discourse for granted, as those institutions have a vested interest in extending the scope for development work, regardless of whether such work would actually help the poor in developing countries.

The above account suggests a return to what I would describe as ‘minimalist’ development – intervention limited to humanitarian/medical action, where the need for assistance is clear, and the solutions clear and achievable.  Of course, not even these forms of intervention are as straightforward as I have described. Last week we had a really interesting seminar from John Cobley, who works for the humanitarian NGO Merlin (an offshoot of Medicins Sans Frontiers).  He discussed the many ethical dilemmas this apparently ‘safe’ form of development entails, such as how Merlin’s humanitarian work during the Nigerian Biafran civil war, by providing food to militants, actually prolonged the war and could be said to have resulted in greater loss of life.  He said that as time has gone on, his criteria for a ‘successful’ program have steadily reduced, where now his only criteria is to have done less harm than good. 

I don’t mean to be so pessimistic, and I am certainly not calling for an end to all development work.  But I think it is worth remembering to keep our goals simple and achievable, and to limit our work to where it is needed, wanted, and most importantly, where we have a sufficient understanding of patterns of cause and effect to be sure we can make a positive difference.  Those criteria may turn out to be much harder to meet than we often assume.

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On the possibilities for pro-poor political alliances

Hello again,

This week’s topic is Moore and Putzel’s article on the potential for pro-poor politics in developing countries.  In their summary they list 5 key arguments that the article attempts to make, as follows:

  1. Democratic political systems are not necessarily pro-poor
  2. The extent and ways in which poor people are mobilised politically depend to a large degree on the effectiveness and coherence of states and the policies they pursue
  3. There is no reason to expect that decentralisation will be pro-poor
  4. There is a wider range of possibilities for pro-poor political alliances than is widely believed
  5. Many of the policies needed to improve governance will benefit the poor

For me, the most interesting/surprising of these claims was no.4, so I will elaborate slightly on this issue.  As Moore and Putzel point out,

“There is a tradition in aid and development agencies of bring in political analysis if at all, in terms of problems and difficulties.  ‘Politics’ is why desirable things may not happen.” 

They  label this view ‘interest group economism’, as it focuses on the conflict of interests between rich and poor.  They claim it is “not merely simplistic, but also consistently misleading”, for the following reasons:

  1. “In countries afflicted by poor governance, the poor have much the same primary interest as the great majority of the population: government that is less repressive and arbitrary, more accountable, and more bound by law”
  2. Where rich and poor live in the same localities, they share an interest in better infrastructure and public service delivery.
  3. Where ethnic or religious distinctions cut across income categories, the rich may have reason to support pro-poor policies.
  4. The rich depend on the poor as the source of labour.  It is in the interest of business owners to have a healthy, well-educated workforce.
  5. Poverty alleviation can be seen as a public good – reduced crime, disease and social unrest is in the interests of the rich as well as poor.

I must admit to having been guilty of a rather pessimistic view of politics myself, so I found their arguments to the contrary interesting.  However, whilst I welcome the refreshing analysis of politics as an opportunity for enhancing development outcomes rather than as a hindrance, I argue that Moore and Putzel have perhaps overstated the case for optimism.  Below I respond to each of the above arguments in turn.

  1. The rich have a primary interest  in government that is less repressive and arbitrary, more bound by law, and more accountable to them.  They have no interest in a government that prioritises the needs of the poor.
  2. Rich and poor rarely live in the same localities.
  3. Some form of loyalty to those from identical ethnic or religious backgrounds may be a force for pro-poor action by the wealthy, but unless these factors are reflected by geographical divisions, this action is unlikely to be in the form of encouraging pro-poor action by government, and more likely to be individual acts/programs of philanthropy, or donations through the church.  Hence they are less likely to have the widespread, long-term benefits that government action can.  They are also properly speaking not pro-poor, but pro-Christian, pro-Muslim, etc.
  4. This is true, but only up to a point.  Foreign industrial investment in developing countries is marked for its low labour requirements – those operations of business which require a highly skilled workforce (R&D, marketing) have remained in the developed world.  Thus developing-world business owners have an interest only in a minimally-educated workforce.  Also, the surplus of labour means that sick workers are easily replaced by healthy ones. 
  5. Again true but only to a point – because of the geographic divisions between rich and poor, the wealthy are largely isolated from the social problems of the poor.
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On the Primacy of Politics

Welcome to the devLopmentpolitics blog.  For this first week, I’ll be looking at Adrian Leftwich’s article ‘Politics in Command: Development Studies and the Rediscovery of Social Science’.  My aim is not to offer a full academic review, but just a reflection of my thoughts on reading it.

Leftwich presents a history of development theory and policy, moving from the beginnings of modernisation theory in the 50s with its emphasis on state-led economic planning, through the neo-liberal counter-revolution of the 80s, and up to the present day’s focus on fragile states and pro-poor growth.  He argues that modernisation and neo-liberalism have largely failed, despite a few success stories, and the reason for differing results is that in each case the impacts of a universalistic theory was shaped by politics.  Hence the growing awareness that the fundamental variable governing development outcomes is politics. 

I had two objections to Leftwich’s narrative.  The first assumes a normal definition of politics – i.e. as referring to the activities of the state and other public institutions.  On this definition his evidence does not justify his conclusion.  We are told, essentially, that we have focussed on a, and then on b.  Both have failed, so the solution must lie in c.  But this is nonsense; there could be any number of potential ‘solutions’, and the failure of any of them does not indicate the veracity of another.  Secondly, whilst we might be willing to accept that the failure of non-political approaches suggests the inclusion of politics, it does nothing to suggest its primacy.  To promote politics as fundamental is to fall guilty of the same universalism that Leftwich denounces modernisation and neo-liberalism for.

The second objection concerns Leftwich’s proposed definition of politics (which would circumvent my first critique). He writes.

“I understand politics to consist of ‘all the activities of co-operation, negotiation and conflict, within and between societies, whereby people go about organising the use, production and reproduction of their biological and social life’. This applies to interactions within and between the formal or informal institutions of all more or less formally structured human collectivities, whether in families or villages, bands of hunter-gatherers or nation-states, companies or intergovernmental political or regulatory organisations.”

In other words, ‘politics’ refers to all of social life!  On this definition we might be willing to acknowledge the ‘primacy’ of politics, but we must question how useful that recognition would be.  The statement that politics is the fundamental variable in development would seem to offer a clear program for action, but using such a phenomenally broad definition of politics robs the statement of any practical input – if what is key is everything, where do we start with research or policy design?

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